The Mount Olive Correctional Center in Fayette County was 82 people under capacity as of Monday, May 23, 2022. Photo by F. Brian Ferguson

West Virginia corrections officials say they have been working on relieving the overcrowded conditions faced by people packed into the state’s jail system by moving more people into less-crowded prisons, blaming much of the current lack of progress on COVID restrictions. 

The department hasn’t updated its COVID transfer policy since February 2021, before vaccines were readily available to most people. Brad Douglas, the chief of staff of the division of Corrections and Rehabilitations, told lawmakers in April that he hoped to speed the process up while COVID numbers in the system remain low. But a month later,  there’s been little change and it’s unclear what roadblocks remain.

Long before COVID spread through West Virginia jails, underscoring the harms caused overcrowding, annual DCR reports show the facilities’ average daily population has exceeded capacity since 2015. As the pandemic exacerbated the dangers of these conditions, a 2021 report showed the average number of people in West Virginia’s jails on a given day hit its highest point ever.

But at the same time West Virginia jails filled far past capacity, West Virginia’s prisons had room to spare. 

Currently, there are 5,264 people in West Virginia jails: roughly 1,000 more than the jails have bunks for. The state’s prisons, conversely, are operating at roughly 1,000 inmates below capacity.

At an April interim meeting of the legislature, Douglas told lawmakers that restrictions put in place to combat the virus’ spread has prevented the speedy transfer of inmates from pre-trial jails to prisons after they’re sentenced. 

“It’s slower than our process before COVID,” Douglas said.

But he said increasing the speed of transfers was a priority. 

“We hope we can accelerate that movement if things keep going the right direction with the pandemic,” he said.

Now, as of Monday, there are only eight fewer people in West Virginia’s regional jail system than there were when Douglas stood before lawmakers, while the prison population has grown by eight. That’s despite only five active COVID cases across inmates in both types of facilities, and vaccines being readily available.

DCR did not respond to questions about why it has been unable to transfer more people from jails to prisons. But the department’s COVID protocols have required inmates to isolate before being transferred. With new people showing up each day, a crowded population making quarantining difficult, and understaffing at facilities making enforcing isolation difficult, the process has been sometimes agonizing. 

“From what I’m told it has to do with COVID,” said Delegate David Kelly, R-Tyler, the co-chair of the joint committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facilities and the chairperson of the House Jails and Prisons Committee during the regular session. “It’s gonna be up to DCR to lift the restrictions [on transfers].” 

Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, agreed, and said though decisions about inmate transfer policies are up to the division, it seemed to him the process could be expedited. 

“Quite frankly I think you could test somebody and transfer them to the prison system from the jail,” he said. 

In the meantime, people are still packed into jails.

“Overcrowded conditions obviously have major consequences for the people that are incarcerated and staff,” said Lida Shepherd, a leader of a bipartisan coalition of nonprofits committed to reducing incarceration in West Virginia. “We know … they’re way understaffed. So you add overcrowding to that, and we’re seeing lots of overdoses in our facilities, all the reports out of Southern Regional, It just continues to cause unnecessary human suffering.”

But she says she’s confused about why DCR has been so slow to transfer inmates from over-crowded jails to under-capacity prisons.

Transferring inmates from jails to prisons is not a panacea for overcrowding. Shepherd’s group has spearheaded multiple policy proposals to reduce the inmate population in jails, like bond reform, reducing criminal sentencing for non-violent crimes, and getting drug offenders into rehabilitation programs instead of prisons.

Kelly said his priority is reducing the pre-trial population in jails — inmates who either can’t afford or weren’t offered bond, who have to wait in the facility to be tried in court.

But a law passed in 2020 to do exactly that has so far proved ineffective at lowering West Virginia’s jail population.

Beverly Sharp, the Executive Director of the REACH Initiative, which helps inmates with societal reentry suggested the reasons West Virginia officials are having trouble moving people from one facility to another may be complicated.

She described a typical jail population as a “churning” one. People are brought in daily after arrests, and leave if they’re charged and can afford bail. And in some cases, it would be typical for people with light sentences to serve out their time in jail instead of prison. 

“What happens is a lot of people in the regional jails are just in there for a short period of time,” Sharp said. “Also, with COVID, what they tried to do in the past, and I’m guessing are probably still doing, is quarantining people until they think it’s safe to move them to the prisons. So it’s kind of a two-fold issue.”

Ian Karbal is a Report for America corps member, and the state government watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.