UPDATE: Federal judge rules against WV lawyers seeking to get convicted felons released from prison amid COVID-19 outbreak

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UPDATE(April 6, 2020 6:04 p.m.)

CHARLESTON, WV (WBOY) – A federal judge ruled Monday that West Virginia’s correctional system has a reasonable, well-founded and appropriate plan to deal with the unprecedented COVID-19 threat, according to a news release from the WV Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety(DMAPS).

U.S. District Court Judge Robert C. Chambers rejected allegations from Mountain State Justice(see original story below) that the W.Va. Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation(DCR) was “deliberately indifferent” to the risks posed by the pandemic, the release said. Judge Chambers denied Mountain State Justice’s request that the DCR be ordered to release inmates from its prisons and jails.

Instead, Chambers found that the DCR has recognized the threat from COVID-19 and responded with all available resources, officials said.

The DCR’s response embraces the latest guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, officials said. The DCR also demonstrated it is taking steps to protect inmate health by providing additional hygiene and cleaning products, increasing monitoring of inmate health, enhancing health screenings for new inmates and suspending inmate medical co-pays for sick call visits, among other measures, the release said.

To address potential overcrowding issues in its facilities, the DCR has also extended furloughs for already-eligible work-release inmates and released parolees who were temporarily jailed for technical violations if they have approved home plans, DMAPS officials said.

“I am pleased with the judge’s decision, because he showed that corrections leadership and the Parole Board act professionally and use common sense concerning who we release from our facilities,” DMPAS Secretary Sandy said. “The Justice Administration and Commissioner Jividen will continue to fight anything that places employees, the inmate and the public at risk,” Sandy stated.

A detailed written ruling from Judge Chambers is expected in the coming days, the news release said.

ORIGINAL STORY(April 5, 2020 3:00 p.m.)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Lawyers for several sex offenders, a domestic batterer and other convicted felons seek to have such inmates released because of the coronavirus pandemic, a move opposed by the W.Va. Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

According to a press release from the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, officials and groups representing law enforcement and emergency responders have rallied to support the agency’s position ahead of a Monday federal court hearing on the matter.

“During this pandemic and state of emergency, law enforcement is already stressed to their limits, communities are stressed and crime continues to flourish in some locations where the criminal element has seen emergency orders of the state as a signal that our laws are suspended and they may commit any act they see fit,” Wood County Sheriff Steve Stephens, president of the West Virginia Sheriffs’ Association, said in a Saturday statement.

The U.S. District Court hearing was requested by Mountain State Justice, according to the release. It represents a group of offenders, including several convicted of sexual and other violent crimes, in a lawsuit it hopes becomes class-action over medical services and conditions in West Virginia’s regional jails.

Though this lawsuit was filed in 2018, the lawyers have sought to “bootstrap” allegations arising from the COVID-19 crisis into the case and target both the jails and state prisons, WV DCR has argued in its court filings.

“In addition, Plaintiffs’ motion is based upon the false premise that WVDCR currently does not have an adequate plan in effect to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic,” one filing said. “Plaintiffs are well-aware of the fact that WVDCR already has a plan in effect to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.”

According to the release, the plaintiffs have announced they will call several inmates as witnesses Monday. Those planned witnesses include a Northern Regional Jail inmate accused of violating his supervised release for possessing child pornography in Hancock County, and a Potomac Highlands Regional Jail inmate convicted of strangulation in a Wood County domestic violence case.

Other named plaintiffs in the case include three convicted sex offenders jailed for failing to register as such, including one required to register as a lifetime sex offender, according to the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.

WVDCR said it believes the evidence will show that inmates see and appreciate its COVID-19 precautions and preparations, which include additional hygiene and cleaning products, increased monitoring of inmate health, heightened health screenings when inmates first enter a jail, and suspension of medical copays for sick call visits.

The Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety said the lawsuit and pending motion conflict with steps taken by WVDCR to balance public health and public safety concerns. These steps include extending furloughs for already-eligible work-release inmates and releasing parolees who were temporarily jailed for technical violations if they have approved home plans. The Supreme Court, in consultation with WVDCR, has also asked that county prosecutors identify pretrial defendants suitable for personal recognizance or reduced bonds, according to the release.

“WVDCR and the state Parole Board review each case individually and weigh the severity of the crime involved,” added Military Affairs and Public Safety Secretary Jeff Sandy. “They also review each inmate’s degree of rehabilitation. West Virginia has a high success rate with released inmates not violating the law again. For public safety’s sake, we must continue that trend by using sound judgment before deciding to release inmates.”

Kanawha County officials expressed concern over the lawsuit in a statement Friday.

“We heard loud and clear from the Prosecuting Attorney that the effort to allow a mass release of prisoners, including any plan that could potentially allow the release of convicted murderers or sex offenders, raises several legal issues and would prove to be very dangerous to the public,” said Kanawha County Commissioner President Kent Carper, a lawyer.

The West Virginia Emergency Management Council is similarly “very much opposed” to such an action, it said in a Saturday statement.

“With the current uneasiness the pandemic has brought to each county, such an early release would only add to the apprehension,” WVEMC President Dean Meadows said. “This action could cause victim anxiety, public distrust and could very well negate the confidence that West Virginians have placed in their state and local governments, making the job of our law enforcement even more burdensome.”

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