Blog Posts > COVID-19 Outbreaks in Prisons and Jails Threaten the Health of Rural Communities
June 10, 2020

COVID-19 Outbreaks in Prisons and Jails Threaten the Health of Rural Communities

The recent COVID-19 outbreak at Huttonsville Correctional Center shines a light on why universal and periodic testing of incarcerated individuals and staff at correctional facilities combined with policies to reduce incarceration are so important to protect the health of rural communities during a pandemic.

Lack of adequate COVID-19 testing within correctional facilities caught up with West Virginia when over 100 inmates and 8 staff members at the Huttonsville Correctional Center tested positive for coronavirus. Shortly after it was clear there was an outbreak, Governor Jim Justice publicly committed to test all those incarcerated in addition to all staff at correctional facilities throughout the state. Local officials in Randolph County organized two testing sites, reaching over 800 people in the community.

West Virginia ill-equipped to manage a COVID-19 outbreak

Of the 26 counties where prisons, regional jails and juvenile detention centers are located throughout West Virginia, ten have no access to Intensive Care hospital services. There are only 465 ICU beds available within the counties that currently house prisons, juvenile detention centers and regional jails in West Virginia. As of May 28th, there were approximately 14,000 incarcerated persons, staff, and contractors throughout West Virginia’s adult correctional facilities. 

If not proactively avoided through less incarceration and comprehensive COVID-19 testing, outbreaks in prisons and jails can easily overwhelm rural healthcare systems with scarce resources. In the case of the Huttonsville outbreak, the closest 4 counties have a total capacity of 44 ICU beds. If less than one third of the 118 COVID positive cases at Huttonsville Correctional Center were to need advanced care, it would easily overwhelm local hospital resources, further stretching thin already scarce health care staff and jeopardizing the ability for patients with non-COVID conditions to get care.

Rural poverty and poor health complicate community spread

Historically, West Virginia has some of the highest poverty rates in the nation. This is especially the case in rural communities where regional jails and prisons are located. Of the 29 regional jails, prisons, and juvenile detention centers throughout West Virginia, 13 are located in counties with a poverty rate higher than the state average. Randolph County, where the Huttonsville Correctional Center outbreak occurred, has a poverty rate of 19.3% compared to 17.8% for the state as a whole.

Higher poverty rates directly impact health outcomes. West Virginia has higher rates of people living with pre-existing conditions than the national average, making coronavirus outbreaks even more dire. More than 250,000 of West Virginia’s 1.8 million residents are diabetic, and residents suffer some of the highest rates of asthma in the country, two conditions known to put individuals at much higher risk of life-threatening complications due to COVID-19.

Poorer health outcomes and scarce healthcare infrastructure are not the only effects associated with poverty that put rural communities at risk during a pandemic. Rural America generally and West Virginia specifically has some of the worst broadband connectivity in the country, limiting the ability of people to access information on how best to respond to an outbreak or talk to their doctor via tele-health video conference if they have symptoms.

WV must take immediate steps to reduce incarceration now

Governor Jim Justice’s public commitment to complete testing of all inmates and staff in West Virginia’s prisons and regional jails by June 12th is an admirable start, but testing alone will not protect rural communities from the potentially catastrophic effects of community spread caused by an outbreak in our correctional facilities.

In order to keep another outbreak like Huttonsville Correctional Center from happening again, West Virginia must take proactive steps to release more prisoners who are not a threat to public safety and reduce admissions at regional jails. These short term policies must be combined with concrete proposals to address racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system at large.

We cannot separate those incarcerated from the communities where jails and prisons are located. Only through combining regular and universal testing with a data driven strategy to reduce the number of men, women and children behind bars in West Virginia will we minimize the threat of large scale outbreaks in our jails and prisons and community spread that follows.

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