Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, criminal justice experts and advocates have focused on ensuring the safety of incarcerated people from the virus. But even before the pandemic, jails and prisons were unsafe places for the people incarcerated within them. According to the latest report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) on mortality in prisons, 2018 was the deadliest year since the BJS began collecting data on deaths in 2001, with 4,135 deaths in prisons across the country.
Previous reports have highlighted West Virginia’s high jail mortality rate compared to the rest of the country. Unfortunately, West Virginia’s prisons also have a high death rate. From 2001 to 2018, West Virginia had the second-highest prison mortality rate, falling behind only Louisiana.
Year to year, people die in West Virginia’s prisons at a rate about 1.5 times higher than the national average.
Heart disease and cancer were identified as the two leading causes of death in West Virginia’s prisons between 2001 and 2018. This is in line with national data, which shows that these two factors comprise more than 50 percent of prison deaths. West Virginia has the second-highest rate of deaths in prison for both heart disease and “any other illness,” and it has the fourth-highest rate of prison deaths caused by cancer.
West Virginia is a state with extremely poor health outcomes and high prevalence of several negative health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease amongst the general population. National research has indicated that incarcerated people tend to have worse health outcomes than that of the general population, so it is likely that a significant percentage of people incarcerated in our prisons are entering with already poor health. In addition, over the last twenty years, the state has steadily increased prison sentences for a range of offenses, and thus many people incarcerated in West Virginia’s prisons are spending longer periods of time imprisoned relative to those in many other states. Lastly, West Virginia has one of the fastest aging populations in the country, and an aging prison population is more likely to suffer health consequences. All of these problems are exacerbated within correctional facilities across the country, where health care delivery and funding are under tight constraints. According to a report from Pew Charitable Trusts, spending on health care per-incarcerated person decreased by 25 percent in West Virginia from 2010 to 2015.
There are several policy options for lawmakers to consider that can reduce deaths in correctional facilities and the medical costs for an increasingly aging population.
State and local leaders must identify ways to decarcerate prisons and jails. Fewer incarcerated people should lead to a reduction in the number of incarcerated deaths. This decarceration can be done while still protecting public safety by following best practices including alternative sentencing, appropriate probation monitoring, and increasing the number of people that receive parole every year. When people in prison are 30 to 60 days away from being discharged or paroled, the state should also work with the Department of Health and Human Resources to ensure that those eligible for Medicaid are quickly and easily enrolled in the program.
The West Virginia Legislature should undertake a true attempt at sentencing reform that aims to reduce long sentences. Past proposed legislation to rewrite the criminal code would have increased the minimum time served for more than 200 offenses. Ultimately, focusing on the phases both pre- and post-incarceration — including finding ways to improve the economic and social conditions for vulnerable communities and accelerating and improving the reentry process — will achieve more to increase public safety than increasing sentence lengths would.