It has been more than a year and a half since the first confirmed death of an incarcerated person in the custody of the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR) due to COVID-19. Most of us cannot imagine contracting a deadly virus in a congregate setting we are legally unable to leave or safely distance inside of, with limited access (at best) to potentially critical medical care in the case of severe illness. But it is the reality for hundreds of people locked up in West Virginia.
As of 10:00 am on February 3, 2022, more than 9% of the people confined in the DCR were actively infected with COVID-19, with outbreaks in eight of 10 regional jails, eight of 11 state prisons, two of three work release prisons, and three of 10 juvenile centers. Thirty-three percent of people in one state prison alone were infected at that time. With 991 pending COVID-19 test results across this population, these percentages are likely even greater and the outbreaks even more extensive.
The Death Toll Rises
To date, 23 people are confirmed to have died as a result of being infected with COVID-19 while incarcerated in a WV state prison or regional jail. Another eight individuals have died COVID-19-positive, although medical opinion has not (yet) confirmed that the virus “caused or contributed to” their death.
In total, 31 people have lost their lives in a state prison or regional jail while infected with COVID-19, according to available data from the WV Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR). All are listed as male, two Black and 29 white, ranging in age from 37 to 88. (It is unclear how many residents have died of COVID-19 while incarcerated in a federal prison in WV; operated by the Bureau of Prisons, the data has not been shared with the DHHR).
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
The families and loved ones of those 31 people have lost someone out of arm’s reach, unable to be with them in their final moments because their death occurred behind bars or inside a hospital, likely with cuffed wrists or shackles on their feet, the stigma of imprisonment impossible to hide. Just try to imagine.
Yet, most people give little thought to the WV residents who die behind bars after contracting the virus. Although more and more people know someone in a prison or jail in this era of mass incarceration, a great deal of effort is made to ensure that people who are locked up are out of sight and out of mind.
I write this so more will remember. So more will say their names.
Their Lives Matter, Too
The pandemic has taken from all of us, no matter one’s position on vaccines, masks, or mandates. It affects everyone, whether or not we have been infected. When a correctional officer dies of COVID-19 in WV, it is reported in local news, and the commissioner expresses sentiments about the loss to the DCR family and to the families and loved ones of the deceased. To date, there have been three. I ask for that level of compassion for the people who have died after contracting COVID-19 while incarcerated. Their lives matter, too.
As we enter the third year of this global pandemic, I call on the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation to respect the lives of the people they have confined and to pay their respects to the loved ones who mourn their loss.
By Rayna Momen