By Danni Dineen
As a first responder for people struggling in the margins, as a person in recovery and as a person who still deals with the trauma I experienced while incarcerated, I pay close attention to what West Virginia’s leadership is doing to address the humanitarian crisis in our regional jails.
Recently, a lot of the public discourse involves the staffing shortages within the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The burden is heaviest for people who work in regional jails and for the people incarcerated in them.
Staffing shortages have dire consequences for the folks I serve who wind up in jail. Most of them end up there because of untreated mental illness, substance use disorder or because they simply don’t have a home. And incarceration causes further complications in their already problematic lives.
What this essentially means is that we are taking the most vulnerable people and locking them up in a cage within an environment where there’s very little capacity for care or oversight. According to recent testimony before the Legislature, Corrections currently has more than 1,000 unfilled positions and vacancy rates as high as 70% at some facilities.
But for our state to really address the human suffering, the deaths and the overdoses that are all too common in regional jails — in addition to dealing with the understaffing — we also must work on policy solutions that reduce the overcrowding.
With that being said, I applaud the work of the Legislature, as well as Gov. Jim Justice, for passing and signing Senate Bill 633, which deals with how capiases are handled. A capias essentially is a bench warrant for a person’s arrest.
Criminal law reform advocates like me who pushed for SB 633 are hopeful that it will help ensure fewer people sit for days and weeks in regional jail awaiting a hearing.
The new law requires magistrates and judges to set a hearing within five days of an arrest on a capias, whereas, previously, a person could be imprisoned for an indeterminate amount of time. Capias arrests are the No. 1 reason people were locked up in regional jails last year, a number that has grown 150% in the past decade.
Behind those numbers are countless stories of people whose lives are critically affected for a lifetime because of arrest and incarceration on a capias. I am one of those people.
In 2020, I found myself at the mercy of a disease that told me the answer to my problems was to use heroin. I checked myself into seven rehab facilities before I was able to achieve and maintain the sobriety I still have today.
Shortly after I came home from rehab, I found out I was pregnant. Not long after, I was arrested on a capias that was issued while I was bouncing from rehab to rehab.
I was incarcerated for a week before I got a hearing, then I wasn’t even given the opportunity to pay a bond. I had no choice but to stay in jail, pregnant.
During the time I was incarcerated, I saw a doctor for my baby only three times in four months.
I thank God every day that my daughter was born healthy. I believe in my heart of hearts that all the health complications during her birth could have been avoided and I could have carried my baby to term if I had not been incarcerated and had appropriate access to an OB/GYN.
I lost everything during the time I was incarcerated: my home and all my belongings, with the exception of the clothes on my back. I didn’t have a single diaper, baby bottle or onesie for my newborn daughter to wear. I’ve been through a lot in my life. I moved out on my own at the young age of 13, I am a veteran, I’ve survived substance use disorder, and nothing that I have ever faced in my life was as horrific and traumatizing as that experience in regional jail.
To be clear, I was arrested not because I committed a crime but for a capias that was issued for failing to report my address, and then incarcerated for months after not being given the option for a bond.
With SB 633, at least now, people won’t have to wait any longer than five days to have an initial hearing. It’s a start to address this crisis, and it’s a reminder that we also must focus on solutions that reduce the number of people who enter regional jails in the first place.
This humanitarian crisis in our jails is no single agency or institution’s fault, but is a systemic failure that funnels and ensnares too many people, and a collective failure to imagine that there are more effective ways to address complex social problems.
Danni Dineen lives in Kanawha County. This opinion piece was originally published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail on April 26, 2023