Conditions at W.Va. jail prompt federal investigation

the Southern Regional Jail has been the "subject of many questions and concerns" since March 2022

By Josephine E. Moore
The Register-Herald

BECKLEY, W.Va. — Conditions at the Southern Regional Jail, which spurred a federal class action lawsuit, are now being investigated by the federal government.

The Register-Herald learned of the federal investigation after a request to tour the Raleigh County jail was denied by the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security (WVDHS).

"The federal government is in the process of investigating the facility, and the integrity of that investigation is of the utmost importance to the WV Department of Homeland Security," wrote Morgan Switzer, deputy general counsel for the WVDHS, in an email to The Register-Herald on Friday.

In her email, Switzer wrote that the Southern Regional Jail (SRJ) has been the "subject of many questions and concerns" since March of 2022.

Quantez Burks, 37, died on March 1 at SRJ less than 48 hours after being incarcerated at the facility. According to preliminary results from Burks' autopsy released by the family's attorney, Burks died of a heart attack after experiencing blunt force trauma.

Burks is one of five reported deaths at SRJ within the span of a year.

Since March, Switzer said, "the agency has been subject to multiple reviews, some of which are ongoing ... Our Department is committed to holding bad actors accountable, and will continue to cooperate with the federal government to uphold and improve the safety and security of our facilities."

She added that "opportunities to tour the facility will be re-evaluated at a later date."

Questions regarding which federal agency is conducting the investigation and when the investigation began have gone unanswered.

Attorney Stephen New, one of the attorneys who filed the federal class action lawsuit regarding conditions at SRJ, said he was made aware of the federal investigation Monday morning but is not sure which federal agency is investigating the jail.

New said the federal investigation is indicative of just how serious the conditions are at SRJ as well as the severity of the allegations made in the lawsuit.

"My hope is that through this litigation, the state wakes up and the state puts the resources to the Southern Regional Jail that it needs — guards, caretakers, maintenance, medical," New said. "Every condition that we have alleged is substandard and unconstitutional in our lawsuit. I want the state to pay attention to that."

New said an amended complaint was filed on Friday which adds Brad Douglas, acting commissioner of the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation; Jeff Sandy, WVDHS secretary; and Wexford Health Sources, the new contracted medical provider for SRJ; to the list of defendants.

The amendment complaint also attempts to discredit the state's investigation of SRJ, which the complaint calls a "sham."

Conditions at SRJ were investigated in April by the WVDHS, which oversees the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

As part of a report released by the WVDHS following its investigation, allegations that inmates were deprived of water, toilet paper and a mattress to sleep on were deemed false.

In the state's release of the SRJ report, Sandy, who headed up the investigation, said, "Unfortunately, our interviews and review of phone calls and other records indicate that these allegations appear to be a misguided attempt by some inmates and their family and friends to use the news media to spread false and misleading information as a means of getting released."

The amended complaint states that "virtually all of the findings in the SRJ Investigation Report are contradicted by evidence filed in support" of the lawsuit, which includes hundreds of interviews with current and former inmates as well as SRJ correctional officers.

It goes on to state that inmates as well as correctional officers interviewed by the WVDHS as part of the investigation were hand-selected and then bribed or threatened to make false statements about conditions at the jail.

The complaint alleges that the jail was "staged" prior to the arrival of WVDHS investigators.

"For example, before WVDOHS 'investigators' arrived at SRJ, black mold was painted over by inmate trustees (at the direction of SRJ correctional officers and/or staff) and hygiene items (previously withheld) were stacked in inmate pods and/or inmate cells so it could be photographed by SRJ correctional officers and/or staff," the complaint reads.

Local lawmakers as well as West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice have recently posed questions regarding the credibility of the state's internal investigation of SRJ.

During an unrelated event in Princeton, Justice said that while he trusted his appointed secretaries, the investigation was conducted by a state agency that would have reason to not want to "find something bad within their own house."

Other allegations that are part of the lawsuit include overcrowding; unsanitary living conditions, including black mold, rodent feces, and general filth; faulty plumbing, including broken sinks, toilets and showers; inadequate nutrition and spoiled food; inadequate bedding, hygiene items, clothing, and laundry service; inadequate exercise time, inadequate lighting, improper disciplinary measures; lack of prisoner safety; neglectful medical care and inability for inmates to file grievances.

The complaint also states that all these allegations have gone on with the knowledge of the jail's administration and all are violations of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, which have been interpreted to mean that jails have a duty to provide inmates with humane conditions of confinement, including, but not limited to, adequate food, clothing, shelter, sanitation and medical care, according to the court documents.

In the original filing, the federal class action lawsuit was filed against three state employees as well as seven county commissions and PrimeCare Medical of West Virginia.

The initially named state employees — Betsy Jividen, the former commissioner of the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation; Michael Francis, the former administrator/warden for SRJ; and Larry Warden, the former chief correctional officer at SRJ — all either retired or stepped down from their positions in the months before the suit was filed.

The county commissions and the employees of the county commissions in Fayette, Greenbrier, Mercer, Monroe, Raleigh, Summers and Wyoming were also named as defendants in the suit, all of which are served by SRJ.

More than one county commissioner from those named have been quoted as stating that the county's only contribution to the jail is funding and that the treatment of SRJ inmates is the responsibility of the state.

New said that claim does not hold up to West Virginia code.

"The statutory responsibility under West Virginia code 7-8-2a remains with the county commission," he said. "It says that the county shall feed, clothe and provide water to inmates. The statutory responsibility under West Virginia law does not belong to the state. Now a few sections down (it says) the county is able to contract that, but the mandatory duty, which still is on the books in the state of West Virginia, is a mandatory duty for the counties."

Listed as the representatives or plaintiffs for this class action suit are Michael D. Rose and Edward L. Harmon, two inmates held at SRJ.

Additional attorneys representing Rose and Harmon are Russell Williams, Robert Dunlap, Timothy Lupardus and Zachary Whitten.


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