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WV lawmakers want the truth about jail treatment, condition allegations

Allegations include everything from the beating of inmates by correctional officers to broken toilets infested with maggots

By Josephine E. Moore
The Register-Herald, Beckley, W.Va.

RALEIGH COUNTY, W.Va. — West Virginia legislators say a recent federal civil action lawsuit regarding the conditions and treatment of inmates at a jail in Raleigh County is shining a light on the state’s aging correctional facilities, which are also facing critical staffing shortages.

Legislators are also calling into question a recent investigation conducted internally by the state into some of the conditions alleged in the lawsuit at the Southern Regional Jail in Raleigh County. The report, released in late April, stated that allegations that inmates were deprived of clean water and food, clothing, mattresses and medical care were false.

Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D- Greenbrier, said he is anxious to get to the truth of the matter given the alarming allegations made in the lawsuit, which include everything from the beating of inmates by correctional officers to broken toilets infested with maggots.

“It makes me absolutely want to know what the truth is,” Baldwin said. “You hear one thing, like I’ve heard some of this from constituents that is not too far off from what the lawsuit alleges. The state says something different. It seems correctional officers are saying something different as well more towards what the inmates were saying.”

The civil action lawsuit was filed Sept. 21 in the United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, Beckley Division, against the county commissions located in the seven counties the regional jail serves as well as three former officials from the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The complaint includes statements made by inmates as well as current and former correctional officers which detail the physical state of SRJ, which was built in 1994 to serve Fayette, Greenbrier, Mercer, Monroe, Raleigh, Summers and Wyoming counties.

According to the complaint, “Inmates housed at SRJ are forced to live in filthy, unsanitary, and dangerous conditions, and are denied cleaning supplies to remedy said conditions.”

It goes on to say that black mold is present in “inmate cells, inmate showers, air vents and grows on the clothing of inmates.”

Plumbing is also a major issue at SRJ and is described in the complaint as “so inadequate and in such a state of disrepair as to constitute a serious threat to the physical and mental well-being of prisoners.”

The complaint states that inmate cells contain myriad issues from no running water to constantly running water to broken sinks and toilets as well as toilets infested with bugs or maggots.

With regard to the plumbing issues, the suit states that administrators at the jail are aware of the issues as well as which cells are experiencing problems by citing an internal SRJ email from November 2021 that was filed as an exhibit with the complaint.

Baldwin said it would come as no surprise to him if the allegations made in the lawsuit were found to be true despite a state report which says otherwise.

“I wish I could say it would, but I don’t think it would,” he said.

He added that similar concerns were brought up about a jail in Greenbrier County, the Greenbrier County Anthony Center, which was shut down in 2018 after inspections identified mold in the main building, which included administrative offices, the kitchen, the gym and some housing units.

“I don’t know that we’ve been honest about the correctional situation at large for a long time,” Baldwin said. “I appreciate that there have been things done to lessen the load, like Anthony for example ... but I’m really concerned that we don’t have nearly enough folks maintaining our jails and prisons on a daily basis.”

To address these issues, Baldwin said it’s going to take oversight and money.

“It’s always the same two things, and it doesn’t make it any less true, but it’s money and oversight,” he said. “Oversight to find out what the truth is, and then work towards the solution; that solution is going to have to include money. Whether that is hiring more folks, paying folks more because it is such a difficult, dangerous job ... That’s also money in terms of buildings and making sure the building is safe for employees and inmates.”

Baldwin said legislators should be able to provide both oversight and funds, but they must have the “will” to provide them.

Sen. Rollan Roberts, R- Raleigh, told The Register-Herald via text Wednesday, “This situation will need to work its way through the courts before the Legislature can determine if legislation can remedy any present problems,” adding that he was “concerned and embarrassed that there have been several allegations of deficiencies that seemingly are not being addressed and resolved.”

When asked what he thought about the state report which conflicts with allegations made in the lawsuit, Roberts replied, “It is my opinion that it would be a more thorough and trusted practice to allow a third party to investigate such matters as the SRJ allegations. Inherently, internal investigations are suspected as attempts to cover up inappropriate behaviors and unfollowed policies.”

---- West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice made similar comments at an event in Princeton last week where he stated that while he trusts 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.”

In early August, Justice recognized the state’s critical staffing shortages at correctional facilities in West Virginia by declaring it a state of emergency, which allowed National Guard personnel to step into positions at adult and juvenile correctional and detention facilities.

Elaine Harris, a representative with the Communications Workers of America for District 2-13, said there are roughly 1,000 vacancies in correctional facilities across the state. To fully staff all these facilities, Harris said the state needs around 3,000 employees but with the current vacancies, they’re understaffed by about one-third.

Harris said CWA members include correction officers and support staff in correctional facilities as well as state troopers, though membership is voluntary.

As a result of staffing shortage at correctional facilities, Harris said regional jail employees who are working as support staff but have completed training through the corrections academy are being reassigned to security posts.

She said these support staffers being reassigned range from counselors and case managers to office assistants and laundry workers.

Harris said this practice has been in place for some time but was not being used as frequently as it is now.

Coupled with the staffing shortage is the rise in inmate population.

A 2020 PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) Facility Audit Report stated that SRJ was designed to hold 480 inmates but was at times operating at 166 percent of capacity. The jail has reported a population of 711 inmates and a 12-month daily population average of 640 inmates in 2020, according to the court document. SRJ had an average daily population of 642 inmates in 2020, 633 inmates in 2019 and 603 inmates in 2018.

----Del. Brandon Steele, R- Raleigh, said many of West Virginia’s regional jails were not designed to accommodate the number of inmates they house.

“Those jails were designed at a time that the opioid crisis didn’t exist,” Steele said. “Those jails were designed in 1990 through ’96 for an inmate population that didn’t have a huge drug problem like it does today. As we start looking at opioid settlements and things like this, a big question that comes up is: How are we going to redesign our correction system to take into account the massive substance abuse problem that didn’t exist when these facilities were designed?”

Steele said that while the treatment of inmates housed at the regional jail is a state issue, local prosecuting attorneys and judges also have a part to play.

“We’ve got to have our prosecutors and our judges, with a sense of urgency, processing people through the system and getting them to where they need to be,” he said. “Whether that is a conclusion to their case with some type of community-based rehabilitation, or correction, or processing them on to a more long-term facility. Because the regional jails were not created as a long-term facility. It was a short-term facility for misdemeanors and folks that are pretrial felons that couldn’t make bond.”

He added that given the reputation of the attorneys pursuing this case, the state’s report from the SRJ investigation needs to be given a second look.

“In cases like this, going back to the Dr. Kabbara situation, going back to the Raleigh Heart Clinic, (attorney Stephen New) has a track record of exposing problems like this, and doing it in a manner that is on the up and up,” Steele said. “I have no reason to doubt the veracity of what Steve’s put out there.”

Dr. Zouhair Kabbara, a former Beckley physician who was accused of sexual harassment, abuse and rape and had his medical license revoked for five years, fled to Lebanon in 2020 to escape prosecution. New brought civil action against Kabbara on behalf of several female accusers.

In 2018, New filed suit against Raleigh Heart Clinic, Dr. Thair Barghouthi, Cardinal Health 414 LLC and the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, claiming almost a hundred patients had contracted hepatitis at the facility in Beckley. A confidential settlement was reached in that case.

New is one of five attorneys representing Michael D. Rose and Edward L. Harmon, two inmates held at SRJ named as the representatives or plaintiffs for this civil action suit.

The remaining attorneys on this case are Russell Williams, Robert Dunlap, Timothy Lupardus and Zachary Whitten.