Dozens gather at Eastern Regional Jail to protest treatment of inmates in West Virginia
Rally-goers protest poor conditions in West Virginia jails in front of Eastern Regional Jail and Corrections Facility in Martinsburg, W.Va. on Aug. 19, 2023. (Ellie Heffernan | West Virginia Watch)
MARTINSBURG — In many ways, it was a typical sunny Saturday along the WV Route 9 Bike Path. People enjoying the weather pedaled by or walked their dogs.
But at the trail’s Martinsburg entrance, a group stood singing, many of them wearing T-shirts that read “Handcuffs shouldn’t kill you.” Eastern Regional Jail loomed behind them. By the time their rally was over, nearly 50 people had gathered to protest conditions in West Virginia’s jails — some of the nation’s deadliest.
Berkeley Springs native Ashley Omps was among them. Today, she works for the West Virginia Family of Convicted People, which organized the event with the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign. But not long ago, she was incarcerated at Eastern Regional.
During that time, Omps spent 12 days in a holding cell, wearing the same clothes she’d been arrested in because there was no female officer available to shower her, she said.
“For three days we asked for toilet paper, and they told us there was not any. We had to rip a bed sheet in order to be allowed to go to the bathroom,” Omps said. “ If there is no better description of cruel and unusual punishment or inhumane treatment, I don’t know any other way to possibly put it.”
Omps and other speakers touched on a slew of problems they say are rampant in West Virginia’s jails, such as violence, deferred maintenance, understaffing and unsanitary conditions.
Ed Toothman spoke about watching a fellow inmate slowly die while he was incarcerated in West Virginia.
“The guy was so bad he couldn’t get out of his bed, laying in his own feces, urine and vomit. Moaning and screaming,” Toothman said.
For days, the man, Toothman and other inmates asked correctional officers to provide the man with adequate medical treatment, but Toothman said they never did. One morning, he walked into his cell and the man was dead.
“Every time I talk about this, I can smell what was coming out of his room. It’s something I’ve never smelt before, and I hope that I never do again,” Toothman said. “No human being should be treated that way. No animal or anything. None of God’s creatures.”
Earlier this month, a class action lawsuit was filed against Gov. Jim Justice and the state’s Department of Homeland Security Secretary Mark Sorsaia, alleging that inadequate funding has led to inhumane, unconstitutional living conditions for people in West Virginia’s jails and prisons. The suit also demands the state spend $330 million to address deferred maintenance and staff vacancies in state correctional facilities.
State lawmakers passed several bills during this month’s special session that provide about $130 million total for deferred maintenance and increasing pay to correctional officers. But Kim Burks, whose son Quantez Burks died in Southern Regional Jail last year, said raises won’t be enough to prevent unnecessary deaths.
“Although we had the special session called in, he [Gov. Jim Justice] still has not addressed us nor the situations happening in the jails, about the inhumane conditions, the beatings, the maulings, the food shortages, the cell doors not locking,” Burks said. “The incentive on pay raises is just a slap in the face because it’s giving these people permission to go out and beat and kill.”
Quantez Burks died after a short 14-hour stay in jail, his mother said. Although the state has said he died of natural causes, the Burks family paid over $5,000 for a private autopsy showing broken bones and blunt force trauma to his body. Kim Burks believes he was beaten to death by correctional officers. He was one of 52 people to die in West Virginia’s jails last year.
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