A sign for Southern Regional Jail in Beaver, W.Va. (Chris Jackson | West Virginia Watch)
Back in August, as the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation was in the headlines yet again for the horrid conditions that both incarcerated people and correctional staff are exposed to on a daily basis — this time because of a new lawsuit — Gov. Jim Justice passed the ball at a press conference to DCR Commissioner Billy Marshall, who felt insulted by the new accusations.
“We even have gone as far as having recorded inmates’ conversations that went to family members who asked those family members to lie and give false information to try to create some problems for DCR, forcing us to waste our time and money,” Marshall said.
We can give Marshall the benefit of the doubt and assume that such conversations might have been recorded at some point. But it appears Marshall wants to use the existence of these conversations, however many they may be, as a sort of distraction, or deflection, from the concerning issues that have been present at the state’s jails and prisons, not just this year, but for at least the last half decade.
A 2020 investigation by Reuters found that from 2009 to 2019, West Virginia had the highest death rates in jails in the country. In fact, it was more than 50 percent higher than the national average, according to an ACLU-WV analysis.
Many by now have heard of the tragedies that have occurred in Southern Regional Jail in Beaver, where 13 people died in 2022 alone. The initial autopsy for one of those deaths, Quantez Burks, who was in jail for less than 24 hours, determined that it was by natural causes.
Thankfully, Burks’ family was able to pay for an independent autopsy that said blunt force trauma led to the death.
It turns out that blunt force trauma came from the people we trust to treat incarcerated people with dignity, or at the least, not commit violence against them or not violate their civil rights.
Just a week ago, two guards at Southern Regional Jail pled guilty to participating in the assault on Burks. And it’s possible they may name others who participated. He was taken to an interview room, handcuffed and beaten by correctional guards — a lynching by any other name.
Why should West Virginians trust that Marshall has ensured this was a one-time tragedy and all of the responsible individuals will be held accountable, rather than a widespread regularity that could happen at any jail or prison in the state?
Burks was in jail pretrial, which means he wasn’t convicted of a crime yet. Our jails are full of people in this same situation. For the last seven years in a row, our 10 regional jails have stuffed more people into crowded cells than they were originally designed for. Overcrowding in prisons and jails is linked to higher rates of poor mental health and violence.
This makes sense, especially when combined with the longstanding staff shortages in West Virginia’s jails and prisons. Cram people in cells, restrict their freedom of movement, spend increasing amounts of time in lockdown because there aren’t enough guards to watch everyone safely, layer that on top of the allegations that guards can be violent to the incarcerated folks — what do we expect to happen?
Another perennial concern with West Virginia’s jails and prisons is the poor state of the facilities. This is the subject of a lawsuit that is likely to be resolved this week. They routinely face over a hundred million dollars in deferred maintenance. Cell door locks don’t work. Reports of water outages and lack of basic necessities are common. Maybe Marshall is right, and these are just false reports. I’d rest much easier if that was investigated by the federal government, like Burks’ death, rather than the governor’s tunnel vision investigation.
But it’s not Marshall who my frustration these last few weeks is really directed at. He’s new to this role, and the problems existed before him, and unfortunately they will exist after he takes the blame for the next big problem down the line, like his predecessor.
Justice has had ample time to take real steps to address the incarceration crisis in West Virginia, as well as the myriad others we face. Instead he comes up with a flashy name for something, does a press conference and moves onto the next false solution.
Meanwhile our rainy day fund grows as jails’ maintenance needs pile up. He evades responsibility for his personal, business and government violations. Debts and workers? Why pay them? Media responses? Why provide them? Cushy deals for his friends? Why not? With federal lawsuits, creditors knocking at his door, and the increased media scrutiny on his dealings (and his poor helicopter) as of late, it seems he’s facing more accountability this year than the previous six.
It’s about time.
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