Settlement in jail lawsuit would pay some inmates who lived in alleged ‘inhumane conditions’

The settlement comes after allegations that the state destroyed evidence in the case that focused on poor conditions inside the jail

By: and - November 9, 2023 8:37 pm

Southern Regional Jail in Beaver, W.Va. (Chris Jackson | West Virginia Watch)

Current and former inmates at Southern Regional Jail could receive $4 million under a proposed settlement that would tie up a lawsuit over inhumane conditions at the facility.

The proposed agreement was laid out before a federal judge on Thursday in Beckley, West Virginia.

The class-action lawsuit, filed in 2022, said that inmates were denied water and commonly slept in toilet water on the floor of their cells in the Raleigh County jail. 

The proposed settlement followed weeks of mounting scrutiny for Gov. Jim Justice and state corrections officials over missing evidence in the case and transparency about jail conditions.

The $4 million settlement with top current and former jails officials would be paid through four of the state’s $1 million insurance policies. 

The money would be split between 9,000 and 10,000 current and former inmates at Southern Regional Jail going back to September 2020.

If 10,000 individuals split $4 million, it would give each person $400, though, the amount for former and current inmates will vary depending on how long they were in the jail. 

Beckley attorney Steve New, who brought the lawsuit against the jail and state officials, said he is “pleased” with the agreement but noted the amount is not sufficient to address what inmates went through in the jail. 

New acknowledged that the settlement was limited to the amounts of their insurance policies.

“We have to, as lawyers, deal with the realities that state governments and their employees are typically speaking immune from suit,” he said. “The only way they are not immune from suit is the presence of insurance that destroys that immunity. So we’ve realized for a long time that there would be limited pools of insurance, where the state actors are concerned.”

 ​​U.S. District Judge Frank Volt still has to sign off on the settlement.

The proposed settlement does not include the county commissions that paid the jails, and the facility’s medical provider. The case against those defendants is ongoing, New said.   

Mark Sorsaia, secretary of the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security, said that the settlement “represents the most favorable outcome for our state” and would limit potential financial liabilities.”

In October, a federal magistrate Omar Aboulhosn delivered a fiery order in which he said correctional officers intentionally destroyed evidence and the state hadn’t made enough efforts to retain relevant information for the case. The judge recommended a default judgment against the state. 

Following Aboulhosn’s order, Justice’s administration announced that some of the missing evidence in the lawsuit had been located and two top Department of Homeland Security employees had been fired. Emails from former top jails’ officials were still missing

Justice initially denied any efforts to cover up information, including grievances filed by inmates, about conditions in the jails.

On Wednesday, MetroNews reported that Justice’s administration is now conducting an internal investigation to figure out if any other employees are tied to failures to produce relevant evidence. Justice said it could result in additional firings. 

Brian Abraham, the governor’s chief of staff, did not respond to an inquiry seeking more information about the internal investigation. 

Following the hearing, Sorsaia said, “It’s important to acknowledge that the actions of former employees within the Division of Corrections brought us to this situation.”

He went on to say that Justice had “consistently called for complete accountability and transparency in this case,” but the employees’ actions hindered the agency’s ability to fulfill the demand.

He said he and the governor “remain deeply committed to working diligently to ensure that transparency and accountability prevail in our efforts moving forward.”

The lawsuit about conditions at Southern Regional Jail was followed by a broader class-action lawsuit, also filed by New in August, that said poor conditions and staffing issues are pervasive in all of the state’s jails, prisons and juvenile facilities. 

The suit, which is ongoing, wants to force the state to spend $270 million from the governor’s budget surplus to address outstanding maintenance projects, staffing and overcrowding at West Virginia’s jails and prisons

The state has made efforts to address the correctional officer shortage, but New said they must focus on making sure officers are adequately trained.

“I think the state’s done a good job the last couple of years of weeding out the bad apples, but unfortunately, there were a lot of bad apples in the ranks,” New said. “Holding them accountable is very important.”


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Lori Kersey
Lori Kersey

Lori Kersey is a reporter with a decade of experience reporting in West Virginia. She covers state government for West Virginia Watch.

Amelia Ferrell Knisely
Amelia Ferrell Knisely

Amelia is an investigative reporter for West Virginia Watch. Her coverage regularly focuses on poverty, child welfare, social services and government.