As governor describes another look at jail system, focus could be on conditions or accountability

Gov. Jim Justice has called for a reexamination of conditions in West Virginia’s jails along with an internal investigation, although it’s not completely clear what the focus will be.

Gov. Jim Justice

Justice described wanting a closer look at the jail system during a news briefing earlier this month. The state had just come off a series of jarring events: Two corrections officers pleaded guilty in the death of a pretrial defendant. A judge blasted representatives of the state for being unable to produce a range of evidence, including emails and grievance reports, in a lawsuit over conditions at Southern Regional Jail.

“We had people that went and looked and came back and reported and said ‘All’s good in the neighborhood.’ And we had people that purposefully covered stuff up,” Justice said Nov. 8 in response to a question.

“And we have tried and we are still looking that if we can find others that did exactly that, we’ll terminate them. We’ve already terminated some, and we’ll terminate more.”

‘We’ve got to fix it’

Asked this week whether the administration’s probe focuses somewhat narrowly on the handling of documentation or more broadly about conditions in the jail system, Justice elaborated but did not identify the objective clearly and precisely.

He alluded to an earlier examination of jail conditions by state officials that dismissed allegations of inhumane conditions.

He next alluded to the emails, video, cell phones and records of grievance reports that were not turned over as evidence in a lawsuit over jail conditions.

And he finally made reference to to a state of emergency that continues over vacant corrections officers positions.

“It’s like me to always take stuff as head-on as I can,” Justice responded. “There is without question, and I have said it 15 times — there was without question, there had to be some fire if there’s this much smoke. And that’s why I kept sending people back and sending people back and sending people back and sending people back again and again and again to try to get to the bottom of it and figure out what in the world was going wrong and what is the problem.

“And then we found things — everything, from people just saying, you know, ‘We don’t have the records and they do have the records.’ We have situations that past people that worked there, and worked with the corrections people and everything, and they failed to do the job.”

The governor then made a statement he has repeated many times in response to questions about critically low levels of corrections officers in jails. He has regularly described introducing bills in the regular legislative session to improve pay for jail employees.

“If you’re super fair, it goes back to twice me sending up to the Legislature and saying ‘For God’s sakes a living guys, we’ve got vacancies upon vacancies upon vacancies with our correctional officers; we’ve got to be able to hire people. We’ve got to have some level of incentive pay or some level of something to be able to hire the people.’

“So there’s lots and lots of folks dropping the ball along the way, and I want to be the person that stands up and says ‘Doesn’t really matter to me — at the end of the day, I don’t care who’s dropping the ball: We’ve got to fix it.'”

Allegations of inhumane conditions

Earlier this month, the state settled a lawsuit over conditions at the Southern Regional Jail for $4 million.

The lawsuit alleged a range of inhumane conditions including overcrowded spaces, crumbling plumbing, inmates sleeping on mats soaked with water from leaks, some being forced to sleep on concrete floors, poor air quality because of black mold and food that is spoiled or spread thin.

The conditions — particularly the crowding — results in heightened risk of violence or sexual assault, the lawsuit contended. And the lawsuit alleged inmates are beaten regularly for attempting to file a grievance, for talking back, for refusing orders or for voicing complaints.

Last spring, the state released the findings of a state Homeland Security investigation that concluded allegations of water deprivation, failure to provide toilet paper, and inmates having to sleep on hard floors without a mattress are false.

When the governor says where there’s smoke there’s fire and that he kept sending people back to examine jail conditions, this seems to be what he is talking about although it’s never quite clear.

The state faces a separate lawsuit about conditions more broadly across the jails system. That lawsuit calls for spending $330 million in state funds for corrections system improvements. Attorneys for Governor Justice and other officials have filed motions asking for this case to be dismissed. 

Jason Barrett

Senator Jason Barrett, R-Berkeley, is co-chairman of the Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority. Barrett has been asking questions about conditions in the jails system and intends to ask more.

“What the committee speaks to is providing oversight on this particular issue,” Barrett said in a telephone interview.

“Generally, I’d like to know what corrections is doing to solve these problems, to ensure these types of conditions aren’t prevalent in our facilities. That we don’t get involved in another lawsuit where the taxpayers are on the hook for another settlement.”

‘We’re continuing to review’

Two top state officials were fired this month over the failure to maintain evidence that could be used in court.

Their firings came after a magistrate judge was so outraged that he recommended default judgment in the lawsuit over Southern Regional Jail. The judge’s indignation was prompted by testimony over lost or destroyed potential evidence — including emails, cell phone messages, security video and inmate grievances — that could shed light on what jail conditions truly are and how seriously state officials take those conditions.

State leaders eventually said they were able to recover a significant amount of email documentation while also locating some grievance records in both electronic and paper formats.

Brian Abraham

When Justice this week finished describing his vision for how the state needs to examine the jails situation, he turned the topic over to his chief of staff, Brian Abraham.

Abraham’s response made reference to the former commissioner of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“We’re continuing to review the situation,” Abraham said. “I will tell you that at the governor’s direction last week when he said he wanted us to look further into what had occurred, we did interview additional high level personnel at the Department of Corrections.

“Some of the issues that are now discrepancies between what we believe we were told and what may have been reality on the ground appear to have hit in the commissioner’s office and stopped there. So we’re now trying to figure out where the disconnect was between the commissioner level and the cabinet secretary level, but it’s apparent that there were some documents that made its way into the commissioner’s office.”

Abraham concluded, “We’re continuing to review that and will do so until we get a concrete answer back to the governor.”

Jail transparency and accountability

The governor and his administration might not be thinking of their examination of the jails system in the most productive way, suggested Sara Whitaker, criminal legal policy analyst for the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy.

Sara Whitaker

The governor’s plan to conduct an internal investigation of jail conditions is the classic fox guarding the henhouse. We know now that past investigations into Southern Regional Jail were a farce and failed to uncover the sickening conditions and harms people experienced while in the state’s custody,” said Whitaker, a former public defender.

“If this government were committed to jail transparency and accountability, they would stop trying to keep the public from learning what is happening inside these regional jails. Right now, the media and the public must rely on open records requests to obtain any information about deaths in these jails, the number and nature of grievances filed, and even how many people are in the state’s custody on a given day. There is nothing stopping the governor from making this information available online.”

Yet the governor has the most power to improve the lives of people living and working behind bars, Whitaker said.

“There are too many people behind bars. Nobody should live or work in overcrowded facilities. As of last month, there were nearly 600 people in regional jails awaiting transfer to a prison facility,” she said.

“The governor can alleviate this backlog by using his executive power to release elderly and seriously ill people; by directing parole to develop home plans with the hundreds of people who are eligible for release, but simply need a place to live; by directing the DCR commissioner to make use of empty work release bed available to people ready to transition home.”

West Virginia’s deadly regional jails desperately need three things, she concluded. Transparency, accountability and far fewer people in them.

“Instead, the governor keeps giving us the runaround.”

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