Families of 14 inmates who died in West Virginia jail allege negligence

<span>Photograph: Giles Clarke/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Giles Clarke/Getty Images

Families of 14 inmates who have died in a West Virginia jail in the past year amid reports of deplorable conditions, rampant violence and inadequate medical services are demanding a federal investigation into what they say is negligence on the part of state authorities.

Recently the 14th death was recorded at the Southern regional jail in Beaver, West Virginia. Herbert Doss, 48, who had been incarcerated for three months, died of causes that are not yet known.

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The alarming spate of deaths has triggered protests from the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign, a branch of the nationwide movement. The campaign has joined bereaved families and other advocacy groups to file a complaint to the civil rights division of the US justice department calling for a full federal investigation into the “senseless and tragic” deaths.

Families working with the Poor People’s Campaign have accused state officials of failing to thoroughly investigate the deaths. Kim Burks, whose son Quantez Burks, 37, died on 1 March 2022, less than 24 hours after being admitted to Southern regional jail, said: “We will not let this injustice stand. We are never going to stop until we get justice for Quan.”

An independent autopsy organized by the family found signs of blunt force trauma on Quantez’s body including fractured ribs. “The findings were consistent with being handcuffed while being beaten,” Kim Burks said. “Both of his wrists were broken, he had an arm broken, nose broken, and a leg bone broken.”

In the past decade, more than 100 inmates have died in West Virginia regional jails. The spate of 13 deaths at southern regional jail alone in 2022 marked a disturbing increase in mortalities, up from only one death at the institution in 2018.

The Rev William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, said that the men and women being incarcerated at the jail were owed the right of equal protection under the law. “We cannot be silent while poor West Virginians of all races die under the watch of state jails.”

In an interview with the Guardian, Barber said that the call for a federal civil rights investigation was coming from Black and white families alike. “This is not a straight race issue. The fact that you have white and Black families standing together at a time of so much division is critical.”

A class-action lawsuit claiming civil rights violations at southern regional jail has also been lodged with a federal court on behalf of almost 1,000 current and former inmates. The 89-page document paints a devastating picture of understaffing, overcrowding, endemic violence and a rotting infrastructure that has created appalling conditions inside cells.

“A 1950s or 60s Russian Gulag could not have been worse than 2023 West Virginia,” Stephen New, co-counsel in the lawsuit, told the Guardian. “Prisoners are killing each other and themselves. Guards are instructing female gangs to beat up female prisoners. It’s dystopian.”

New represents the family of Kimberly Gilley, who died in December at southern regional jail after she was allegedly brutally sexually assaulted by other female inmates looking for drugs they suspected were hidden inside her body.

Gilley was being held in custody for a parole violation on an original shoplifting charge. New said that after the attack she received inadequate medical care.

“There is no death penalty in West Virginia,” New said. “Kimberly did not deserve the death penalty for shoplifting.”

Much of the information contained in the class-action complaint has been supplied by four current or former correctional officers at southern regional jail who came forward as whistleblowers. One of the whistleblowers said in an affidavit that overcrowding was so bad that two-person cells frequently accommodated three to four inmates, while up to six have been reported.

The capacity of southern regional jail is 468 inmates, but the current population is 711. The West Virginia legislature has been told that there are more than 800 vacancies for correctional jobs in the state’s jails and prisons.

The complaint says that even the limited number of cells designated for protection of suicidal inmates are grossly overcrowded. One of the whistleblowers recalled as many as 16 inmates being placed in a single suicide cell of about 120 sq ft, where they were left for days.

Over the past several years underinvestment has led to crumbling infrastructure. Many cells have no running water, leaving inmates with limited or no access to drinking water.

Sinks are often cracked or leaking, and inmates can find themselves sleeping on the floor without a mattress in a pool of sink or toilet water, “or even toilet waste”, the complaint alleges. Toilets are commonly broken and infested with bugs or maggots.

The class-action lawsuit alleges that correctional officers “regularly beat inmates with no justification as a form of punishment for filing or attempting to file a grievance, for talking back, or refusing orders”. Inmates who are taken to the jail’s medical unit for treatment after a beating are said to have “slipped in the shower” or “fallen down the stairs”.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the West Virginia division of corrections and rehabilitation said they were committed to the “safety, quality of life and wellbeing of those in the care of the legal system in our state. We empathize with the friends and families of those that have experienced the loss of a loved one that was placed in our care.”

The spokesperson said that the Republican governor of West Virginia, Jim Justice, and the leadership of the corrections department, would cooperate with all investigations into the deaths.

One of the inmates to die was Alvis Shrewsbury, 45, a father of three who was sent to southern regional jail on a six-month sentence for driving on a suspended license. According to a legal filing in federal court this week, Shrewsbury was subjected to brutal attacks by other inmates from the day he entered the jail.

The beatings occurred almost daily and he was deprived of food and water. The complaint alleges that correctional officers knew what was happening but did not intervene.

Relatives of the prisoner told the authorities he was weak and “starving”, and that he was complaining of having broken ribs and abdominal pain. But when he went to the medical wing the nurse said “you have nothing wrong with you”.

He died on 16 September 2022, 19 days after he entered the lockup.

His mother, Anna Shrewsbury, who is working with the Poor People’s Campaign, demanded answers. “We have been pushed aside, our son’s name forgotten by the very people who were supposed to protect him. As a mother I refuse to stand by and allow this to happen to anyone else,” she said.