Blog Posts > Who do Lawmakers Listen to About West Virginia Jails?
January 2, 2024

Who do Lawmakers Listen to About West Virginia Jails?

In March 2022, Governor Jim Justice announced that he had directed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to investigate Southern Regional Jail (SRJ). In the days leading up to the governor’s announcement, media reports described horrifying conditions at the Raleigh County jail: filthy and broken accommodations, people sleeping on wet floors, violence against incarcerated people that went ignored by jail staff, and people denied water for days at a time.

Download the full fact sheet here.

A month later, the governor released a report on the DHS investigation, which he summarized in a press release: “Our investigators talked with a bunch of people and pulled a bunch of records and, at the end of the day, they determined that the allegations were simply not true.”

The official story would unravel over the next year and a half, due to the work of reporters, lawyers, people who lived and worked behind bars, and the loved ones of those incarcerated. Today the public knows that the DHS’s unreliable inquiry into SRJ ended two weeks after another state agency investigated and corroborated the March 2022 allegations. That additional investigation into SRJ was not made public until December 2023. But by then, at least 13 more people had died in that jail’s custody. SRJ, one of ten regional jails in the state, claimed a staggering 39.4 percent of West Virginia jail deaths during that time.

State lawmakers need not rely on the executive branch to investigate itself.

The legislature has two dedicated committees tasked with keeping lawmakers informed about the conditions in West Virginia jails: the House Committee on Jails and Prisons (“House Committee on Jails”) and the Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority (“Legislative Oversight Committee”).

The House Committee on Jails, which convenes during the regular legislative session, heard testimony from three people in 2023 – all were either in leadership or in charge of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR).

The Legislative Oversight Committee is a joint committee of delegates and senators with meetings held during legislative interims. Since April 2022, that committee has held 15 meetings. Only two of the 32 witnesses—or 6.3 percent—who testified to the committee were formerly incarcerated. The committee chose to hear no testimony from people residing in any of the state’s regional jails. Nor did they hear from the loved ones of incarcerated people.

Instead, the Legislative Oversight Committee heard mostly from people in leadership at the DCR: a total of 12 appearances. The most frequent witness was Brad Douglas, who was fired after a federal judge found that DCR staff had intentionally destroyed evidence related to a lawsuit against the DCR. Mr. Douglas made at least six appearances between April 2022 and April 2023.

The next few months will provide an opportunity for lawmakers to do what the governor has not yet done: conduct a truly thorough and credible investigation of West Virginia’s jails crisis.

Download the full fact sheet here.

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