Special Report: Jails on the brink: Part I

Special Report: A jail system on the brink: Part I
Special Report: A jail system on the brink: Part I(wvva)
Published: Jun. 29, 2022 at 8:53 AM EDT
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BECKLEY, W.Va. (WVVA) - Jails in many way are like the canary in the coal mines. Used to detect poisonous gas before they affect the miners, they’re the first sign of problem we can’t always see. But beneath the barbed wire, there are cracks that threaten the very foundation of all our lives.

“The regional jail system has become the 21st century public housing for folks you don’t want to see or deal with. But the problem is they eventually leave,” explained Robert Dunlap, a defense attorney in Beckley.

He believes local jails that were originally designed to hold people awaiting trial are turning into breeding grounds for those who come out even more dangerous.

Brian Akers is a former drug dealer from Raleigh County who, for more than a decade, helped fuel the drug crisis in Southern West Virginia. Between prison and jail, he was incarcerated at least 12 different times. Each time, he said he became more dangerous than the last.

“You meet people in jail and most of them aren’t interested in getting better. They’re interested in making better connections. And you find someone who sells the drugs you like cheaper,” explained Akers, who is now in recovery.

“I can’t tell you how many crimes have been committed because people were at Southern Regional Jail and met someone with money, shared that information with peers, for more crimes to commit,” said Dunlap.

Those who are interested in getting better run into roadblocks, according to Joanna Vance, another former addict and recovery coach.

“They’re judged based on that one little check box. It keeps them from getting a job, a career, a home. They can’t go back to school because they can’t get a degree in this or that because they won’t let them do it with a felony on their record.”

While West Virginia implemented a law a couple years ago to allow people to expunge their record on certain crimes after a decade, Vance said most convicts can’t afford an attorney to complete the process.

And those can’t escape the system will inevitably land back at Southern Regional Jail where, at last check, the building had twice the amount of inmates it was designed to hold. Staffing shortages at the facility are so severe that some correctional officers are working up to 5, 16-hour shifts a week. And due to the lack of bed space, some inmates have claimed they are being forced to sleep on wet mats on floors that repeatedly flood.

“I was there and woke up and there was this much water on the floor. I had to walk through it just to use the bathroom,” said Tammy Gibson, who spent several weeks at the jail for shoplifting from the Wal-mart in Fayetteville in the Spring.

Dunlap said the movement restrictions put in place by the Pandemic have only made the problem worse.

“It happens so frequently, people who are willing to have felony convictions if they can get out of there. They say, I’ve been in here ten months. I’m losing my house. My family is suffering. I may be able to beat the charge but who can sit here and rot while my family is turning to shambles? I can think of ten right off of the top of my head that have engaged in that sort of plea.”

Stacey Fragile, Raleigh County’s Chief Public Defender, has raised concerns over the same issues. “You’ve always heard people say that. But I don’t remember it being at the level it is right now. I don’t remember a time when I went into an arraignment for new indictments and heard people say that. But I’m hearing that now.”

There are many who may think ‘they’re an inmate, they get what they deserve.’ What they may not realize is that the vast majority of those being held at the jail are Pre-trial defendants: meaning they have not yet had their day in court.

While the public may not be able to see these individuals, they’re paying for them in more ways than one.

According to the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s 2021 annual report, jail inmates on average cost nearly a hundred dollars a day (the counties pay around $50) and $39,000 a year.

“Think of all of the unintended consequences. We give people felonies. They plea to get out of jail. Then we have a person who is unemployable because all of the national chains will not hire someone with a felony background to work, even in the fast food chains,” said Dunlap.

In Raleigh County, for example, the jail bill accounts for more than 10 percent of all taxpayer dollars. It is money that comes out of local schools, parks, and more.

So what’s the solution?

We’ll talk to those on the front lines with some ideas coming up in Part II on WVVA News on Thursday night at 6 p.m.

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