W.Va. reports a ten-fold increase in deaths at Southern Regional Jail between 2018-2022

Published: Nov. 3, 2022 at 4:52 PM EDT
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BECKLEY, W.Va. (WVVA) - All year, WVVA News has reported on conditions in Southern Regional Jail. With almost all that happens inside a jail locked behind closed doors, it’s not easy to find out what’s happening inside. But in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by WVVA News this month, the state has shared new numbers that show a sharp rise in deaths at the facility -- from one death in 2018 to ten in 2022.

What’s driving the increase?

The short answer is we do not know exactly. But through our own investigation over the last year, we have uncovered a number of factors that could be at play.

WVVA News started to take a closer look at conditions in the jail after the death of Quantez Burks on March 1, 2022. An independent autopsy requested by the family revealed fractured ribs and blunt force trauma all over the inmate’s body. Currently, the family’s case is still in the pre-suit investigation stage as their attorneys work to identify those involved.

“If it takes additional time, that’s what we’re going to do,” said Burks’ mother, Kimberly Burks in an interview with WVVA News on Sunday.

It was around the time of Burks’ death that WVVA News received additional complaints at the jail, including inmates lacking access to water. WVVA’s reports prompted Gov. Jim Justice, (R) West Virginia), to launch an investigation into the jail, led by Dept. of Homeland Security Secretary Jeff Sandy.

After the investigation, Sec. Sandy said he found no evidence of water issues or evidence any of the other concerns raised. “The investigation showed that water was readily available to all inmates,” he said on April 28, 2022.

Still, concerns continued to come into the newsroom and, in August, the governor declared a statewide State of Emergency in the jails --- citing critical staffing shortages and a decision to bring in the National Guard. It was the same month notice of a federal civil rights lawsuit was filed on behalf of inmates at the jail. Included in the suit was video evidence provided by correctional officers and an internal memo showing nearly 40 cells without water.

See report here: Leaked internal email from Southern Regional Jail shows nearly 40 cells without water in November (wvva.com)

By that time, even Gov. Justice appeared to be distancing himself from the DHS report. “If you just let this play out, the truth will come out, because I’m not just going to go along,” he said when asked about the filing.

In September, the state revealed a separate, federal investigation was also underway. WVVA News requested the dates and cause of deaths of all inmates dating back to 2018 as part of a FOIA request. While the cause of deaths varied from heart disease to hangings to overdoses, there was only one real trend in the data turned over by the state -- a sharp rise in deaths in both 2021 and 2022.

During that same time period, numbers provided by the state showed a large difference in state corrections’ vacancies -- from 331 job openings in 2020 to 741 in 2022.

An attorney on the federal civil suit, Steve New, believes there are a number of contributing factors, including a lack of access to adequate medical care. “Overcrowding, understaffing, and all of that lends itself to an environment where inmates are not in a safe place to be.”

While the state is limited in commenting due to the federal investigation and civil suit, more information from their side could come as early as December. That’s the deadline for the state’s preliminary response to many of the claims made in the civil suit.