A handcuffed prisoner languishes in a prison cell.

(Photo: Doug Berry/Getty Images)

Poor People's Campaign, Families Demand DOJ Probe of Over 100 West Virginia Jail Deaths

"Poverty or a prison sentence should not be a death sentence," asserted campaign co-chair Bishop William J. Barber II after relatives of inmates who died last year told their loved ones' stories.

Activists with the Poor People's Campaign and relatives of some of the 13 inmates who died at West Virginia's Southern Regional Jail last year held a press conference Thursday to implore the Biden administration to investigate conditions at the notorious lockup, as well as the deaths of more than 100 prisoners in the state during the last 10 years.

"We're doing this on behalf of the 13 people who have died senselessly, we believe, at the Southern Regional Jail... and on behalf of over 100 more who have died within West Virginia regional jails over the last decade," Bishop William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, said at the online conference.

Speaking to Common Dreams by phone after the press conference, Barber said that "we need a full, independent investigation by the Justice Department. We're talking about basic civil rights and human dignity. Give us the truth. Give us justice."

"We need a full, independent investigation by the Justice Department. We're talking about basic civil rights and human dignity. Give us the truth. Give us justice."

"There are too many unanswered questions here," he added. "We're talking about people dying in jail."

In one case, a man jailed at Southern Regional Jail (SRJ) for littering and missing a court date died 81 days after his arrest. In another, a woman died after she was brutally beaten and literally torn apart by inmates looking for drugs in her private parts.

Latasha Williams, whose 37-year-old fiancée Quantez Burks died a day after he was locked up at SRJ for alleged wanton endangerment and obstruction, said she only found out her partner was dead when she called to inquire about posting bond the day after his arrest.

"The magistrate said, 'I hate to tell you this, but he passed away last night at 9:00 pm,'" Williams recounted. "I threw the phone and started crying... and I [said] they lying, it's somebody else, 'cause I just talked to him."

After state officials said the cause of Burks' death was "natural," his loved ones raised $5,000 for an independent autopsy by Pittsburgh forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht, a former president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

"We just felt like there was probably some foul play in it, and that's really what made us decide to get that second autopsy," Burks explained.

"Findings were consistent with being handcuffed while being beaten," she said. "Both of his wrists were broken. He had an arm broken, nose broken, and a leg bone broken. He also had blunt force trauma to his whole body, including his head. He also had a heart attack, which they said was probably caused by the stress his body was put into."

Reacting to Burks' remarks, Barber asserted that "poverty or a prison sentence should not be a death sentence."

"We need an independent federal investigation. We need it now. We need the Justice Department to come in and meet with these families."

"Countless low-income West Virginians of all races... have died under the watch of the state prison and jail system," he continued. "We need an independent federal investigation. We need it now. We need the Justice Department to come in and meet with these families."

"The mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and family members of those who have died at the hands of our jail system in West Virginia need and deserve answers," Barber added. "We cannot allow our elected leaders to continue to ignore what is unfolding right in front of them."

Barber urged U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Republican Gov. Jim Justice to support an independent federal probe into the "dangerous, inhumane, and unconstitutional conditions in the Southern Regional Jail."

"You don't have video. You don't have body cameras," said Barber. "But you have real lives and real families and tremendous pain and death and people going in for... minor offenses and then family members finding out, sometimes in less than 24 hours, sometimes less than 24 days, that a loved one is dead, dead, dead. And all kinds of questions have gone unanswered."

While the U.S. Department of Homeland Security last year conducted an investigation of conditions at SRJ, critics including attorneys for inmates at the jail called the probe a "sham."

Barber told Common Dreams that "only a full federal investigation, with the DOJ and its power of the federal purse strings," would be sufficient to "give us the truth" and answer the questions of those whose loved ones died at SRJ.

"Systems that investigate themselves are not as thorough, and are prone to cover-ups," he added.

Thursday's press conference came as current and former prisoners filed a new class-action lawsuit this week over conditions at SRJ. The suit alleges that inmates are denied access to drinking water, that they face dangerous overcrowding, mold, human sewage, toilet water, rats, sexual assault, and other violence.

According to WVNS journalist Jessica Farrish, who has reported extensively on the jail:

The suit states that up to 16 mentally ill people are forced inside of an alleged "suicide cell" that measures 120 square feet, and that prison and medical staff allegedly leave them in the cell for days. Attorneys also say jail staff allegedly destroys legal mail sent to inmates, opens inmates' legal mail when they are not present, and photocopies legal mail sent to inmates.

A previous class-action lawsuit filed last year alleges abuse and mistreatment at SRJ.

"Hearing these stories, my heart is breaking," said Rev. Dr. Liz Theoris, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign. "This drive to criminalize the poor is immoral and poverty and incarceration... should not be a death sentence."

"Enough is enough. This has to stop," she added. "We are calling... on our elected officials and on the DOJ to make a difference. We are calling on Sen. Manchin and Gov. Justice to hear the cries of the families seeking answers and to do what's right."

A state investigation into conditions at SRJ that concluded inmates were lying about abuse was widely dismissed as grossly inadequate.

As an October 2022 editorial in the Register-Herald, a Beckley, West Virginia-based paper, noted:

The state report on conditions at SRJ was produced lickety-split, in about 30 days, by West Virginia Homeland Security Secretary Jeff Sandy, who cooked the books to deny any problems whatsoever at the facility. A high school term paper would have been more revealing—and more credible. Sandy once served as chair of the Regional Jail Board from 2012 to 2016 and now serves in the governor's cabinet.

Yes, the governor directed an insider to conduct a fair and impartial investigation. Even a blind man could see that was never going to happen. As such, the problems at SRJ persist because they have not been meaningfully addressed—and inmates are dying because of it.

Kat Robles, an attorney at the advocacy group Forward Justice, specifically called on the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division to launch an investigation under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, which empowers the DOJ to probe abuse and neglect in prisons and jails, mental health facilities, and other institutions.

"This is an urgent crisis. This is an outrage," said Robles, who added that what's needed is "not just an investigation."

"We want them to meet with community leaders, to meet with families, and to remedy this urgent crisis," she said.

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