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Groups Call for Federal Investigation of more than 100 State Jail Deaths

February 24, 2023

Dear Assistant Attorney General Clarke:

On behalf of the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, Repairers of the Breach, and the Kairos Center for Religion, Rights and Social Justice, Forward Justice writes to you requesting that the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division take immediate action to fully investigate and remedy the dangerous, inhumane, and unconstitutional conditions in the Southern Regional Jail in Raleigh County, West Virginia that have already resulted in the loss of 13 people’s precious lives in 2022.

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We ask that the Department of Justice take the following actions and make their action public:

  1. Expedite and ensure the full independence of a Federal civil rights investigation into the jail
    conditions and unconscionable number of deaths in Raleigh County’s Southern Regional Jail (SRJ), including utilizing the Department’s authority under the Civil Rights Institutionalized Persons Act (“CRIPA”) to investigate violations of prisoners’ rights resulting from a “pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of such rights.”1
  2. Meet with community leaders expeditiously, including directly impacted family members of those who have died, to discuss the next steps in addressing jail conditions in Raleigh County and the status of any pending federal investigations; and
  3. Hold a listening session with community members in Raleigh County, including the directly impacted family members of those who have died, to determine the scope of the civil rights violations and community needs that the Department of Justice has the authority to provide a path to redress.

I. Factual Background
Over 100 people have died in state regional jails in West Virginia in the last decade. In 2022 alone, 13 people died at the Southern Regional Jail in Raleigh County, an institution plagued by understaffing, overcrowding, neglect and other well documented inhumane conditions.2 Since 2018, the Southern Regional Jail has seen a shocking 13-fold increase in deaths.3 Meanwhile, state officials have refused to thoroughly investigate the recent deaths of people incarcerated in the state’s facility. These victims included West Virginia community members who were in custody for short periods of time –in at least one case less than 48 hours – and held in custody for minor and bondable offenses, including probation violations – before senselessly and tragically losing their lives. Mourning family members, including the mothers who join us in this request today, are still seeking critical information on the premature passing of their loved ones and the response by local and state officials incalcitrant, refusing to address the unconstitutional conditions, even while the scope of the crisis has continued to be publicly exposed by family, community, former and current prisoners, faith leaders, and former staff at the facility—all deeply alarmed by the urgency of the unconstitutional conditions.4

On September 21, 2022, nearly 1,000 former and current inmates filed a class action lawsuit against the Southern Regional Jail. The Complaint alleges a host of disturbing conditions leading to unconstitutional and inhumane suffering of incarcerated people, including: pervasive overcrowding5 and understaffing creating violent conditions without basic safety or medical protections for those in custody; as well as spoiled food, grossly unsanitary conditions,6 inadequate plumbing, lack of bedding, neglectful and constitutionally inadequate medical care, and the inability to report grievances to redress these conditions.7

II. Immediate Relief Sought for the Shrewsbury and Burks’ Families and Beloved Members of Our Community Who Have Lost Loved Ones
Ms. Anna Shrewsbury and Ms. Kim Burks, the mothers of Mr. Alvis Shrewsbury and Mr. Quantez Burks, who both died in the custody of Southern Regional Jail in 2022, along with their families and communities are seeking true justice and demanding accountability.8 While state lawmakers are considering a proposal to increase transparency in West Virginia’s jail system, families are still left in the dark, waiting months for investigations to conclude only to be left with unanswered questions and deep grief for the loss of their children.

III. Urgent Need for Investigation Into Policy and Practices of Southern Regional Jail
In December 2021, the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security conducted an initial investigation into conditions at the Southern Regional Jail, by order of Governor Jim Justice. The primary goal of that investigation was to determine whether incarcerated people’s basic needs were being met by the Southern Regional Jail. The report ultimately concluded that the allegations made by inmates related to a lack of adequate food, water, toilet paper and mattresses were “unfounded.”9 However, this report preceded the record 13 deaths that occurred at the facility in 2022; and doubts have since been cast about the accuracy of that report.10 On October 11, 2022, a representative for the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security identified to media that a federal investigation is underway into conditions at Southern Regional Jail.11 However, no further details have been provided to the public, including the family members of those deceased, about that investigation. As outlined above, we request that the Civil Rights Division conduct its own independent investigation and ensure that the scope of the investigation and remedy is commensurate with the crisis.

Please feel free to direct any communications regarding this matter and next steps to Attorneys Lori Sherman and Kathleen Roblez. We look forward to your response, and we stand prepared to provide any additional information necessary to assist the Department to move swiftly to bring an end to this gross injustice.

Sincerely, Rev. Bishop William J. Barber II, Co-Chair, Poor People’s Campaign and President, Senior Lecturer at Repairers of the Breach
Rev. Liz Theoharis, Co-Chair, Poor People’s Campaign
Pam Garrison, West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign State Chair
Stewart Acuff, West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign State Chair
Lori Sherman, Attorney, Forward Justice
Caitlin Swain, Co-Director, Forward Justice
Kathleen Roblez, Senior Attorney, Forward Justice

CC: Senator Joe Manchin Governor Jim Justice

1 42 U.S.C. § 1997 et seq.
4 Loved ones have also reported glaring and disturbing discrepancies between an autopsy conducted by state officials with those conducted by private medical professionals.
5 According to the class action suit, the Southern Regional Jail (SRJ) is designed to house 468 people, but the 2021 annual report demonstrated that SRJ’s average capacity of people incarcerated hovered around 717. Second Amended Complaint, Rose et al. v. Jividen et al., No. 5:22-cv-00405 (Feb. 21, 2023), at 15. As a result, incarcerated people are forced to sleep on floors and in open areas. Consequently, without locked cells, inmates are attacked and raped. Id. at 16-17.
6 In addition to the overcrowding, the class action suit alleges that SRJ has numerous non-functioning toilets and inadequate plumbing. Second Amended Complaint, Rose et al. v. Jividen et al., No. 5:22-cv-00405 (Feb. 21, 2023), at 18-22. Broken toilets can become infested with bugs or maggots. Id. at 53. At times, there are toilets that when flushed, the contents from toilets come out of the walls into the cells. The lack of proper plumbing causes water to seep out through the walls leading to the growth of black mold. Id. at 21-22.
7 The class action suit further alleges numerous egregious, dangerous, and unsafe living conditions, and it alleges that incarcerated people lack the ability to file grievances related to these concerns. According to the suit, incarcerated people are regularly denied the ability to file grievances and, in some cases, when an incarcerated person is afforded the opportunity to file a grievance, the form is torn up in front of the incarcerated person. Second Amended Complaint, Rose et al. v. Jividen et al., No. 5:22-cv-00405 (Feb. 21, 2023), at 33-34.
9 Amended Complaint, Rose et al. v. Jividen et al., No. 5:22-cv-00405 (Oct. 7, 2022), at Ex. 11.
10 See Amended Complaint, Rose et al. v. Jividen et al., No. 5:22-cv-00405 (Oct. 7, 2022), at Para. 220-245.