BECKLEY, WV (WVNS) — Four attorneys in southern West Virginia have filed a lawsuit against Southern Regional Jail, West Virginia Division of Corrections and every county commission which pays Southern Regional to house inmates.
One of the attorneys, Stephen P. New, said the case relies on sworn statements by correctional officers who witnessed the alleged civil rights violations.
Another attorney, Robert Dunlap, reported the family of William Bowen, who was found dead in a wooded area of Rhodell on August 4, 2022, believe Southern Regional Jail failed to provide Bowen with treatment for his schizophrenia and bipolar disorder after he was initially incarcerated on May 7, 2022.
Dunlap alleges jail workers released Bowen without transportation or supervision on July 7, 2022, following a charge of domestic violence. His family in North Carolina reportedly spent months looking for him, prior to the discovery of his body.
The lawsuit also names Prime Care Medical of West Virginia in the class action lawsuit, which was filed on September 22, 2022, in the United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia.
The suit alleged that people are forced to sleep on mats soaked in toilet water, they’re denied nutritious food, some are denied running water and a toilet, while incarcerated. It also said they breathe air contaminated by black mold and that they’re forced to sleep on concrete floors, with a crate-style mat.
Correctional officers report in the complaint that four or six people are often forced into cells designed for two adults. According to the lawsuit, the jail provides inmates with clothing that does not fit, and that they are not given regular access to laundry services.
The suit claimed the jail is overcrowded, often operating at a 166 percent capacity, which violates the state fire code and potentially places the lives of those inside the jail at risk. Because of overcrowding, the suit alleged detainees are forced to sleep in a large “dayroom” area, where they’re not given locked cells and become targets of sexual attacks and beatings.
Much of the suit, New said, relies on reports from five former corrections officers who worked at the jail. New also said the claims are bolstered by emails dating back to 2020, along with photos and videos.
“One corrections officer, in particular, reportedly documented this in all areas of the jail, with photos and video,” said New.
The lawsuit alleges once inmates enter the jail, they’re subjected to civil rights violations, including being left for days without mental health services. According to the suit, Corrections officers reported suicidal inmates are allegedly stripped, forced into a gown or constrictive suit and crowded into two cells, sometimes for days.
Lawyers allege Prime Care ignores inmates’ requests for medical care and the medical pod, which doesn’t have cameras, is used to hurt inmates.
“These C.O.s (corrections officers) talk about prisoners being taken to the Prime Care section of the prison to be beaten, and Prime Care documenting something falsely, like a fall down the stairs,” New, who compared the conditions to those in an undeveloped nation, said.
The 54-page document charges that commissions for Greenbrier, Monroe, Raleigh, Fayette, Mercer, Summers and Wyoming counties pay Southern Regional through a contract or memorandum of understanding to meet federal and state standards of care for those who are incarcerated.
Under state law, counties are responsible for ensuring those in jail have adequate food, water, medical care, sleeping conditions and safety.
Counties pay the jail $48.25 per day, per inmate, to care for those in jail, but New said counties are still responsible for civil rights violations of those at the jail.
“The county contracts that to a regional jail authority, but they can’t contract away their responsibility to these prisoners,” New noted.
Morgan Switzer, spokesperson and counsel for the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the regional jails, and Raleigh County Commission President Dave Tolliver declined to comment on September 23, 2022.
New reported attorneys around the state may soon file similar lawsuits against other regional jails.
Attorneys Tim Lupardis and Zachary Whitten of Pineville, also represent clients in the federal suit.
Stick with 59News for more on the lawsuit.