BECKLEY, WV (WVNS) — In a lawsuit filed against the Office of Governor Jim Justice and officials with the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security, a group of inmates, prisoners and juvenile detainees have asked a federal judge to order the State of West Virginia to spend $330 million from the state’s reported $1.8 billion surplus to alleviate conditions at the state’s prisons, jails and juvenile centers.
The lawsuit alleged there are inhumane and unconstitutional conditions in West Virginia correctional facilities that will continue, unless the judge grants the injunction and orders state lawmakers to address overcrowding, understaffing and maintenance needs in state facilities.
Attorneys Stephen P. New, Robert Dunlap, Timothy Lupardis and Zachary Whitten filed the joint lawsuit Tuesday, August 8, 2023, in United States District Court of the Southern District of West Virginia.
The lawsuit alleged state lawmakers, including the Governor’s Office, have willfully ignored information from WVDCR officials regarding overcrowding of jails for more than a decade and have not provided regular funding for maintenance. This comes after WVDCR officials reportedly made lawmakers aware that deferred maintenance in state jails and prisons, along with juvenile detainment centers, totaled around $270 million in July 2022.
“Meetings with legislators, representatives from the Governor’s Office, of the Legislature, and state budget office officials have occurred, wherein these individuals were informed that using part of the money from the budget surplus would greatly improve a lot of the issues with West Virginia’s jails,” the lawsuit states. “These government officials would be presented with written proposals, with options, as to how to correct the overcrowding, understaffing and deferred maintenance problems within the facilities.”
The lawsuit states that “WVDCR needs the property money and funding to be able to operate jails safely.”
In the lawsuit, Stephen New refers to statements by Brad Douglas, West Virginia’s Acting Commissioner of WVDCR, who testified in a June 12, 2023, deposition for a separate federal lawsuit against Southern Regional Jail.
According to the current lawsuit, Douglas testified in his deposition that the most critical needs for maintenance totaled around $60 million in 2022, with $27 million needed for door locking control systems and doors and locks, exclusively in the state jails and not prisons and juvenile centers.
Douglas testified that state prisons and juvenile centers also need the locking systems. Locked jail cells protect inmates from sexual and physical assaults by other inmates, and inmates are made vulnerable to violence if they are forced into unlocked jail cells, state jail officials testified during deposition.
Douglas testified “deferred maintenance” is a list of every project and maintenance needed in state prisons, jails and minor facilities, that does not have allocated funding and has, therefore, not been performed.
Douglas also testified, according to the lawsuit, that West Virginia’s prison population more than doubled between 2000 and 2009, which was the highest growth rate of any state in the nation.
Douglas testified West Virginia state officials were aware of the rapidly increasing population of prison inmates as early as 2011. Some prisoners were reportedly being housed in regional jails due to prison overcrowding, according to statements attributed to state officials in the lawsuit.
Former WVDCR Commissioner Betsy Jividen, who also gave a deposition in the federal lawsuit New had filed earlier against SRJ, testified overcrowding in facilities worsened between January 2018 and July 2022, the current lawsuit states.
New alleged the State of West Virginia has a history of refusing to spend money on inmates and that the indifference to inmates’ Constitutional rights continued, even as the population at state jails exploded during the opioid epidemic.
“It’s apparent to me that West Virginia government doesn’t get in any hurry, where prisoners are concerned,” New said on Tuesday. “So, we have had, through good times and bad, Democrat administrations and Republican this problem with a lack of maintenance, poor staffing and overcrowded jails and prisons, and nobody seems to have in state government a sense of urgency about themselves.”
New pointed out that attorneys relied on state history to substantiate claims that a federal injunction is needed to change conditions inside of state jails.
In the lawsuit, attorneys reported that in 1946, the State of West Virginia found county jails in West Virginia to be “anachronisms and totally unfit for human habitation,” which resulted in the county jails being consolidated into regional jails. The consolidation did not actually happen until 39 years later, according to the lawsuit, when state legislators created the West Virginia Regional Jail and Prison Authority in 1985.
“An additional 20 years passed, before all of the regional jails were opened,” the lawsuit alleges. “Therefore, a total of 59 years passed before the State of West Virginia opened jails to make uninhabitable, human uninhabitable, jails in counties no longer exist.”
The lawsuit stated that in 1983, a state judge rendered confinement at Moundsville Penitentiary, a state prison, to be unconstitutional, due to inhumane conditions. In 1995, twelve years later, Mount Olive Correctional Complex opened, and prisoners were taken out of the Moundsville prison.
New stated it is unlikely West Virginia lawmakers will allocate funding to address current conditions inside the corrections facilities, without a court order. He filed the Tuesday lawsuit after hearing state officials’ depositions in a class action federal lawsuit he currently has pending against Southern Regional Jail and the WVDOCR.
Gov. Justice declared a state of emergency in jails and prisons last August due to severe staffing shortages, sending in West Virginia National Guard and West Virginia Division of Natural Resources officers to help.
On Tuesday, West Virginia lawmakers were in a special legislative session, which includes several bills to alleviate staffing shortages among correctional offices, including a “critical need” pay program to give more pay at the state’s most understaffed prisons and jails.