BECKLEY — Under-cooked or rotten food served on dirty, unsanitary trays and regularly contaminated with saliva, hair, urine or semen is among the many grievances listed in a lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates being held at the Southern Regional Jail.
A civil action filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, Beckley Division, lists the plaintiffs as Michael D. Rose and Edward L. Harmon, two inmates held at the regional jail in Raleigh County.
The defendants include Betsy Jividen, former commissioner of the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation as well as other officials in that division. In July, the state Department of Homeland Security announced that Jividen would be stepping down effective Aug. 5.
Defendants also include the county commissions in the counties of Mercer, Monroe, Summers, Wyoming, Raleigh, Fayette and Greenbrier, according to court document filed Sept. 21.
“We have recently become aware that there is litigation which names the Mercer County Commission, but we maintain no stance on the situation as we only contribute to the cost of the incarceration and not day-to-day welfare of the inmates,” Mercer County Commissioner Greg Puckett said.
The lawsuit described the “conditions of confinement” at the regional jail. Under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, jails have a duty to provide inmates with humane conditions of confinement, including, but limited to, adequate food, clothing, shelter, sanitation and medical care, according to the court documents.
“Despite these conditions and statutory requirements, Defendants have been subjected inmates housed at SRJ (Southern Regional Jail), including Plaintiffs, to inhumane living conditions and deprived them of basic human necessities,” according to the court document.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs assert that “for at least a decade, SRJ has been dangerously overcrowded, housing significantly more inmates than it’s designed to hold.”
A 2020 PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) Facility Audit Report stated that SRJ was designed to hold 480 inmates. The jail has reported a population of 711 inmates and a 12-month daily population average of 640 inmates in 2020, according to the court document.
SRJ had an average daily population of 642 inmates in 2020, 633 inmates in 2019 and 603 inmates in 2018.
Three and often four inmates are regularly housed in two-person cells, according to the court document.
“As a result of persistent overcrowding, many inmates are forced to sleep on the floor of their cell,” according to the court document, later adding, “Inmates living on a dayroom floor at SRJ are also sexually assaulted or raped because they are not protected by a locked cell. Moreover, inmates living in the dayrooms at SRJ have no access to individual sinks or toilets. When individual inmate cells are locked down (for instance, six hours a night), inmates living in the dayrooms at SRJ have no access to drinking water or use of toilet.”
Broken toilets that do not flush and “become infested with bugs or maggots” are among the many problems with the jail’s plumbing, according to the court document.
“Inmates housed at SRJ are forced to live in filthy, unsanitary, and dangerous conditions, and are denied cleaning supplies to remedy said conditions,” according to the court document.
Black mold is a “persistent” problem, growing in cells, showers, air vents and the inmates’ clothing. Several inmate areas are “also infested with rodents and rodent feces,” and some areas “are infested with ants and other insects.”
Food at the jail was described under “Inadequate nutrition and spoiled food.” According to the court document, inmates are given inadequate portions of food, regularly given spoiled milk to drink, what appears to be undercooked or rotten meat, and food to “certain groups of inmates at SRJ is also regularly tampered with or contaminated with saliva, hair, urine, or semen.”
Instead of food being served to inmates in his or her cells, food “is regularly piled up on tables in the middle of inmate pods and inmates left ‘to fend for themselves. As a result, inmates often have to fight for food and some inmates go hungry,” according to the court document.
In matters concerning bedding and clothing, many inmates are not provided a mattress and do not have access to personal hygiene products such as toilet paper or soap, according to the court document, adding, “Inmates are sometimes forced to use rags or socks as toilet paper because none was provided to them.”
Conditions at the Southern Regional Jail were an issue when the state Supreme Court of Appeals admonished a McDowell County judge for jailing two correctional officers. Judge Rudolph “Rick” Murensky II, who serves in the 8th District of McDowell County was reprimanded by the state Supreme Court on April 25.
The action stems from a Jan. 5 hearing prior to which the defendant, Amillia Rose Owens, was transferred from the Southern Regional Jail to McDowell County Circuit Court.
“Prior to her court appearance, the inmate had been involved in a physical altercation at SRJ the facts of which are in dispute,” the admonishment states. “Suffice it to say, she had two black eyes and some cuts and bruising on her forehead. Respondent noticed the marks and inquired about them. Following his inquiry, respondent decided to send her to Southwestern Regional Jail in Holden rather than back to SRJ.”
Murensky maintained that his actions in court were necessary to protect the inmate Owens. At the time of the Jan. 5 hearing, Owens was facing drug charges in McDowell County and a probation violation in Mercer County.
In a formal response to the high court and during a later interview with the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, he noted that she had been “severely beaten and was the victim of battery.”
Owens stated on the record that she had been beaten while jailed at Southern Regional Jail, and that authorities did not take any action to rectify the situation, Murensky said.
“She testified that the beating occurred ‘Monday evening (Jan. 3), late’ and that she was ‘the fourth one that’s come out looking exactly like this since Saturday and nothing has been done about it,” Murensky stated in his response.
Murenksy also said he was “highly concerned by this revelation,” and that he felt Owens would be in “imminent danger and immediate peril” if she was returned to the Southern Regional Jail.
In April, Gov. Jim Justice released the results of a state Department of Homeland Security (DHS) investigation of the conditions reported at the Southern Regional Jail. The DHS oversees the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The investigation determined that inmates have access to water 24/7 via sinks in their cells and an industrial water fountain in each POD. SRJ provides tumblers for every inmate to use for water consumption, purchasing 4,800 since July 2021, according to a statement released April 28 by the governor’s office.
The jail also maintained a minimum three-day supply of bottled water for emergencies.
In addition to water access, inmates received three drinks per day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Inmates in segregation/quarantine units were also provided beverages with breakfast, lunch, and dinner meals. Records showed no history of inmates filing grievances for being deprived of water and no history of medical cases of dehydration, according to the governor’s office press release.
“Unfortunately, our interviews and review of phone calls and other records indicate that these allegations appear to be a misguided attempt by some inmates and their family and friends to use the news media to spread false and misleading information as a means of getting released,” said DHS Secretary Jeff Sandy, who headed up the investigation. “Inmates yelled at family and friends for not telling the story the way the inmate wanted the media to hear it. After hearing what a family member told the media, one inmate said, ‘Now I will never get out of here.’”
One of two former SRJ employees who shared allegations with the media admitted “they never personally witnessed any inmates being denied adequate access to water and noted that substantial portions of their media interview were left out of the final story,” Sandy said then. “The other former employee left the jail under well-documented employment issues and was so bitter that they refused to admit that inmates got beverages everyday with their breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
The investigation also determined that ample toilet paper is provided to inmates and that SRJ purchases new mattresses for inmates on a regular basis, according to the governor’s office press release. The jail had a wellness check program, where correctional officers engage in conversation with each inmate to assess their mental state and to ensure all of their personal needs are being met.
“The sad part of this investigation is that family members are repeatedly lied to by inmates about their access to clothing, food, water, mattresses, medical attention, living conditions, even shoes,” Sandy said then. “One mother that we interviewed was told by her own child, an inmate, that their shoes were stolen and weren’t given replacement shoes to wear, so she deposited money into their account for shoes that were never purchased.”