West Virginia Governor Jim Justice (R) is fighting a deposition that would require him to testify in October 24 in a federal lawsuit brought by people currently and formerly incarcerated in the state’s notorious county jail system. Allegations include reports of back mold, lack of toilet paper, severe overcrowding, insufficient food, detainees drinking out of toilets and sleeping on the floors because they weren’t provided water and beds.
West Virginia jails are among the deadliest in the country. Though filed on behalf of everyone incarcerated in the state’s prisons and jails, at the center of the class-action lawsuit is Southern Regional Jail & Correctional Facility (SRJ). At least 17 people have died in SRJ custody since January 2022.
On October 17, an attorney for the governor as well as Chief of Staff Brian Abraham filed a motion to block the deposition, despite having received notice far earlier.
“The requests for depositions should be quashed in their entirety,” it states. “Absent truly extraordinary circumstances, the Governor and his Chief of Staff, as nonparties and high-ranking state government officials, should not be subject to a deposition seeking information that is—at best—tangential to the claims involved in this litigation.”
The governor’s investigation found that, in fact, all detainees had multiple sources of drinking water available to them 24/7.
In April 2022, media reports of the conditions inside SRJ prompted Justice to order an investigation. His resulting report was published later that same month and found that, in fact, all detainees had multiple sources of drinking water available to them 24/7. Everyone was additionally supplied with juice, milk, flavored water, flavored beverages and water bottles of various sizes.
The report interviewed 50 detainees, who provided quotes such as “I have never been denied water,” or “That story is from an inmate trying every angle to get out of jail.” No one had filed any grievances about being denied water. There were no medical records of dehydration.
The deposition would question Justice and Abramson about whether officials allegedly destroyed key emails and other electronic records, as well as appearing to bill the corrections system for $28 million in COVID-19 funds and then redirect that amount to funds controlled by the governor.
Two out of three people who die in WV county jails were being held pre-trial. Kenny Matthews, a criminal justice fellow at the American Friends Service Committee, spent 18 months in the state’s county jail system because he couldn’t afford bail.
“Barely anybody is being rehabilitated inside these systems,” Matthews told Filter. “There’s no mechanisms in place to help. When you’re in regional, a lot of times you’re just sitting there on the pod doing nothing.”
He emphasized the importance of social media in giving some incarcerated people a way to show the outside world the conditions they’re being held in. “People now have the ability … to follow the stories and connect the dots. [It’s] made it easier for stories to get out.”
Gov. Justice has repeatedly discredited media coverage of the state’s jails, claiming that any unflattering coverage is a scam by detainees trying to get out.
“The sad part of this investigation is that family members were repeatedly lied to by inmates about clothing, food, water, mattresses, medical attention, living conditions, even shoes,” his investigation report concluded. “Inmates yelled at family and friends for not telling the story the way the inmate wanted the media to hear it. One inmate said after hearing what a family member told the media, ‘Now I will never get out of here.'”
Top photograph via West Virginia Legislature. Inset photograph via West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation.