Inside the crisis at West Virginia's Southern Regional Jail (2024)

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On March 30, 2022, Jeff Sandy answered the phone. On the other end of the line — Brian Abraham, the Governor’s chief of staff.

He ordered Sandy, then the secretary of the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security, to go down to the Southern Regional Jail to see what all the fuss in the news was all about.

“I got in my car and went down there,” Sandy said.

Southern Regional Jail, one of the deadlier jails in West Virginia’s system, was already on track for a bad year.

A few weeks before Abraham’s call, Quantez Burks had died in custody, less than 24 hours after booking. Another man died in custody two weeks after that.

But Sandy said what got him in the car heading down I-77 wasn’t the deaths — it was bad press. The previous week, TV station WVVA reported that inmates were routinely denied water and had to resort to drinking out of commodes, sleeping on bare floors and going without toilet paper. Gov. Jim Justice ordered an investigation, and Sandy had his marching orders.

They were simple: check the water, the toilet paper and the mattresses.

Not the deaths, not the overcrowding, not the understaffing or any drugs that may have been floating around behind the walls. Water, toilet paper and mattresses.

Inside the crisis at West Virginia's Southern Regional Jail (1)

By the end of 2022, 13 people would die at the SRJ. The institution was under federal investigation, at least two higher-ups retired and the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation was embroiled in a class action lawsuit accusing them of withholding water, medical care and food from inmates.

But internal reports and a batch of depositions taken as part of that class action lawsuit show not only how thin Sandy’s investigation would prove to be, but also how leadership struggled to address systemic issues.

The documents show Sandy’s investigation included conversations with only a handful of people — both incarcerated people and correctional officers — many of whom were handpicked by jail leaders. He didn’t turn on a faucet or step foot inside a jail cell. And as deaths continued at the facility, when then-Commissioner Betsy Jividen was pressured to retire, it was allegedly only because one of those deaths involved a family member of one of Justice’s cabinet secretaries.

On that day in March 2022, Sandy called Jividen as he passed through the Pax tollbooth to let her know he was on his way. By the time he arrived, he still had about a 20 minute lead on the jail’s superintendent, Mike Francis. Sandy and Jividen declined to comment for this story, while a request for comment from Francis was never returned.

But according to his deposition, Sandy started his investigation into SRJ by meeting with three convicted men awaiting transfer to state prison. Each told Sandy, who did not take notes or record the interview, the water was fine — no problems at all. One would later swear out an affidavit accusing the secretary and the superintendent of bribery.

“… if I lied to investigators about the conditions of the jail, they would get me early parole … they would set me up with a fulltime job after my release and help me ‘get my life together’,” the affidavit states.

Sandy also asked for the jail’s log of grievances — when inmates write a complaint about a living condition to get it fixed — and was told there were none filed about the water situation. He took the jail’s word for it.

And although he was tasked by Gov. Justice to figure out if the water was working in the jail, Sandy said he never turned on one sink or water fountain, nor did he enter the cluster of cells called “pods.”

“I did not go into any pod. Did not go into any cell,” he said during the deposition. “I went to the observation area and looked down on multiple pods.”

In a look down the hall, Sandy said he could see mattresses in the pods and toilet paper in the cells he didn’t enter.

‘Our investigators talked with a bunch of people’

Less than a month later, the governor’s office had concluded that nothing was wrong at Southern Regional Jail. On April 28, 2022, Justice released Sandy’s 14-page report stating the lack of water, mattresses and toilet paper were the lies of inmates. It offered critiques of the media coverage.

“The investigative team recommends to the media that they should consider asking the inmate or employee to obtain their inmate files or employee files from the state of West Virginia to disclose to the media,” the report said.

Justice is quoted in the release as stating, “our investigators talked with a bunch of people and pulled a bunch of records and at the end of the day, they determined the allegations were simply not true.”

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Out of the 615 men and women held at the facility, Sandy interviewed three and two follow-up investigators spoke to 10 that were handpicked by Francis. Investigators also spoke to about 10 correctional officers. The other 30 or so interview subjects were family members who called the department, concerned about their loved ones inside.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Jividen said she was poring over footage and reports relating to Burks’ death. She sent her own investigators, even recommending a use of force expert to look into the incident, though records are unclear if that actually happened.

“We were taking personnel action to get rid of people. I think that was the important thing, to get those people out of Southern Regional Jail,” she said in her deposition.

And it wasn’t just the SRJ weighing on the commissioner: she was dealing with problems across the entire correctional system.

Throughout the COVID crisis, Jividen asked for raises for correctional officers. She drafted bills and saw them go to the Capitol only to unceremoniously die. The discouragement made her contemplate quitting several times.

“I think it just was … it was that inability to get anywhere and to make anything better as you just watch the vacancies rise and everything else,” she said in her deposition.

That June, a legislative committee heard from three women who had spent time in the system: Joanna Vance, Melissa Rose and Ashley Omps. The latter two women described harrowing conditions — Rose stated she once had to sleep in two inches of water in her cell, while Omps said she’d gone a dozen days without access to a shower.

Inside the crisis at West Virginia's Southern Regional Jail (5)

For Vance, the hearing was important to make lawmakers see the human toll of incarceration.

“It’s easy to not think about those conditions and how it affects people, but when it’s literally right there in front of your face, you can’t look away,” she said recently.

During that summer, Sandy asked for Jividen’s resignation. Jividen said what ultimately pushed her out wasn’t the number of deaths at West Virginia’s jails and prisons. It was the death of one particular person: Ricky Jason Wriston, the nephew of Transportation Secretary Jimmy Wriston. He died at the SRJ during the spring of 2022.

“Jeff Sandy told me that Brian Abraham was upset about Secretary Wriston’s nephew dying in the hospital after being incarcerated at Southern. And he had gone to the Governor and that’s when the Governor asked for my resignation,” Jividen said in her deposition.

Jimmy Wriston and Brian Abraham didn’t return a request for comment.

Inside the crisis at West Virginia's Southern Regional Jail (6)

At that point, Jividen said she was already “frustrated” by the lack of progress in improving her department, whether that be for basic maintenance or pay raises — she didn’t consider her retirement “out of the blue.”

Francis would soon retire too.

And by the end of that summer, another death and another investigation at Southern Regional Jail.

A new report raises questions about the old one

After getting picked up on a DUI in late August, Alvis Shewsbury died in custody on Sept. 17, 2022.

Just four days later, Jimmy Stout opened another internal investigation into the SRJ. Stout, at the time the Superintendent of Donald R. Kuhn Juvenile Detention Center, would be appointed the inspector general of the department the following month, despite the fact that the position wasn’t in state statute until the 2023 legislative session.

Unlike Sandy’s investigation, Stout made multiple visits to the facility throughout October to gather evidence and conduct interviews. The findings were never publicly released until now.

Stout’s report mirrors the conclusions his boss, Jeff Sandy, previously drew, but it does call into question Sandy’s investigative methods.

He notes how Sandy didn’t see the grievance log, trusting the superintendent’s word there were no water issues recorded. Stout was able to obtain the log, but found that no grievances were filed during the entire month of Sandy’s visit, March 2022, which he deemed “highly irregular.”

Stout’s report also revealed Sandy wrote the entire report from memory and submitted it prior to publication to Francis, among others, for review. According to the Stout report, “no material facts were changed.”

The report also states Sandy went “where he thought he needed to go at the time” during the March 30 inspection, based upon his experience serving on the Regional Jail Board in the late 2000s.

Sandy didn’t know if any of the inmates he interviewed were trustees — inmates given privileges in exchange for working inside the jail — per the report. Due to their position, trustees generally get along well with jail administrations.

“He did not ask or think to ask that at the time,” Stout wrote. “He stated his interaction with each was candid and open, but primarily centered around issues of access to water, toilet paper and bedding.”

The Stout probe also uncovered photographs showing mold and mildew in shower rooms, along with general disrepair of ceilings, walls and floors. Additional photos leaked to the media around the same time showed multiple cells without water, sinks running continuously and toilets unable to flush, leaks coming from walls and other maintenance issues.

During Sandy’s deposition, attorneys showed him footage of the conditions taken by a lieutenant months prior to the inquiry. The secretary said he had never seen it before.

“As an investigator, I just have more questions than you can imagine sir. I … I just — I just don’t know what to think about this,” Sandy said.

The state Department of Homeland Security didn’t reply to requests for comment regarding Stout’s investigation — as well as the other investigations at the SRJ.

Now, the Department of Homeland Security is facing a lawsuit that alleges inhumane and unconstitutional conditions at the SRJ. At least one person has died this year at the jail.

As of October 2022, the feds have been looking into the jail.

Prisons and jails across the state are still chronically understaffed and overcrowded — many facilities are in need of roofs, fences and doors, which Jividen said she spent years asking for.

About $100 million is expected to go into the jails for those repairs.

Gov. Justice called a special session earlier this month to push through a pay raise for correctional officers, in an effort to fill 700 or so vacancies in the system. The same day those raises passed, a Beckley attorney filed another lawsuit against the state, to force it to fund its detention centers.

And this past week, federal prosecutors filed charges against two correctional officers they said were involved in the beating that led to Quantez Burks’ death at SRJ. Both have waived having their case go to a grand jury and prosecutors have asked to schedule guilty pleas.

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Inside the crisis at West Virginia's Southern Regional Jail (2024)

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