Between 2008 and 2019, 115 people died in West Virginia’s regional jails, and at least 66% of those people were awaiting trial, according to a report from the West Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Eight percent of the people who died in the state’s jails had been convicted of crimes; 26% were reported with an unknown custody status. More than half of the total jail deaths occurred less than a month after initial incarceration.
The report says deaths at West Virginia’s regional jails undermine a “fundamental principle of the criminal legal system: innocent until proven guilty.”
“Presumption of innocence is meaningless if merely being charged with a crime results in death before trial,” the report says. “Indeed, it is purposeless when people die soon after they are jailed.”
West Virginia abolished the death penalty in 1965.
ACLU-WV compiled the report based, in part, on data collected by the Reuters news agency in 2020. The report includes data from 44 states and the District of Columbia.
Reuters collected data from every jail in the country with an average daily population of 750 or more people, as well as the 10 largest jails or jail systems in each state.
The South Central Regional Jail, in Kanawha County, and the Western Regional Jail, in Cabell County, each recorded 19 inmate deaths during the 11-year time frame, the most of any of the state’s 10 regional jails, according to the report.
The death rate of inmates in West Virginia’s regional jails was 2.23 per 1,000 people, according to the report. It was the highest death rate among the states included in the report, based on the methodology of Reuters’ data collection.
The average death rate among the states and districts whose data was collected was 1.46 per incarcerated people, according to the report.
West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials disputed part of the report that said West Virginia’s jails had the highest death rate in the United States during that time. The agency said the scope of the data collected made it difficult to draw any conclusion about how West Virginia’s inmate death rate compared to other states.
“West Virginia only has 10 jails, so 100 percent of its data was included,” said Lawrence Messina, director of communications for the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “But for the other states, this approach excluded more than 2,600 jails, along with more than 3,300 inmate deaths just from 2008 to 2016.
“The disparity among the sampling sizes hinders any general inferences that can be drawn,” Messina added.
Of the 115 deaths in West Virginia’s regional jails between 2008 and 2019, 37% were caused by illness. Another 30% were inmates who died by suicide. Overdoses accounted for 16% of the deaths, followed by homicides (5%) and accidents (1%). Eleven percent of inmate deaths were attributed to unknown causes, according to the report.
The Western Regional Jail experienced the highest number of overdose deaths.
The report emphasized that West Virginia’s high poverty rate and health care disparities lead to people spending more time in jail and growing sicker once they’re incarcerated in what has become an almost typically overpopulated jail environment.
West Virginia exceeded its jail capacity for eight of the 11 years included in the report.
The report has a list of recommendations for lawmakers and Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation administrators to help decrease the rate of death in the jails.
The measures are focused on reducing jail overcrowding, improving the conditions of employment and training for jail employees, strengthening jail oversight, improving health outcomes for incarcerated people and improving the reporting and tracking of jail deaths throughout the regional jail system.
As of Monday, 5,733 people were incarcerated in the state’s 10 regional jails. The jails are equipped with 4,265 beds.
Of those incarcerated, 46.9% — 2,708 people — were being held while awaiting trial. A total of 2,023 people were facing felony charges, and 419 were awaiting trials on misdemeanor charges. Another 266 people were awaiting trial for federal charges.
Another 38.5% of the inmates in the regional jails, 2,222 people, had been convicted of felony crimes and were awaiting transfer to a correctional facility.
Eleven percent of the inmates, 658 people, had been convicted of felony crimes but hadn’t been sentenced. Another 165 people had been convicted of misdemeanor crimes, the sentences for which include incarceration in the regional jails, instead of correctional centers, per state law.