Although the American Civil Liberties Union report “Overcrowded and Deadly: West Virginia’s Jails are in Crisis” was published this past February, little action has been taken by the state to address the findings in the report or even respond by acknowledging the truth behind the report.
Based on 2020 data collected from 45 jurisdictions by the Reuters news agency, the report declares that West Virginia has the “deadliest jail system” in the U.S. because it outpaces the national average death rate in every category of inmate morality.
The report uses quantitative data to explore differences in, first and foremost, the inmate death rate and death rate by cause between West Virginia and the United States and secondly, the death rate, causes of jail death, and time of jail death among the state’s 10 regional jails. The report also includes “an analysis of pretrial detention, jail deaths and jail overcrowding in West Virginia.”
Our position is that it’s high time that the West Virginia Department of Corrections and Gov. Jim Justice either take actions to address inmate deaths in the regional jails or enact reforms that will alleviate the problems.
Here’s what the problem looks like: “people incarcerated in West Virginia’s jails from 2009 to 2019 died at a rate of 2.23 per 1,000 incarcerated individuals. This death rate is about 1.53 times [higher than] the U.S. jail mortality rate (1.46 per 1,000 incarcerated individuals),” states the report.
“From 2008 to 2019, deaths in U.S. jails were largely caused by illnesses, suicides, drug or alcohol overdoses and homicides. Such deaths in West Virginia jails all surpassed national averages. Indeed, the state’s jail mortality rates from suicide, homicide, and drug or alcohol overdose all exceeded U.S. numbers by staggering amounts: 1.57 times for suicide, 2.89 times for homicide, and 2.87 times for overdoses,” states the report.
State lawmakers used an excessive amount of oxygen during this year’s legislative session discussing the costs that county’s bear for housing inmates in the state’s 10 regional jails.
While jail costs are a valid concern that hits taxpayers pocketbooks, the lives lost while incarcerated are shocking especially when taking into account the number of men and women who are wrongly convicted across the U.S. and in West Virginia each year or who have been railroaded through a broken system riddled with forced confessions and other dubious actions by the judiciary and prosecuting attorneys.
The study also found that 66% of West Virginia jail deaths involved people who had not yet been convicted of a crime, an appallingly sad commentary on the state of things. These victims’ families deserve better than this.
“At any given time, a majority of those detained in West Virginia’s regional jails have not been found guilty of any crime. Many simply cannot afford to purchase their freedom,” states the report.
We support the ACLU’s position that “West Virginia has the constitutional and moral obligation to provide for and protect the health and safety of incarcerated people. However, findings in this report demonstrate that the state’s corrections and health care systems have failed to improve health outcomes and avoid preventable deaths among the jail population.”
However, we’re not going to hold our breath waiting for state officials to take action.