West Virginia has some of the nation’s deadliest jails, with alarmingly high rates of suicide, homicide, and drug overdose deaths, according to a new report compiled by the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia (ACLU-WV) using data from both the Reuters news agency and the state Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The report, “Overcrowded and Deadly: West Virginia’s Jails are in Crisis” also makes a number of recommendations, focusing on steps to reduce jail overcrowding, which the report links to the high death rate.
The report analyzes records made public by Reuters in 2020. Of the 45 jurisdictions surveyed by Reuters, West Virginia had the deadliest jail system, outpacing the national average death rate in nearly every category of mortality.
“We were disturbed to read the initial report late last year from Reuters, which found that West Virginia’s jails are extremely deadly,” ACLU-WV Executive Director Joseph Cohen said. “But when we began to dig deeper into some of the raw data Reuters released with that report, we were horrified to see how high the rates of suicide, homicide and overdose deaths are in West Virginia compared to other states.
“These death rates in our jails simply cannot be tolerated. We cannot look away from this travesty. That’s why we are calling on the state to immediately take steps to relieve the overcrowded conditions that we believe are creating the conditions for these preventable deaths.”
Disturbingly, most of the deaths in West Virginia jails between 2008 and 2019 occurred during the incarcerated person’s first 30 days in a facility.
“It is important to remember that every pre-trial detainee who dies behind bars is presumed innocent in the eyes of the law,” Cohen said. “These people have not been proven guilty and many of them were in jail simply because they could not afford to purchase their freedom.”
Of West Virginia’s ten regional jails, most had death rates that were significantly higher than the national average. Among the state’s regional jails, South Central in Charleston had the highest death rate, 2.4 times higher than the national average. Eastern Regional Jail in Martinsburg, Berkeley County, had the highest number of suicides. Western Regional Jail in Barboursville, Cabell County, had the most deaths caused by overdose.
ALCU-WV Criminal Law Reform Campaign Director Greg Whittington said the report confirms concerns he hears from incarcerated people and their family members.
“We are constantly hearing from people in jail who say they don’t feel their health and safety are being protected,” he said. “Our jails were some of the deadliest in the nation before the COVID-19 pandemic began. It’s more important now than ever before that we reduce the number of people sitting in these overcrowded facilities.”
ACLU-WV’s report calls on policymakers to increase alternatives to incarceration, ensure the pretrial release bill passed during the 2020 legislative session (HB 2419) is more effectively enforced, reinforce regional jail staff with better pay, training and working conditions, deliver better health care including mental health and substance abuse care, employ an independent outside investigator to explore every jail death in West Virginia, and increase responsiveness to the needs of incarcerated people particularly in the first 30 days of incarceration.