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ACLU-WV Petition Seeks Transparency For Alleged ‘Secret Prison Laws’

A line of jail cells.Lettas/Adobe Stock

The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia has alleged the state Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Department of Homeland Security attempted to hide a set of legislative rules from public view.

The ACLU’s legal filing alleges Corrections and Rehabilitation provided a partial and inaccurate version of its Policy Directives Manual after it was requested by the organization in January. 

It also alleges that after the ACLU requested access to the manual from the Secretary of State’s office, certain access was restricted after some time at the request of Homeland Security. The agency also allegedly requested a removal of the documents from the Secretary of State’s office, which was denied.

“What we were initially looking at, it’s unclear the extent to which that was accurate in the first place. But at this point, we don’t have access to the full document,” ACLU-WV Managing Attorney Aubrey Sparks said.

The manual is considered a legislative rule in West Virginia code. The ACLU petitioned the Kanawha County Circuit Court to order the agencies to provide a complete and accurate version of the policies, claiming the two agencies were creating “secret laws.”

Sparks said legislative rules act differently than internal policies or procedure guides.

“The issue here is that this is a legislative rule, which means that it has the full force of law, and yet it’s not accessible to the public,” Sparks said.

The request for the DCR documents comes after a 2021 report that ACLU-WV published with findings that West Virginia has some of the nation’s deadliest jails.

“We were interested in seeing how those jails are run, if that document, that legislative rule conferred any substantive rights on the people who were incarcerated that could be useful in trying to improve the conditions of the prisons and jails,” Sparks said.

According to the legal filing, the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitations claimed the initial request for the document was treated as a Freedom of Information Act request, with some of the records removed “pursuant to W. Va. Code § 29B-1-4(a)(19),” which states certain records relating to facilities, directives and operational procedures could be used “to escape a facility, or to cause injury to another inmate, resident, or to facility personnel” if they are released.

The ACLU argued in the filing that the public still had a right of access and that further access was withheld to documents which were not initially restricted.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting reached out to the DHS and DCR for comment. The DHS declined to comment, while the DCR has not yet provided a response as of the story’s publication.