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Activists with the Poor People’s Campaign are calling for a federal investigation into West Virginia jails following a rise in the number of reported deaths.
There were 13 reported deaths at the Southern Regional Jail in 2022, with more than 100 deaths in the state’s regional jail system in the past decade.
During a virtual press conference Thursday, the campaign said it will ask the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to investigate.
“Poverty, or a prison sentence, should not be a death sentence,” organization co-chair William Barber said. “Countless low income West Virginians of all races, Black and white and others, have died under the watch of the state prison jail system.”
A March 4 rally in Beckley and a March 10 rally at the capitol building in Charleston were also announced.
Barber said the organization is pushing for an investigation in part to hopefully spur the DOJ to address systemic issues at a national level.
“We don’t know how far it will go. But we know that the federal government has the power and the ability to expand wherever this investigation takes them,” Barber said. “And we certainly will endorse that as well.”
Two of the 13 inmates that died last year were Quantez Burks and Alvis Shrewsbury, whose family members spoke at the virtual conference.
Burks, 37, was arrested and charged with wanton endangerment and obstructing an officer on Feb. 28 and died less than 24 hours later on March 1 while in jail. After not hearing back from state officials with an initial autopsy, a second, private autopsy the family received in Pittsburgh reported Burks had died from a heart attack as a reaction to blunt force trauma and multiple broken bones.
“Because they didn’t get in touch with us, we just felt like there was probably some foul play in it,” said Quantez’s mother, Kimberly Burks. “So that’s really what made us decide to get that second autopsy.”
Shrewsbury’s daughter, Miranda Smith, said she found out her father, 45, had died in the jail 19 days after he was initially charged with a DUI.
“He was telling us that the other inmates in there, there were three in particular, that they were beating him for his food to take his tray during the meal times,” Smith said.
Last April, conditions at the Southern Regional Jail were investigated by the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security. The governor’s office previously said there was no basis to allegations that inmates had been deprived.
A federal class action lawsuit was also filed against the regional jail last September from current and former inmates, citing overcrowded conditions and a lack of access to water and food.