Emily Rice Published

Advocates Rally At State Capitol To Demand Accountability in Jail Deaths

A group of people stand with signs and wreaths to honor their lost loved ones.
Kimberly Burks, mother of Quantez Burks speaks at Friday's rally.
Emily Rice/WVPB

Advocates with the Poor People’s Campaign have notified Gov. Jim Justice of a federal investigation filed with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to investigate a rise in reported deaths of those in custody at West Virginia jails.

There were 13 reported deaths at the Southern Regional Jail in 2022, and more than 100 deaths in the state’s regional jail system in the past decade.

On March 10, the families, and the Poor People’s Campaign, held a rally called “West Virginia Mothers and Families Deserve Answers” on the front steps of the capitol building.

Pam Garrison, one of the Chairs of the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign (WVPPC), told the media and attendants to the rally that the rising number of deaths in West Virginia jails is what made the WVPPC reach out to the national Poor People’s Campaign.

“We sent a letter to Reverend Barber in the national asking them to come and help us, help us bring these family stories to the nation to let them know what’s going on here in West Virginia, and what’s getting hidden under the rugs,” Garrison said. “You know, it’s sad that we have to be here for this. In this kind of situation, somebody has to stand up. Somebody has to speak their mind. They are in the ground, they can’t speak for themselves.”

Lacey Watson ran against Congresswoman Carol Miller in 2022 for her seat in the U.S. House of Delegates. He attended Friday’s rally because he is concerned for his cousin, who is currently in the custody of West Virginia Jails.

“With my cousin being in that situation, we need more accountability from our elected leaders, from our governor all the way down to, those heads of the criminal justice system there at the Southern Regional Jail,” Watson said. “It’s ridiculous that you know, we as family members, we as a community have to demand accountability from the elected leaders that we have.”

Two of the 13 inmates that died last year were Quantez Burks and Alvis Shrewsbury. Their families attended the rally and spoke about their loved ones.

Advocates claim in many of these cases, a person died shortly following their arrival, sometimes within 24 hours. Such was the case for Quantez Burks, according to his mother, Kimberly Burks.

“My son was in their system for less than 22 hours,” Burks said. “The very next day, we got no message, no call, no anything from the state, the police department nor the justice system saying that my son was deceased. They beat my son while he was handcuffed. The private autopsy said he died of blunt force trauma to his whole body. His heart attack was caused because of the stress that his body was put under during their beating. Not only do we need to bring attention to the injustice that is going on in the jail, but we also need to hold these departments accountable for what they’re they’ve done. That means the governor, the chief of police, and the COs, especially since they’re still employed.”

While state lawmakers are considering a proposal to increase transparency in West Virginia’s jail system, families are left in the dark, waiting months for investigations to conclude only to be left with unanswered questions.

Miranda Smith, the daughter of Alvis Shrewsbury shared her family’s story.

“On August 29, 2023, a 45-year-old healthy dad, brother son, grandfather, and grandson entered Southern Regional Jail and only survived 19 days of brutal and inhumane treatment,” Smith said. “He was beaten by fellow inmates and it was ignored and covered up by corrupt correctional officers and authority. He was neglected by the medical staff and due to this maltreatment my dad passed away in Washington Regional Hospital. People who knew and loved him will always see it as if he died in that jail.”

The final speaker was Bishop William J. Barber, President of the Repairers of the Breach and Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

“These tears that you see are not black tears or white tears. The pain is tough enough to have a loved one die. It’s tough enough to have someone die, just in life period. But to have all of these unanswered questions, to have all of these distortions, compounds the pain and we’re calling on everyone who believes in righteousness and truth, to turn those all of the investigative tools that you have.”

The rally then took to the sidewalk to march and sing as they delivered a petition to Gov. Jim Justice’s office, calling for a full federal investigation into local prisons by the Department of Justice.