– West Virginia lawmakers plan to introduce several pieces of jail reform legislation after a Reuters investigation revealed an outsize death rate in the state’s local lockups.
Reuters, examining deaths at more than 500 U.S. jails, found the death rate in West Virginia jails was the highest of any state among the facilities surveyed, and more than 50% above the national average. In all, 111 inmates died in the state’s 10 regional jails from 2009 to 2019, Reuters found.
Delegate Cody Thompson, whose district includes the Tygart Valley Regional Jail, said he will propose two bills in the upcoming February session aimed at preventing inmate deaths. The first would require jails to provide staff training to identify and respond to trauma symptoms among inmates. The second would require that jail healthcare contractors promptly provide prescription medications to the incarcerated.
Thompson, a Democrat representing Randolph and Pocahontas counties, said he was alarmed by Reuters’ findings showing more than a third of the deaths in the state’s jails were caused by a medical condition or illness, and more than a quarter by suicide.
“Nothing has been even brought up to me or the legislature about the amount of deaths we have in our jails,” said Thompson. “I’m flabbergasted at this data.”
Another state legislator said she plans to draft new legislation based on the news organization’s findings. Danielle Walker, a West Virginia Democrat, said she was unaware so many people were taking their own lives behind bars until she saw the raw numbers. “Those suicides stick out like a sore thumb,” said Walker.
She said lawmakers must also address the high number of jail deaths caused by illness. “We always think about rural West Virginia when we think about healthcare disparities, but no one has ever said anything about the jail populations,” said Walker.
Republicans control both legislative chambers, and the governor’s office, but the state has seen bipartisan support for criminal justice reform. In the last session that ended in March, for instance, lawmakers passed a bail reform measure and a series of bills aimed at lowering the incarcerated population. Several Republican state leaders did not reply to requests for comment though one, Dianna Graves, said she intends to review the data.
West Virginia consistently ranks among the poorest states in the country, a statistic that often translates into longer jail stays for impoverished inmates who can’t afford to pay bail. Of the West Virginia inmate deaths identified by Reuters, at least 68% involved people who were not convicted of the charges on which they were being held.
Criminal justice advocates said they plan to use the data to scrutinize private jail healthcare providers. Reuters found death rates in recent years were higher at facilities where healthcare was managed by one of the top private operators rather than by the local government. The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia said it filed public records requests seeking contracts of all jail medical providers.
“We wanted to find out as many details as we could,” said Joseph Cohen, executive director of the ACLU of West Virginia. “We did not realize the death rate was so high.”
Rayna Momen, a member of the West Virginia Criminal Law Reform Coalition who has researched issues of mass incarceration, plans to work with lawmakers to ensure inmates are receiving quality medical care.
“Jail should not be a death sentence,” Momen said.