Lawsuit Over West Virginia Jail Conditions Ends in $4M Settlement
By Nadia El-Yaouti | Posted on November 19, 2023
Photo Source: WOWK File via wvnstv.com
West Virginia has agreed to a $4 million settlement to end a class action lawsuit that accused the state of inhumane jail conditions.
The lawsuit was filed last year on behalf of current and former inmates of the Southern Regional Jail in Beaver, West Virginia. Late last week, attorney Stephen New shared the negotiated settlement amount with U.S. District Judge Frank Volk. According to New, the figure represents the most the state's insurance coverage will pay.
The lawsuit named several state officials, including former State Corrections Commissioner Betsy Jividen; then-Homeland Security Secretary Jeff Sandy, the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation Executive Officer Brad Douglas; the Assistant Corrections Commissioner William Marshall; and the former Southern Regional Jail Superintendent Mike Francis.
Marshall would go on to be appointed as commissioner, while the other defendants would go on to be fired or voluntarily resign from their positions following an internal investigation.
The lawsuit accused the state of not providing inmates with access to clean water and food at the jail facility. Additionally, the inmates say the state allowed the facility to become overcrowded, which in turn resulted in fighting among inmates, all while officials did little if anything to address inmate concerns. As a result, inmates were subjected to inhumane conditions as well as injuries that resulted from inmate fights.
The lawsuit was supplemented with pictures and videos that served as evidence of the inhumane conditions. The images showed jail cells without water, toilets that would not flush, and showers that did not work. The images also showed bathroom and shower facilities were infested with mold and provided an overall unsanitary living condition.
The complaint maintained that because plaintiffs were subjected to these inhumane living conditions, their Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, along with state law, were violated.
Under the Eighth Amendment, prisoners who have been convicted of a crime are protected from cruel and unusual punishment. The Fourteenth Amendment extends protections to pre-trial detainees.
As part of the lawsuit, the settlement funds would be split between roughly 9,200 inmates who serve time at the jail dating back to September 2022. The average inmate payout could be about $435; however, it will be proportionate to the duration of time inmates have spent at the facility.
The current West Virginia Homeland Security Secretary Mark Sorsaia shared, “In my capacity as Secretary of Homeland Security I authorized settlement of all claims in the Rose v. Jividen case. Given the judge's recommendation of default judgment looming over the case, this settlement represents the most favorable outcome for our state.”
Sorsaia recognized the inadequate action of the former state officials saying, “It's important to acknowledge that the actions of former employees within the Division of Corrections brought us to this situation,” adding, “However, I want to reassure the public that these individuals are no longer employed by the Division of Corrections.”
An internal investigation conducted by the Justice administration shed light on the mismanagement of jail conditions by state officials. As a result, former Homeland Security Chief Counsel Phil Sword was fired by Governor Jim Justice after federal Magistrate Judge Omar J. Alboulhosn referenced the “intentional” destruction of records including documents and emails.
The federal magistrate judge’s conclusion came after a hearing in October that allowed former and current correctional officers to detail that no steps were taken to preserve evidence in the jail as it related to the lawsuit.
The Justice administration has since shared that it is conducting a separate investigation to determine whether other state employees were involved in the destruction of records or the failure to produce records.