Kyle Steven Robinson, who died in Southern Regional Jail last year. He was held in jail without bail on a charge for missing court.

When Kyle Steven Robinson died last year in Southern Regional Jail, the West Virginia Department of Corrections didn’t offer many details besides his name, time of death, and that foul play wasn’t suspected.

The agency didn’t say the reason he was there in the first place: charges of littering and a missed court date. Or that he had languished in jail for 81 days without a chance to post bail. Or that he died of a drug overdose, according to his mother.

Robinson’s death wasn’t an isolated incident. Over the past year, West Virginians have seen headline after headline about deaths in Southern and the state’s other regional jails. Since Robinson’s death in September 2021, five more men have died in the same facility. The correctional system is one of the nation’s most deadly, with inmates dying at rates far above the norm. And the challenges that marked Robinson’s life and death are common for many poor West Virginians, including those who are dying in our state’s jails. 

Robinson grew up in Beckley and lived there most of his life. His mother remembers him as loving hunting, NASCAR, and pit bulls. But Robinson also used legal painkillers and then moved on to street drugs. Before he died at 55, he had been in and out of jail and homeless. 

Annell Payne, Kyle Steven Robinson’s mother, reviews the documents related to her son’s case in her Beckley apartment. Photo by Dan Lawton.

Through it all, it was Robinson’s mother Annell Payne, 82 years old and on oxygen, who fired off desperate missives to judges, forked over money for jail care packages and still fights for her son. 

On a recent afternoon, she sat in her fifth-floor apartment in Beckley and recalled the highs and lows of Robinson’s life.

“I’m going to be honest, he wasn’t an angel,” Payne said. But she also remembered: “He helped me every time I needed it.”

And Payne still bristles with anger when she describes the characters and peculiarities of a criminal justice system she alleges was an accomplice in her son’s sudden death.

Debunking a ‘myth’ about why people miss court

Something happened on April 1, 2021, that led Robinson to miss court. He might have just forgotten, or maybe he didn’t have a ride or money for bus fare. He might not have received a notice from his lawyer, since he rarely had a permanent mailing address. Perhaps he was using drugs, or maybe he woke up in the tiny, unheated shed where he often slept — and one night almost froze to death — and felt so depressed that he decided not to go.

It wasn’t the first time he had missed a court date, though. That fall, he failed to show up on two occasions, both related to allegations that he had used a man’s credit card to withdraw $700 at two local banks. Each time, he was arrested and soon released on bail. 

His mom said Robinson missed the first two dates because of confusion around the pandemic.

“We thought they were only doing murders,” she said.

But it was the third missed court date that would ultimately lead to Robinson going to jail for the final time.

In 46 states, including West Virginia, failing to appear in court is a crime. A warrant is issued, called a “capias,” which is Latin for “you shall seize.” The penalty in West Virginia for failing to appear is up to five  years in jail, but rarely are defendants prosecuted. More often, they spend additional time awaiting trial.

It’s a capias — not selling drugs, shooting people, stealing, setting things on fire, breaking into houses, beating people up, or any other form of mayhem —  that was the most common charge for inmates in West Virginia jails during the last fiscal year. More than 4,700 of the 38,490 jail admissions during that time period had a capias charge, according to a report by the Department of Corrections. This likely includes missed court appearances, as well as bail violations. 

“There’s a myth that people fail to appear because they’ve skipped town,” said Sara Whitaker, who spent nine years as a public defender in Kanawha County and now works as an analyst for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. “The truth is that people miss court for the same reason they miss a doctor’s appointment. In fact, studies show that people miss medical appointments at roughly the same rate as court hearings.”

Whitaker said there are many solutions to decrease the number of people in jail for missing court. Text message reminders, online portals to view upcoming court dates or grace periods all could save taxpayers the $54 daily tab the state says it costs to keep someone in jail.

Another solution she suggested — mandating judges set bail within three days of a capias arrest — might have made the difference for Robinson, who never had a bail set.

“Mr. Robinson’s case is a grotesque reminder that the liberty of the poorest West Virginians comes cheap,” Whitaker said.

A kind man with a difficult path

Robinson’s life was hard. Like about half of people incarcerated in West Virginia, Robinson didn’t graduate from high school, but did eventually receive his GED. 

Annell Payne remembers her son, whom she calls by his middle name Steven but was known to some as Kyle, as kind, generous and loving.

She said he would rescue mistreated dogs and recalled how Robinson once snatched a white pit bull puppy from a drunk man who had thrown the animal against the wall.

“The guy said, ‘hey, that’s my dog,’ and Steven said, ‘now, he’s not.’ He didn’t like people who mistreated animals. He didn’t have any use for it.”

Robinson worked in the construction industry, until back and neck injuries and a lung condition made it difficult for him to hold a job.

“He was just in so much pain,” Payne said.

She said her son started taking pain medications for relief, prescribed at one of the clinics in the area. But eventually he turned to street drugs like heroin and fentanyl. Soon his only income was a disability check — and he began to pile up arrests for drug offenses and charges like petty theft. A court document from 2020 shows that he had nine previous incarcerations.

While most of those charges were minor and resulted in fines, probation or short sentences, Robinson was arrested in 2020 on felony device fraud charges for the incident with the credit card withdrawals.

While out on bail, Robinson began living in a tiny tool shed next to his mother’s mobile home. The shed had no power, plumbing or heat, but it was the only shelter he could find.

During that time, neighbors began complaining about trash on Payne’s property. Court documents describe an open dump “that contained household garbage, tires, old luggage, buckets and more.” A litter control officer came out twice over five months and told Robinson to clean up the trash and stop living in the shed.

Payne said it was her property and the trash was her responsibility. But at her age and with Robinson’s disabilities, they couldn’t clear the refuse.

Nevertheless, a magistrate judge issued an arrest warrant for Robinson on March 25, 2021, on charges of unlawful disposal of litter, open dumps and proof of disposal.

Three months later, on June 15, Robinson was arrested by Beckley Police on littering charges and for missing the April court date.

Another magistrate judge, Tomi Peck, set a bail of $2,500 on the misdemeanor littering charges. In an interview, Peck said she chose that bail because it was 10% of the maximum penalty of $25,000. 

Kyle Steven Robinson’s arrest photo.

Annell Payne was ready to pay it — but she couldn’t. The capias meant that Robinson had a “hold” and couldn’t get out of jail.

His booking picture shows a pair of crutches leaning against the wall. Payne said Robinson had broken his femur weeks early and was in agonizing pain.

Jail conditions prompt lawsuit, federal investigation

What was it like for Robinson in Southern Regional Jail? 

Russell Williams, a plaintiff’s attorney suing the Department of Corrections over poor conditions, said he has a pretty good idea.

“You’d be better off in an animal shelter,” he said.

The jail is packed far beyond capacity. It is intended to hold a maximum of 468 inmates but had an average jail population of 717 in 2021, according to reports from the department.

Media reports published this year alleged that inmates at Southern Regional were being deprived of water and drinking from toilets. Governor Jim Justice commissioned an investigation in April that found those allegations false, but they’ve led to a class action lawsuit.

A person sleeps on the floor of Southern Regional Jail, in a photo included as part of a class action lawsuit against the West Virginia Department of Corrections.

In an affidavit filed as part of that lawsuit, a former correctional guard alleged that sometimes up to 16 inmates would be forced to sleep on the floor. The lawsuit also alleges that two-person cells often house three or four people, and includes images of leaking toilets, broken sinks and an inmate sleeping on the floor. Some pictures are even more graphic, including blood splattered across a mattress, the floor and a toilet.

Payne said that guards confiscated Robinson’s crutches because they were deemed a weapon. He told his mother that he had to hobble on one leg and occasionally crawl, a grueling task in the chaotic facility.

Affidavits from deputies in the lawsuit also describe sexual and physical assaults. Just last week, the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security confirmed federal investigators are also probing conditions at the jail — a fact that only came to light because reporters at the Beckley Register-Herald were denied a tour of the facility.

Blood in a cell at the Southern Regional Jail, in a photo included as part of a class action lawsuit against the facility.

State officials haven’t yet responded to the allegations in the lawsuit, but the deadly nature of West Virginia’s prisons and jails has been widely documented. An investigation by Reuters found that West Virginia had the highest per capita death rate of the 45 states examined, with at least 115 people dying between 2009 and 2019.

According to the West Virginia chapter of the ACLU, an inmate is about twice as likely to die in West Virginia than in Kentucky.

The West Virginia Department of Corrections denied a public records request for records related to Robinson’s death and didn’t respond to a series of questions about it. So while it’s unclear exactly how Robinson got his hands on fentanyl, drug overdoses in the state’s jails are not uncommon. At least 18 occurred between 2009 and 2019, according to the Reuter’s investigation.

Earlier this month, authorities in Barboursville intercepted a trove of narcotics — including 123 individually wrapped suboxone strips — just before they reached the doors of Western Regional Jail.

A mother adjusts to a life without her son

On the day he died, Robinson’s mother received an anonymous call from a woman who said her son had been sick and not allowed to see the doctor.

About a week later, the woman called back and told her Robinson was yelling for help the night he died.

“Nobody heard him hollering for help?” Payne said, when talking about the call. “What were they doing, sleeping?”

She said she’s received no additional information from the prison about her son’s death, including whether or not he received the overdose-treatment drug naloxone, which she thinks could have saved his life.

Payne said she and her son planned to leave West Virginia after he cleared his legal problems and join Robinson’s ex-wife and daughter in Nevada.

“We both wanted to go out there and see if we could find a place to live,” she said.

She’s now trying to adjust to life without her son. Payne said that she wanted to bury Robinson in a plot with his grandfather and other family members but it was too expensive.

Instead, she had him cremated. His ashes sit in an urn in her bedroom closet, and for now, she has no plans to move them anywhere else.

Dan Lawton is the economic justice reporter for Mountain State Spotlight. He previously worked as a reporter in Northern California and New Orleans, covering criminal justice, government and high-profile...