An influential West Virginia state senator said last week that he will soon introduce a bill to undo legislation he sponsored last year making most jail records in the state confidential.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R–Morgan, said in an interview he regrets creating a new exemption to the state’s Freedom of Information Act when he sponsored Senate Bill 441.
“We need to make sure that whatever we do doesn’t shrink the accessibility of information from FOIA,” Trump said.
Trump’s change in course is a reaction to reporting by Mountain State Spotlight, which revealed that the bill’s primary effect was to further cloak in secrecy what happens inside the state’s notoriously dangerous jails. The bill was passed unanimously in the House and Senate, although Trump, along with two other legislators, later said they regretted supporting it.
Trump won’t be seeking to repeal the entire law, but will instead attempt to return it to an earlier version, in which a Senate amendment ensured that it wouldn’t override the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Doing so will nullify any effect of the law.
Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, said that if Trump doesn’t introduce a bill to restore public access to jail records, he will.
Pushkin, chair of the West Virginia Democratic Party, said last month that he didn’t know that the bill would restrict the availability of jail records from adult correctional facilities when he voted for it.
While legislative attorneys clearly stated the bill was intended to make records confidential, Brad Douglas, the acting corrections commissioner at the time, told lawmakers considering the bill that it was needed to make it easier to share information with law enforcement and ensure that records didn’t end up on Facebook. When presenting the bill to the Senate, Trump described it as strictly applying to juvenile correctional records.
Andy Malinoski, a spokesman for the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, declined to comment on Trump’s potential bill.
Prior to passage of last year’s bill, the department tried to use some existing exemptions to deny public records requests about jails. But it also made public some important records, such as 250 incident reports related to fentanyl incidents. Those records, released in June 2022 before the new law took effect, chronicled widespread drug use, assaults and even an alleged rape. The new law makes such incident reports confidential.
The bulk of the records requests made to the department are connected to deaths, of which there were at least 52 in 2022. The state’s jails were found to be the most deadly in the country in a 2020 investigation by Reuters. A lawsuit has been filed on behalf of nearly 1,000 people currently and formerly incarcerated at Southern Regional Jail in response to substandard conditions at the facility, where at least 12 people died in 2022.
Many of the families of those who die in jail say that they get little to no information from jail officials, sometimes waiting for months to learn how their relative died.
“In the interest of compassion, we should be willing to provide the family of the deceased with the information and records they need,” Trump said.