Kimberly Osborne has spent the last 68 days and 68 nights racked with agony over how her son, Ryan Scott Smith, died in his cell at Southwestern Regional Jail in December.
Over that time, she has pleaded with correctional officials, the Medical Examiner’s Office and the State Police for any scraps of information that shed light on his final moments.
They haven’t told her anything, except that the case is under investigation. So, Osborne is left trying to piece together what happened from her only clues: a photo taken by a mortician of abrasions on her son’s fist, rumors from his cellmate that he had enemies, and the last few jailhouse conversations he had with an old friend.
She doesn’t know when — or if — she’ll get a complete account of what happened in the hours before the jail’s warden called to tell her that her son was dead.
“I’m just trying to get justice for Ryan,” she said outside of her home in Seth earlier this month.
Across the state, families of those who have died in West Virginia jails have similar stories of languishing in heartache and confusion while desperately seeking answers to what happened to their loved ones behind bars. Of the 52 people who died in West Virginia’s jails and prisons last year, the state hasn’t finished the investigations into 17 of them, going back as far as March.
State officials make public statements asserting that investigations into these deaths are ongoing, but families say they are often told little, if anything.
The West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation did not respond to questions for this story asking for their policies on investigating deaths and the status of specific investigations. The State Police, who are often called into to investigate jail deaths, did not provide updates on specific cases.
The families of those who have died in jails have been met with similar responses. They make fruitless calls to agency after agency. They wait in limbo for investigations that never end, are denied records that might provide clarity and receive little to no sympathy from public officials, including Gov. Jim Justice, about their losses.
And while state lawmakers are moving to roll back a law that created an exemption to the state’s Freedom of Information Act for jail records, it won’t mandate that correctional officials provide information to the families of those who have died in jail.
“It just feels like it’s all a big cover-up,” said Miranda Smith, whose father, Alvis Shrewsbury, died in September after 19 days in Southern Regional Jail.
‘He would still be alive today’
On paper, officials still haven’t concluded how Shrewsbury died while serving 90 days on a DUI charge. But Smith has done her best to uncover the details without help from official channels.
She remembers the black eye, visible on a video call within days of Shrewsbury’s booking. He told her he was beaten by other inmates and soon complained of broken ribs.
A few days later, he was dead. Unable to get any information from authorities, Smith was forced to conduct her own investigation, using nuggets of information from friends, family members and acquaintances to piece together what happened.
Over the following weeks, Smith found out from other men jailed at Southern Regional that her father was being beaten twice a day for his tray of food and that he had been, at times, too weak to stand.
From a paramedic friend, she heard that the initial call from the jail’s nurse said that Shrewsbury’s vitals were fine but that he was suffering from rectal bleeding.
And from her brother, who works at a local hospital, she found out that Shrewsbury was admitted at about 2 a.m. and treated by doctors before dying.
But Smith still doesn’t have an answer to her most important question: Was her father’s death caused by the beatings he suffered in jail? And officials seem unsure too.
State records provided of all jail deaths list the manner of death, which typically includes categories like: homicide, overdose, suicide or natural. They also list a cause of death, such as heart disease or cancer.
In Shrewsbury’s case, his death certificate lists “acute and chronic upper gastrointestinal bleeding” as the cause of death and the manner of death as “natural.” But according to correctional records, Shrewsbury’s cause of death is unknown and the manner of death is “pending.”
Smith thinks it’s clear that her father died from his injuries.
“There is a high chance that he would be here today if they wouldn’t have been beating him,” she said.
Norma Bell can empathize. Her daughter, Kimberly Gilley, died in November a few weeks after being assaulted by inmates at Southern Regional Jail.
Bell said her daughter was attacked because other inmates believed she was smuggling drugs inside her body. But she didn’t learn that from jail officials, who didn’t call to tell her about the assault or Gilley’s subsequent hospitalization. Instead, Bell heard the news third-hand, after Gilley’s boyfriend spoke to another woman in the same section of the jail.
A few days after being hospitalized, Gilley was discharged and returned to Southern Regional Jail. Bell remembers speaking to her daughter over video chat and noticing she was visibly shaken.
“She was distraught, and she was constantly looking behind her where there was a big girl walking,” she said.
She would never hear her daughter’s voice again. Several days later, Gilley was back in the hospital and unresponsive. Bell sat at her unconscious daughter’s side, as she was guarded by two deputies.
She still finds it painful to remember the final moments of her daughter, who she described as ambitious and hardworking.
“There was nothing that she couldn’t tackle, as far as housework, doing carpentry work on her house, she could work on her car, go fishing,” she said. “Kim loved nature.”
Gilley died soon after, and her mother hasn’t received any information about what caused her death.
“Nobody has told us anything,” Bell said.
She also has yet to receive an autopsy report, which isn’t abnormal. According to Matt Izzo, chief administrator for the Medical Examiner, autopsies are typically performed within two and a half days after death, but preparing the report can take up to 240 days.
11 months, no answers
While there is pending legislation intended to make what happens in the state’s jails more transparent, it may not be forceful enough to provide many families with the information they need.
Senate Bill 495, introduced by Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, is an effort to undo a bill passed last year that armed correctional officials with a powerful exemption to the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The bill made records of almost everything that happened inside jails and prisons confidential — such as video footage, incident reports, investigations and other documents.
Trump initially amended last year’s bill so it wouldn’t prohibit disclosure under FOIA, but that amendment was stripped out by the House Judiciary Committee on the same day the Legislature unanimously passed the bill.
Trump is now attempting to undo the bill’s effect in order to make more records available, especially to family members of those who died in jail.
“In the interest of compassion, we should be willing to provide the family of the deceased with the information and records they need,” he said.
But even if the bill passes, it doesn’t mandate disclosure to families, let alone the public or the press, meaning that correctional officials could still use longstanding exemptions to shield records.
Russell Williams, one of the attorneys who has filed a class action lawsuit against Southern Regional Jail on behalf of close to 1,000 current and former inmates, said his attempts to obtain records for his clients, such as incident reports and videos, have been met with consistent denials from the agency.
Williams said he has little faith in the department producing records even when subpoenaed.
“You basically have to catch them lying or hiding something,” he said.
For the past 11 months, Kimberly Burks hasn’t had any luck getting information about the death of her son, Quantez. Burks has been clamoring for official answers since her son died after a scuffle with jail guards at Southern Regional Jail last year.
In an effort to find out more, she showed up to an event late last month in Beckley, where Gov. Jim Justice was promoting his plan to slash the state’s income tax.
“My son’s name is Quantez Burks, and he was murdered at the SRJ on February 28,” she said to Justice. “To this day, governor, I have not received a phone call from the state or the police department or anybody acknowledging that something happened to my son.”
She went on to describe how the Medical Examiner ruled Burks died of a heart attack, while a private autopsy noted that he had blunt force trauma all over his body; how Kimberly Gilley was “mauled” by inmates in November; how recently a handful of inmates were rushed from Southern Regional Jail to the hospital after fentanyl overdoses — and how it felt to lose her son.
“This is killing me,” she said. “I want answers, and I’m not going away.”
Justice responded by telling Burks he would continue investigating allegations of substandard conditions, but that previous investigations have not shown any issues.
“We went back, and we go again, and we’ll continue to go again and again and again until we can find, you know, the absolute whole truth and nothing but the truth,” he said.
But for Latasha Williams, who was engaged to Quantez Burks, Justice’s response was inadequate.
“I felt like it was inhumane. He didn’t show any sympathy or condolences, nothing,” she said. “He’s more interested in getting people to West Virginia. Why would somebody want to come to West Virginia, where you might be pulled over and die in jail?”
Williams said she still remembers the moment she was told by a magistrate judge that Burks was dead, only hours after he was admitted into jail on a charge of wanton endangerment for allegedly discharging a firearm.
She threw her phone in disbelief.
A year later, the pain is still raw.
“I want answers for my fiancé,” she said. “I want to know why I can’t call him, why he can’t call me.”
Now, rather than sleeping next to Burks, she sleeps under a blanket with his picture on it every night.