On the final day of the 2022 legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill that cloaked West Virginia jails and prisons in secrecy by making most records confidential. This year, on the final day of the legislative session, they finished work on a bill to make those records accessible again.
The change in course was sparked by reporting from Mountain State Spotlight that showed the 2022 legislation armed corrections officials with a powerful new exemption to the Freedom of Information Act, allowing them to no longer disclose incident reports, completed investigations, videos, or almost any other record to the media, attorneys or the family members of those who were injured or died in jail.
In response, Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, who sponsored both bills, committed to fixing what he described as an oversight. Trump shepherded this year’s bill, which was passed unanimously through both chambers, to passage.
“I hope it achieves some balance between correctional and juvenile facilities being able to conduct investigations and the families of people who are injured or killed in state custody getting information,” Trump said.
Last year’s bill, SB 441, was requested by the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Brad Douglas, then the division’s chief of staff, told lawmakers the bill’s purpose was to make it easier for the division to share information with law enforcement and ensure records didn’t end up on Facebook.
But the bill did far more than that. According to the legislative attorney presenting it to the Senate Judiciary Committee, it was primarily intended to restrict the release of correctional records. Despite some efforts on the Senate floor to preserve people’s ability to access information through records requests, ultimately both the House and Senate approved an amended version of the bill that gave corrections officials a sweeping exemption to the law.
According to Don Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Press Association, the initial bill’s passage had an “incredibly chilling effect,” preventing the media from providing transparency about the state’s jails and also upsetting family members whose loved ones had died in state jails. He said the legislation is a big win for transparency and will benefit journalists and family members who are trying to get information about what happens in the jail system.
In December, Mountain State Spotlight wrote about how corrections officials had used the new law to deny Lisa Spradlin, a former correctional officer, records about an incident between her incarcerated son and an officer at the jail. Spradlin believed the officer assaulted her son.
Spradlin expressed gratitude toward Trump for revisiting the issue and said she intends to re-submit her public records requests.
“This was an effort to try to control what we are allowed to know,” Spradlin said about the initial bill. “It’s really the attitudes of the people in power that need to change. They need to accept the fact that people are supposed to be in control of the government, not the other way around.”
Meanwhile, there are still lots of ways the division can deny records, such as claiming the records jeopardize a law enforcement investigation or violate a person’s privacy. A total of 52 people died in West Virginia’s jails and prisons last year, according to the division. And the state’s jails and prisons continue to be plagued with overcrowding issues and high vacancies among correctional officials. The division is also currently facing numerous lawsuits, including one filed on behalf of nearly 1,000 people currently and formerly incarcerated related to fatalities and poor conditions at Southern Regional Jail in Beaver.
Legislation that would have provided a $10,000 raise over two years to correctional officers failed to pass the House last month and the state is currently relying on the West Virginia National Guard to fill staffing holes. Gov. Jim Justice has said he is considering calling a special session to address the staffing crisis at the state’s jails.
But any change will be too late for people like Kimberly Burks, whose son Quantez died a year ago at Southern Regional Jail. Last week, on the day before this year’s bill was finally approved, she and other protesters converged at the Capitol, where they demanded that Justice request a federal investigation into deaths at the facility.
Correctional officials have never released any investigatory findings in Quantez Burks’ death. The official cause of death was a heart attack, but Burks said an independent autopsy showed her son had suffered blunt force trauma throughout his body.
A spokesperson for the division didn’t respond to a request for comment.