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Homeland Security official conducting unannounced inspections of W.Va. jails

As concern about conditions in West Virginia’s jails has festered, the state’s new inspector general for Homeland Security has started unannounced visits to facilities, spending long days that include talks with workers and inmates that he has pulled aside.

“I personally am going to every prison and every jail in the state of West Virginia to conduct a comprehensive inspection,” Mike Honaker, the inspector general for Homeland Security told members of the House Jails and Prisons Committee.

His inspections were prompted by a letter from the committee’s leaders, asking for the comprehensive look at conditions in facilities.

“In view of recent allegations involving correctional officers in southern West Virginia and the ongoing State of Emergency declared by Governor Justice due to extreme staffing shortages throughout our jail and prison systems, I am hereby requesting an independent investigation,” wrote Delegate David Kelly, chairman of the House Jails committee.

Kelly’s letter, sent in November, asked for assessment of current conditions in aging facilities, current inmate population in each jail and prison compared to the stated maximum, current staffing compared to minimum requirements, current maintenance needs, a look at the grievance process, use of excessive force and the sufficiency of the current document management system.

The letter also requested “conditions of confinement in the jails and prisons of the state and whether they are operating in a manner which is consistent with state and federal mandates, the purposes of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and the legislative intent in the creation of the division.”

Kelly said he is glad the examination is underway.

“I’m satisfied with the progress he’s making so far,” Kelly said after hearing Honaker’s first impressions last week. “I look forward to the completed report.”

The Legislature created the inspector general position last year, and Honaker was named to it in August. Kelly said the approach Honaker, a former Marine and longtime state trooper, has taken by not announcing his arrival at facilities and then choosing who he will talk to.

“That tells me that he’s the one leading the charge. He’s the one going in there and saying ‘I want to do this, this and this,’” Kelly said.

Conditions in West Virginia’s jails have been subject to widespread concern and scrutiny.

Overcrowding – and conditions that result from it – is a through line in a class action lawsuit about conditions in West Virginia’s jails.

One hundred deaths have been reported in the state’s jails over the past decade. In the last five years, at least 25 people have died at the Southern Regional Jail.

Six former West Virginia corrections officers have been indicted in the beating death of Quantez Burks, a pretrial defendant at Southern Regional Jail, in a “blind spot” not monitored by a surveillance system after he was restrained, handcuffed and in the custody of multiple officers.

Five of the officers are accused of playing direct roles in his death, depriving Burks of his civil rights, while another is accused of taking part in a coverup.

The six corrections officers join two others who already pleaded guilty to depriving Burks of his rights. So a total of eight corrections officers have now been implicated the actions surrounding his beating death at the jail.

Honaker, speaking last week before delegates, said he wants to form his own impressions of what is happening in the jails.

“The superintendents do not know when I will appear at their facility. I do not tell them,” Honaker said. “It’s not a simple, quick visit. The last facility I visited, I was in for seven hours until the time I left.”

He visits the kitchen at lunchtime and examines the available lunch offerings, he talks with medical staff and checks out their equipment, he talks into cells and turns on hot water to make sure it flows at proper temperatures, and he checks to see if toilets flush.

“I always interview at least two inmates and sometimes three,” he said. “And I always interview two and sometimes three employees if possible.

“I select the inmates that I interview. I do not allow the facility to simply say ‘Can you provide an inmate?’ One of the facilities I went to, I think surprised the superintendent – I said, ‘I would like to interview maybe someone you perceive as the most dangerous, difficult inmates in the facility. And that was interesting. But it went very well.”

Once he is talking with people in jail, the discussion may include daily routines, access to medical personnel, the grievance process, proposals for change at the facility, how staff treat jailed people, gang or jail culture that could intimidate and preparation for life after incarceration.

Honaker said his efforts began in December and will likely extend well into the spring. He’ll then compile a report and submit it to the Governor’s Office.

“It seems like so far, the superintendents are absolutely very proud to welcome me into their facility, going into facilities that are extremely clean, well-maintained,” Honaker said. “I have not experienced the first iota of uncooperation or resistance. Everything’s open. I say ‘I want to go to the kitchen,’ and they say OK.”