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Report: State watchdog promises full inspection of troubled West Virginia jails and prisons

This story originally appeared in the Statehouse Spotlight newsletter published by Mountain State Spotlight. Get coverage of the legislative session delivered to your email inbox Monday – Thursday; sign up for the free newsletter at mountainstatespotlight.org/newsletter.

By Henry Culvyhouse, Mountain State Spotlight

After years of suspicious deaths in custody, class action lawsuits and reports of abhorrent conditions, West Virginia officials say they’re finally taking a full accounting of the state’s penal system. 

On Thursday, Mike Honaker, the Department of Homeland Security’s new inspector general and a former delegate, told lawmakers he is inspecting each of the state’s 23 prisons and jails. 

Honaker said while he’s got “five or six” projects going, jails and prisons are “our number one priority.” 

Lawmakers created the inspector general’s office last year. When Honaker was appointed in August to the position, concerns were raised that he had violated the state constitution by serving in a position created while he was in the Legislature. 

Honaker said he launched the inspections in December, after receiving a letter from the Joint Oversight Committee on Jails and Prisons, a panel of lawmakers that meets throughout the year. 

Previous inspections by high-ranking Justice administration officials were cursory at best, as previously reported by Mountain State Spotlight. During his investigation of the Southern Regional Jail, then-Homeland Security Secretary Jeff Sandy said he did not enter any cells or turn on a sink, despite being sent to investigate if inmates were having water withheld. 

Honaker noted during his inspections — which he said have been unannounced — he verifies if key infrastructure is working by speaking with the inmates directly. 

“If they tell me he has hot water, I say, ‘let’s turn on the sink,’” he said. “And I put my hand in it to make sure it’s hot.” 

In 2022, the Southern Regional Jail near Beckley came under fire after multiple deaths and accusations that guards were withholding food and water from inmates. That resulted in multiple investigations — one made public and at least two that were not — and a class action lawsuit. The lawsuit settled after a federal judge said state officials had destroyed evidence in the case. 

Honaker also noted he has full rein of the facilities, telling lawmakers he picks whoever he wants to interview, whether they be inmates or staff. Previous investigations had included only a handful of conversations with people, many of whom were handpicked by jail officials, according to documents obtained by Mountain State Spotlight.

Honaker, who reports to the Governor and the DHS Secretary, said his inspection report should be done in May and the results would be turned over to the committee by the June interim meetings. 

Del. David Kelly, R-Tyler, chair of the House Jails and Prisons Committee, said the update from Honaker was “enlightening.” 

“He brought us a lot to digest,” he said in an interview. “One of our functions here is to provide oversight and this is part of it.” 

Minority Chair Del. Hollis Lewis, D-Kanawha, said it’s a step in the right direction. 

“He’s taking a hands-on approach and it’s very interesting,” Hollis said. “But I want to see the results of this inspection before I make a judgment.”

Reach reporter Henry Culyhouse at henry@mountainstatespotlight.org.

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