West Virginia lawmakers passed a law to keep jail records hidden from public view. Some now say they regret it.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by Mountain State Spotlight. Get stories like this delivered to your email inbox once a week; sign up for the free newsletter at https://mountainstatespotlight.org/newsletter

By Dan Lawton, Mountain State Spotlight

Lisa Spradlin was frantic.

Her son Blake was entering his fifth month locked up at North Central Regional Jail in Greenwood on a burglary charge. Spradlin, a former West Virginia jail guard, knew that correctional facilities can be violent places. And she had just gotten word that her son had shown up for his trial with abrasions on his face.

“He said that a captain had already slammed him into a wall, busting his face and that she had told him she was going to come back later that night and beat his ass,” Spradlin said.

Spradlin called jail administrators to find out what was happening but got no answers. So she filed a request with the Division of Corrections for any reports, videos or memos about the alleged incident. But a month later, officials rejected her request. They did so armed with a sweeping new law, passed unanimously earlier this year, that blankets in secrecy most records – everything from videos to incident reports – about West Virginia’s notoriously deadly jails.

“I just felt disappointment, dread and heartbreak,” Spradlin said. “Something like this destroys our democracy. It’s like putting on a layer of paint, but eventually it’s going to wash off.”

Even legislative leaders who supported the legislation either didn’t understand or obfuscated the bill’s effect, a Mountain State Spotlight investigation has found. Now, several of those lawmakers are promising to revisit the matter when the Legislature starts its 2023 session in a few weeks.

“I probably shouldn’t say this to a reporter, but I will admit to having been embarrassed on more than one occasion by mistakes that have my fingerprints on them, things that go through the legislative process that in a subsequent year or session we have to fix,” said Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan and the bill’s lone sponsor.

‘Serious implications for transparency’

Last January when SB 441 was introduced in the Senate Judiciary Committee, the bill’s intention was clear.

“The purpose of the bill is to deal with certain records within correctional facilities and juvenile facilities, and to deem them statutorily confidential and restrict their release and publication,” legislative attorney Tom Smith told lawmakers.

The bill was requested by the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Trump said. But over the next eight weeks, as the bill made its way through the Senate and to the House and finally back to the Senate, both the bill’s description and its real-world effects changed dramatically. 

On Jan. 25 in the initial Senate committee meeting, Brad Douglas, the division’s chief of staff, said the bill was needed to make it easier to share information with law enforcement and ensure that records didn’t end up on Facebook. He didn’t respond to numerous requests for comment.

But by March 12, the final day of the legislative session, the bill was back on the Senate floor and being framed by Trump as only affecting the confidentiality of juveniles in the state’s correction system. Not only was that not true, but a change to the measure by House Judiciary Chairman Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, would shield many previously-disclosable documents from public scrutiny.

House spokeswoman Ann Ali said in an email that Capito made the change to accomplish the Division of Corrections’ original intent for the bill. 

“What we passed provided reasonable parameters for disclosure and release, such as allowing a licensed attorney representing a person with a potential claim to view video and reports,” Capito said in a statement. He declined an interview request.

Everyone in attendance — 90 delegates, Democrats and Republicans — voted in favor of the bill. Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, initially insisted that the bill did not apply to adult correctional facilities. Pushkin, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, later admitted he did not understand the bill when he voted for it.

“The way that the bill was described and represented, in my opinion, is really different than how it was interpreted and enforced,” he said. “I think it has serious implications for transparency.”

When the bill came back to the Senate, it also passed unanimously. Both Trump and Sen. Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha, said they weren’t aware of how Capito had changed the bill. 

Lindsay had previously urged an amendment to preserve the public’s right to obtain records. He said he believed he asked a staffer if the bill had changed, but wasn’t certain amid the chaos of the final day of the session.

“There were well over a hundred bills that needed to be considered and passed and it’s frenzied,” he said. “It was an oversight but that’s no excuse.”

Lindsay lost his reelection bid so won’t be returning to the Capitol in January. But Pushkin, Trump and Capito all said they were willing to revisit the law.

“If it is determined that the letter of the law now unintentionally hampers the pursuit of justice as it pertains to incident or investigation reports, we of course will revisit the code and revise the law, as we frequently do when we become aware of such issues,” Capito said in his statement.

“If the enactment of this bill is interfering with people getting information that will impede efforts to make our jails better or safer, I’m willing to re-examine it,” Trump said. 

Deadly jails, little discussion

The total amount of time legislators spent publicly discussing SB 441 in the House, Senate, and their respective judiciary committees was under an hour. No one raised any concerns about the condition of the state’s jails during that process.

As they discussed giving the Division of Corrections more tools to keep information about jail conditions from the public, there was no mention of the 2021 report released by the ACLU of West Virginia, which concluded that “West Virginia is undoubtedly failing its constitution and moral duty to protect people in custody.” The report cited data from Reuters showing that the death rate in the state’s jails is the worst in the country and twice the national average.

They didn’t ask about Quantez Burks, who died in Southern Regional Jail after a scuffle with jail guards about a week before the bill’s final passage. His death led to a federal investigation at the jail.

No legislators inquired about the staffing shortages among jail guards, which were so dramatic that in the following months, Gov. Jim Justice would activate the National Guard to help fill in. There were also no questions about jail overcrowding, overdoses, suicides, sexual assaults, contraband, pending lawsuits or the condition of facilities.

And while these issues may not have been on lawmakers’ minds, Lisa Spradlin thinks about them all the time. She’s worried that her son won’t make it out of the jail system alive. 

She’s already lost a child inside.

Her younger son, Tristen, was stabbed to death in the shower of a Georgia prison in May, two days before he was scheduled to get out on a work release program.

On a frigid morning last week, Spradlin sobbed while watching Tristen’s video memorial. Next to her on the couch sat her German Shepherd, Arbor. Nearby was an iron replica of the scales of justice.

After Tristen died, Spradlin tattooed her wrist with a bird cage and the words: “I know why the cage bird sings” from the poet Maya Angelou. She only has one thing left from her dead son. It’s the rubber band he had around his wrist when he was murdered.

Spradlin said she has no plan to stop advocating for Blake, who was recently transferred from Western to a maximum security prison in Mount Olive. She’ll file more record requests, make phone calls, write letters, whatever it takes to ensure he stays alive. 

“If they are going to kill him, they are going to have to do it with the lights on,” she said.

Reach reporter Dan Lawton at danlawton@mountainstatespotlight.org

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