Built on a mountaintop in West Virginia, the Southern Regional Jail was one of the deadliest jails in the U.S. last year on a per capita basis. In 2022, 13 inmates died at the facility, which regularly held about 700 men and women. By comparison, 19 detainees died last year in New York's Rikers Island jail complex, with a population of nearly 6,000, reports the Wall Street Journal. West Virginia’s correctional system, dealing with a staffing crisis, overcrowding and the long-term failure to maintain buildings, faces litigation and investigations. A Justice Department probe into one death at the Southern Regional Jail comes amid state investigations into other deaths there and a civil lawsuit about conditions at the jail brought on behalf of more than 1,000 current and former inmates. State lawmakers have questioned whether the governor misappropriated funds that could have been used to address some problems, while some former officers and inmates allege that officials tried to cover up conditions at the Southern Regional Jail.
The high rate of violence in the jail occurred in an environment where inmates were crowded together, toilets often didn’t function, many locks on cell doors didn’t work and overworked officers were spread too thin, former officers and inmates say. Accounts of conditions there are based on interviews with former corrections officers and photos and videos taken inside the jail, including some that are part of the lawsuit brought by inmates against corrections officials. “We have to get a hold on what’s going on at Southern Regional Jail,” said Ben Hatfield, the prosecuting attorney in Raleigh County, where the jail is located. “If you ask me what’s wrong, it’s not a single thing but a thousand little things.” This month, Hatfield charged two inmates with the murder in October of a 79-year-old man who was in jail for failing to make a court appearance after being charged with domestic battery.