Lawsuits: WRJ isn’t safe for inmates

September 29, 2018

HUNTINGTON — A Huntington attorney has filed two lawsuits against authorities at Western Regional Jail in Barboursville alleging that the combination of understaffing and overcrowding is affecting inmates’ safety.

The lawsuits were filed after an alleged September 2016 stabbing in the booking area of the jail. The incident allegedly occurred after jail personnel conducted strip and cavity searches and intake interviews.

Attorney Kerry Nessel filed the complaints on behalf of Jason Cunningham and Travis Collias in Cabell County Circuit Court in August against administrator Larry Crawford, Capt. Carl Aldridge, several “John Doe” officers, the Western Regional Jail and Correctional Facility authorities.

The lawsuits claim there are occasions when officers order inmates to harm others, administer physical punishment in excess of what the situation requires and continually fail to properly search inmates, most of which could be directly connected to issues of understaffing and inmate overcrowding.

Nessel alleges those in control of WRJ fail to investigate, discipline and report these types of situations.

“There exists at WRJ a pattern of disregarding the safety of inmates including, but not limited to, failing to protect inmates from other inmates resulting in serious bodily injuries, inmates not being

properly searched during the booking process, inmates committing suicide and other instances of neglect in improperly supervising inmates,” he wrote.

The jail’s failure to properly staff, hire, train, retain and supervise its correctional officers leads to an unsafe confinement facility, the lawsuits allege, and subjects the inmates to cruel and unusual punishment.

Over the summer, the inmate population at WRJ was averaging 825 to 850 inmates for a facility designed for about 575.

The lawsuits were filed after Huntington attorney Tim Rosinsky told The Herald-Dispatch he plans to file a writ of habeas corpus to release hundreds of inmates awaiting trial due to what he said are unsafe and unsanitary conditions at the jail created by overcrowding and overstaffing.

Jail Superintendent Kim Wolfe was terminated from his position after authorities said they wanted a “change of direction.” Wolfe agreed overcrowding and overstaffing were issues at the jail and needed to be corrected.

Both men said they do not believe administration and staff had been maliciously creating an unsafe environment.

In an email Thursday afternoon, Lawrence Messina, director of communications for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, which oversees the Division of Corrections, declined to comment because the litigation remains pending.

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.

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