Case puts a focus on jail conditions
HUNTINGTON — Cabell County defense attorney Tim Rosinsky firmly believes his client, 74-year-old Argie Lee Jeffers Sr., will die in the Western Regional Jail before he can go to trial on charges that he murdered Carrie “CJ Wood” Sowards.
“We aren’t asking for hotel accommodations; we are talking about the basic needs that the law requires the state attend to,” Rosinsky said.
Jeffers alleges he is the victim of urine and feces “bombs,” which are spread through the facility when the inmates “pop off” the sprinkler system. Due to a lack of beds, inmates must sleep on the floor, which Jeffers says he did when he first arrived at the jail in February. He also alleges he had a heart attack and has yet to be taken to a doctor.
“I understand the idea that these people are criminals and we should treat them accordingly, but my thought is the United States of America is in a unique position because it’s a measure of society how you treat those accused of breaking laws,” Rosinsky said. “And remember, Argie Jeffers Sr. is accused. He’s not convicted of anything.”
Jeffers is charged with murder and concealment of a deceased human body.
Sowards’ body was found in the Ohio River in September 2017. Jeffers was arrested after his grandson came to police alleging he was asked to discard buckets later found to contain body parts.
A hearing was set for Tuesday July 31, for Rosinsky to make the case Jeffers should be allowed out on bond or home confinement due to the conditions at the jail, but Rosinsky told The Herald-Dispatch that hearing is not likely to happen.
Instead, Rosinsky plans to file a writ of habeas corpus to release a couple hundred inmates, including Jeffers, who are awaiting trial. A writ of habeas corpus is used to bring a prisoner or other detainee before the court to determine if the person’s imprisonment or detention is lawful.
“We are going to turn it into a show on this issue,” he said.
Rosinsky said he doesn’t believe the administration and staff at the Western Regional Jail are maliciously creating an unsafe and unsanitary environment. But he says the number of inmates is double the jail’s intended maximum capacity, which combined with under-staffing is causing the system to collapse on itself. The result is a violation of the inmates’ civil rights, he maintained.
Western Regional Jail was completed in 2003. The entire regional jail system was in part in response to a U.S. Department of Justice finding that only one of the state’s county jails met federal standards. The Cabell County Jail was facing overcrowding and the aging building was in need of several upgrades.
Western Regional Jail, which serves several counties, was built to house 384 beds, and 192 bunks were later added. As of July 27, there were 816 inmates housed in the building, according to the jail.
Lawrence Messina, communications director for the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said all inmates are provided a mattress.
“Crowding at West Virginia’s regional jails remains an issue,” Messina said.
“After substantial progress arising from the 2013 implementation of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative and related measures, the opioid crisis has compounded this challenge. We believe Justice Reinvestment, the correctional consolidation legislation that became law July 1, and Gov. (Jim) Justice’s ongoing commitment to combat the opioid crisis are all part of the solution to this.”
The regional jail system has been working to address staffing issues as well. The Legislature approved salary increases for correctional workers this year, which was the highlight of job expos held at each of the regional jails earlier this summer.
The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources’ Office of Environmental Health Services within the Bureau for Public Health inspects the regional jails annually. In Western Regional’s March 6 inspection, 39 violations were observed.
The violations are cleaning, physical facility repair, repair/operation of cell sink faucets and lighting violations. For example, trash was found under a staircase, lights were dimmed because inmates had placed towels over them and the self-closing sinks did not run long enough. Hot water wasn’t functioning in some of the sinks, as well. None of the violations required the inspector to return to the jail for re-inspection.
Nothing in the report points to the unsanitary conditions alleged by Jeffers.
However, Toby Wagoner, public information officer for DHHR, said it has been reported to DHHR and to the inspectors that at times there are deliberate inmate actions that cause body fluids to be dispersed in the pods, or housing units. On these occurrences, facility staff assist in the cleanup of these incidents, he said.
Bureau of Public Health staff also have worked with the regional jail staff to ensure that the disinfectant that is being used in the pods is effective against viruses and bacteria that cause disease, including hepatitis A.
Wagoner also noted the inmates are responsible for cleaning their own pods, including the showers and common area. Cleaning supplies are provided by facility staff and inmates are provided the opportunity to clean each day.
The ACLU of West Virginia agrees the conditions described by Jeffers, if true, would be a violation of an inmate’s civil rights.
“We wouldn’t be able to speculate without more investigation if any particular complaint is a violation of civil rights. However, once people are in the custody of the state, the state does have a duty to provide them with a safe, clean environment, to ensure that their health and nutrition needs are met, and to provide access to legal counsel,” said ACLU-WV Policy Director Eli Baumwell. “Failure to meet these basic requirements is a violation of civil rights. Moreover, given what we know about the conditions of the jails, specifically prison overcrowding and under-staffing, it would not come as a surprise at all if civil rights are routinely being violated.”
Sanitation is not the only issue at the jail, however, according to Rosinsky. Attorneys are struggling to meet with their clients, forced to wait sometimes for hours at the jail.
“You have to get to know the jail schedule as an attorney,” Rosinsky said. “Nights were a good time to go. Weekends. But what we are running into is we aren’t being brought back in a timely fashion. We are waiting inordinate time to go back. The window seems to be narrowing on when we can see them.”
Some defense attorneys complained to the Cabell County Circuit Court judges about the issue, and Judge Paul Farrell met with jail administrators to address it. Farrell told the defense attorneys in a memo that a retired judge had been assigned to look into the issue, but in the meantime Rosinsky has waited for over an hour and a half to meet a client. He said this is an issue not exclusive to the Western Regional Jail.
Rosinsky said he believes the only solution is to build more jails, but in the meantime, letting people awaiting trial to be on home confinement is the best way to address the issues from overcrowding. The ACLU also said it is working to address jail overcrowding by advocating for bail reform, which would make sure that people who have not been convicted of any crime are not held in jail for extended periods of time just waiting for a trial.
Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.