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Judge dismisses federal lawsuit over West Virginia prison and jail conditions

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit that sought to force West Virginia to spend $330 million to improve prison and jail conditions statewide and fill worker vacancies.

U.S. District Judge Irene Berger ruled Tuesday in Beckley in favor of motions by Gov. Jim Justice and state Homeland Security Secretary Mark Sorsaia to dismiss the suit.

The lawsuit was filed in August 2023 by inmates at the maximum-security Mount Olive Correctional Complex in Fayette County and the Southwestern Regional Jail in Logan County and on behalf of a juvenile at a detention facility in Boone County.

Berger found the plaintiffs had no standing to pursue the lawsuit, ruling there was no direct connection between the conduct of Justice and Sorsaia and the allegations in the lawsuit that overcrowding was ignored and that regular funding wasn’t provided for facility upkeep.

While the plaintiffs sought the spending of state budget surplus funds to address corrections staffing and deferred maintenance of prison and jail facilities, “Secretary Sorsaia’s budget authority extends only so far” because it requires legislative approval, Berger wrote.

Berger also said she could not order the Republican governor to use his discretionary power to commute sentences and pardon inmates to address overcrowding.

In May, Justice ended a nearly two-year state of emergency over staffing in the state Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The state National Guard was used to help stop worker attrition at jails and prisons. Last summer, the vacancy rate was more than 30%. Just over 730 National Guard members worked in 17 correctional facilities while the state of emergency was in place.

Gen. William E. Crane, the state National Guard’s adjutant general, had said nearly 240 people have graduated from the state’s corrections academy since January, while 38 National Guard members assigned to work in the jails and prisons decided to stay on permanently.

Last summer, state lawmakers meeting in a special session approved over $21 million for correctional officer pay increases, along with two one-time bonuses of $2,294 for other jail staff who are not correctional officers, such as kitchen staff.

Last year, the state agreed to pay $4 million to settle a separate class-action lawsuit filed by inmates over conditions at the Southern Regional Jail in Beaver.

Associated Press