W.Va. Senate bill restores public’s ability to make FOIA requests related to state jail and prison surveillance.

Lawmakers in the Senate took steps to restore the public’s ability to make FOIA requests...
Lawmakers in the Senate took steps to restore the public’s ability to make FOIA requests related to the state’s jails and prisons surveillance on Thursday.(wvva)
Published: Feb. 9, 2023 at 7:04 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WVVA) - Lawmakers in the Senate took steps on Thursday to restore the public’s ability to make FOIA requests related to the state’s jail and prison surveillance.

The bill that passed the Senate unanimously restores the ability of the press and others to file requests for video, surveillance, and other jail records.

“This will make sure that if a Freedom of Information Act Request allows access to that information, it will still be applicable,” said Senator Charles Trump, (R) Morgan County, the bill’s sponsor.

While the measure is a step forward for public access, there are still a number of hurdles that remain for those trying to find out what is happening in the state’s jails and prisons. The old language in the code was a roadblock to WVVA News’ ability to obtain videos related to the death of an inmate, Quantez Burks, at Southern Regional Jail (SRJ) in 2022. (Twelve other inmates died at the facility that same year, a 10-fold increase since 2018. W.Va. reports a ten-fold increase in deaths at Southern Regional Jail between 2018-2022 (wvva.com))

When WVVA News filed a FOIA request to obtain surveillance related to the death of Burks on March 1st, the state rejected the request based on two separate code provisions; one related to the FOIA provision addressed by the Senate on Thursday, and another code provision (15A-4-8a) that protects the security procedures of their facilities. In the Quantez Burks case, specifically, the state argued the release of the video would jeopardize safety in their facilities by disclosing their inmate extraction methods.

The state did respond; however, to a FOIA request in the Fall of 2022 listing the primary cause of Burks’ March 1st death as ‘hypertensive cardiovascular disease.’ A second, independent autopsy report obtained by WVVA News listed other causes as well, including multiple blunt force traumas on the head, neck, and body. Burks was also listed has having broken ribs, numerous contusions and hemorrhages, and fractured wrists in the report. See past reporting on the issue here: Federal investigators looking into death at Southern Regional Jail (wvva.com)

While what happened to Burks that day may never be accessible to the public, Del. Brandon Steele, (R) Raleigh County, applauded what he called a step in the right direction by the Senate on Thursday to improve transparency.

“Democracy dies in darkness. If we can’t see what’s going on in our jails and prisons and court system, that’s when bad things happen.”

The Raleigh County lawmaker owns another media company, Lootpress, and has been critical of a separate Senate bill limiting public access to criminal complaints related to sexual assault cases. Following action on that bill, members of the media and others now have to get a court order to be able to report on potential sexual offenders in their communities.

“We have to show the public the good and the bad of what’s going on in our government. That’s vital to a Democratic government.”

The bill heads next to the House of Delegates.