CHARLESTON — Two women in recovery from substance abuse described sleeping in standing water and having a seizure with no medical intervention during a legislative interim committee meeting last Monday.
Ashley Omps and Melissa Rose both told lawmakers about the circumstances that led them to substance abuse disorder and the inhumane conditions they found themselves in when they were incarcerated in West Virginia’s regional jails.
The women testified during a meeting of the Legislative Joint Oversight Committee for the Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority at the Capitol on Monday morning.
Lawmakers in recent history largely have discussed the cost of incarcerating people in the state’s 10 regional jails, all of which have operated above capacity for more than a year.
Omps’ and Rose’s testimony provided lawmakers with a comparatively rare perspective about the conditions inmates, many of whom are experiencing mental health crises from past trauma as well as substance abuse disorder, are living in.
At the time of the women’s testimony, there were 5,202 people incarcerated in the regional jails, according to COVID-19 data the state Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation provides to the Department of Health and Human Resources.
The jails are equipped to house 4,265 people.
As of April, the state’s jails and correctional facilities remained understaffed.
At the end of March there were 887 vacancies in those facilities, more vacancies than existed in 2017 when Gov. Jim Justice declared a state of emergency over low staffing at the state’s incarceration centers.
In addition to those things, county governments increasingly can’t keep up with the cost of incarcerating people in the regional jails, despite the Legislature billing them a flat rate of $48.25 since 2018.
As of Monday, the actual cost of incarcerating one person one day in regional jail is $54.13, a decrease from $54.88 during the previous fiscal year, according to calculations by the State Budget Office.
As of March, the regional jails alone had $95 million worth of maintenance needs that had been deferred, Brad Douglas, chief of staff for the Division of Corrections, told lawmakers.
Rose described growing up in a home with her parents and three siblings in Pocahontas County. Her father worked two jobs, and she joined the U.S. Navy after she graduated from high school with honors.
She developed a drinking problem and was discharged from the Navy. Eventually she began to use drugs, and her first arrest happened when she was 20 years old.
“I had my bail set at an amount that I couldn’t afford, and I also couldn’t afford a lawyer,” Rose said. “I’d overdosed on drugs and had to be Narcaned. I woke up in the hole, or solitary confinement … I was alone and scared, and I had no idea how I got there.”
Rose said she slept on the concrete floor with no pillows, mat or blanket and was allowed one hour of time outside of the concrete room each day.
In 2020, Rose was incarcerated in Central Regional Jail in Braxton County, where she said she experienced a seizure due to drug withdrawals.
“The two girls in the cell with me, they kept pushing the call button for help,” Rose said. “The guard told them to flip me on my side and that I’d be all right. A nurse never came to see me or treat me.”
Another time, Rose said she was put into a quarantine room with three inmates who had tested positive for coronavirus, even though she had not been exposed and had no symptoms of the virus.
She also described a time the sprinklers went off in her unit, and she and other inmates had to sleep that night in two inches of standing water.
“During that time we didn’t get hygiene products regularly,” she said. “Most of us didn’t have sheets, pillows or clothes. We seldom got out of our cells to shower. I was never offered recreation. I had no clue how to file a grievance or go to the law library.”
The whole situation made Rose feel “hopeless” until she was able to get out of jail and begin work as a chef and an artist.
“These are only my experiences. I know so many others with stories that are similar, and in some cases, worse than my own,” Rose said.
Omps described difficult upbringings in Morgan County by a mother who suffered from her own mental health conditions, including bipolar disorder, manic depression and paranoid schizophrenia.
Omps’ mother was hospitalized and threatened suicide so often that Omps frequently thought she would come home from school to find her mother dead at home.
Growing up in that environment led Omps to believe it was best not to get help for mental heath issues because she knew the stigma that came with the diagnosis.
“That is why I decided that if I asked for help, I’d be hospitalized,” she said. “I promised myself to never let that happen.”
Omps began using drugs when she was 16, and her substance abuse escalated after her older brother died in a car crash in 2018 and her partner, with whom she had a daughter, died of an overdose.
She and her 2-year-old daughter discovered his body.
“I was incarcerated three days later,” she said.
She has since lost custody of her daughter, and she said she was put on a 72-hour observation period when she entered the state’s regional jail system.
“My mental state was reduced to a basic survival level, basic survival mode on an animal level,” Omps said of her stay in the “little glass room.” “I was offered no help. Because of my inability to post bail, I was in jail for three months on my first offense.”
Omps got out of jail but subsequently spent 15 months in jail in the last three years due to technical violations of her probation.
“In that time, I’ve been placed in a holding cell for 12 days with no shower or hygiene products,” she said. “I went three days with no toilet paper because they said they ran out. Because of staff shortages, we were locked down for days at a time.”
Omps’ mental health and ability to live productively began to improve after she got access to a therapist through a day report center.
“I was able to turn my pain into my purpose,” Omps said. “I’m sharing my story here today because I believe we can work together to come up with long lasting solution to the jail overcrowding and find alternatives to incarceration that can actually help people heal from trauma, recover from substance abuse disorder, and feel like part of the community again.”
In April, Justice said an investigation into reports of inhumane treatment at Southern Regional Jail were found to be false.
WVVA-TV reported earlier this year that inmates were being deprived water and toilet paper and were being made to sleep on floors without a mattress.
“These were incredibly serious allegations, so I instructed our people at DHS to get to the bottom of it as quickly as possible,” Justice said in a news release on April 28. “Our investigators talked with a bunch of people and pulled a bunch of records and, at the end of the day, they determined that the allegations were simply not true.”
Officials from the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which oversees regional jails operations, didn’t respond to Omps’ and Rose’s testimony during the meeting.
Committee Co-Chairman David Kelly, R-Tyler, said officials would have the chance to respond to the testimony during the next legislative interim meetings in July.