|Photo by Walker County Sheriff's Office, Alabama|
"Your son died in jail." Alongside the pain of taking that in, the human response is, "How? Why?" Nationwide, an unknown number of people die in jail
. Relatives of those who have died in West Virginia jails "have similar stories of languishing in heartache and confusion while desperately seeking answers to what happened to their loved ones behind bars," reports
Dan Lawton of Mountain State Spotlight
. "Of the 52 people who died in West Virginia’s jails and prisons last year, the state hasn’t finished the investigations into 17 of them, going back as far as March."
Lawton introduces Kimberly Osborne, whose son, Ryan Scott Smith, died in his cell at Southwestern Regional Jail
in December. "Over that time, she has pleaded with correctional officials, the Medical Examiner’s Office
and the State Police
for any scraps of information that shed light on his final moments. . . . They haven’t told her anything, except that the case is under investigation. . . . She doesn’t know when — or if — she’ll get a complete account of what happened in the hours before the jail’s warden called to tell her that her son was dead. Osbourne told Lawton, “I’m just trying to get justice for Ryan."
Like Osbourne, "The families of those who have died in jails have been met with similar responses. They make fruitless calls to agency after agency. They wait in limbo for investigations that never end, are denied records that might provide clarity and receive little to no sympathy from public officials, including Gov. Jim Justice, about their losses," Lawton reports. "While there is pending legislation intended to make what happens in the state’s jails more transparent, it may not be forceful enough to provide many families with the information they need."
In Alabama, the story of Anthony Mitchell echoes jailhouse cruelty and a code of silence, reports
Sarah White-Koditschek of AL.com
: "Mitchell, 33, alarmed his cousin Steve Mitchell when he showed up at his house, acting psychotic, and insisting he must enter a 'portal to hell' in his mother’s attic to retrieve the body of his long-ago stillborn brother. After a 911 call, Mitchell was picked up by sheriffs’ deputies
. . . . The Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, according to the suit, told the family they’d get him medical help in Walker County Jail
. Instead, guards tased Mitchell and locked him in a freezer, killing him, the suit alleges. The suit filed Monday also contends jail leadership began a cover up of Mitchell’s death hours before he died. . . 'This case,' the suit says, 'therefore presents an appalling question: how does a man literally freeze to death while incarcerated in a modern climate-controlled jail, in the custody and care of corrections officers?'”
It did not end there, "A former deputy also filed a separate, but related lawsuit. Former Corrections Officer Karen Kelly sued the Walker County Sheriff’s Office and multiple officers for being fired and for retaliation after she shared videos with Mitchell’s family of him being abused in the jail."
"Security footage from 4 a.m. that morning showed Mitchell lying naked on a pile of trash on the cement floor of his cell as officers laughed at him, according to the suit," Whites-Koditschek reports. "Video also showed jail nurse, Alicia Herron, enter the cell and spend a couple of minutes inside, appearing to give no medical treatment, according to the suit."
Whites-Koditschek adds, "Jon Goldfarb, attorney for Mitchell’s estate said the videos show correctional officers laughing as Mitchell lay naked and dying. Goldfarb told Whites-Koditschek, “This is the worst case of inmate abuse I have ever seen . . . . People who have seen these videos think they are watching something in Russia or Abu Ghraib . . . . but this happened in our own backyard in Walker County, Alabama."