by Ellie Heffernan, writing for the “When All Are Counted” Project

Zachariah Garrison’s brother has spent the past few months incarcerated at Northern Regional Jail. It’s located on the outskirts of Moundsville, a short distance from Garrison’s home in the town of nearly 8,000. But despite this proximity, Garrison said communicating with his brother has been nearly impossible. 

Garrison’s brother has tinnitus and 50% hearing loss in both ears. When Garrison tried to bring him his hearing aids after his court date, jail staff said he could not. Garrison’s brother would have to go to the medical department and fill out a form requesting new hearing aids from the state. He did this repeatedly, but, to this day, he has not received a new pair.

 Instead, Garrison said their brother has navigated jail, unable to hear calls for lunch – sometimes resulting in other incarcerated people stealing his food. 

“They don’t have phones you talk through, and they don’t have holes in the glass. So, he can’t hear us when we’re there to visit him,” Garrison said. “He has to sit on the table, and he tries to put his ear to the glass, while we scream at him.”

Garrison’s story is just one example of West Virginia’s jails and prisons failing to meet the needs of incarcerated people with disabilities. 

Nationwide, people with disabilities are more likely to end up in jail and prison, and being incarcerated can worsen their conditions. This is particularly true in West Virginia’s notoriously deadly jails and prisons

In a state with the nation’s highest percentage of residents with a disability – this presents a growing public health problem. Experts and activists are responding, in part, by working to divert people with disabilities from state correctional facilities. And achieving that goal starts by collecting better data. 

A key law, amid data flaws & difficulty obtaining records

Earlier this year, state lawmakers created an important multidisciplinary study group with the passage of Senate Bill 232. Tasked with making recommendations for diverting people with disabilities from prisons, jails, and court-ordered placement in state psychiatric hospitals, they’ve already started working. 

“The core issue is that we have individuals with disabilities who, because of their disability, are becoming ensnared in the criminal justice system. And they don’t need to be there. Where they need to be is in community-based treatment,” said Mike Folio, legal director at Disability Rights of West Virginia and a member of the study group.

As an early step, the study group is working to obtain more detailed data on people with disabilities in state correctional facilities. Right now, there is no publicly available data about this topic. I emailed the state’s Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation, asking whether this data existed, but the agency never responded.  

Sara Whitaker, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy’s criminal legal policy analyst, told me DCR denied her request for related data. In May 2023, Whitaker filed a Freedom of Information Act request for aggregated data on medical care given in DCR facilities. She knew these records existed – because DCR was required to compile them according to the terms of its settlement agreement with plaintiffs represented by Mountain State Justice. 

The agency told Whitaker, if such records existed, they would contain personal information, and disclosing them would constitute an unreasonable invasion of privacy. But government entities are allowed to redact portions of records and release the parts that aren’t exempt from disclosure. (Just last month, I received 3,690 pages of records from a federal agency that spent roughly a year redacting everything that was exempt!) 

Whitaker said the agency has also changed how it responds to her FOIA requests, no longer replying via email – only snail mail. And some of the documents DCR mailed to her were bounced back to them. 

“It meant that we had to wait longer to get responses. And my sense is that’s probably what’s intended here. They’re simply trying to slow down the flow of information as more and more attention has been paid to the conditions inside of these facilities,” Whitaker said. 

Folio has obtained some basic DCR data about incarcerated people with disabilities, which he described as “grossly deficient across the board.” 

The data makes no distinction between mental illnesses and developmental disabilities, offers little insight into the severity of diagnosed disabilities, and only provides very general summary information. For example, it provides a combined tally of incarcerated people with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities, but it can’t tell you how many have Autism, Schizophrenia, or substance use disorders

“It’s impossible to have benchmarks or metrics to measure success if you don’t know who you’re treating,” Folio said. “If we had data, we could track, trend, and forecast where the deficiencies are, where they may be, and then develop corrective policies to prevent them.”

Incarcerated people say their needs are consistently ignored 

Better data could help make sense of the sobering stories coming from incarcerated people with disabilities. Why are people denied access to medical devices and proper care while incarcerated? How much money must be invested to change things? 

Just recently, Disability Rights WV intervened to help different incarcerated people get a CPAP machine for sleep apnea, a properly functioning wheelchair, a hearing aid, and American Sign Language translation services, Folio said. 

During an August protest at Eastern Regional Jail and Correctional Facility in Martinsburg, Ashley Omps, who was formerly incarcerated there, told me about delayed care for a woman having a seizure. 

Omps, who has since passed away, described desperately trying to draw staff’s attention to the issue by repeatedly hitting the emergency call button and kicking at the door. The correctional officer for their area was out delivering food trays elsewhere in the jail, unable to hear the alarm going off. 

Omps also said she saw an elderly disabled woman get singled out by younger girls, as they physically fought over a handful of tampons and pads thrown down by staff.

“She had bladder problems. And the girls would be like ‘You’re old. You don’t have a period. You don’t need them.’ And she probably needed them more so than they did. It’s humiliating,” Omps said. 

During a recent phone interview, Pam Garrison, tri-chair of the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign, said incarcerated people and their loved ones tell her they aren’t being given key medications, like insulin or blood thinners. 

Pam Garrison’s work with the Poor People’s Campaign has put her finger on the pulse of this issue. The group has organized numerous public protests and successfully pressed Gov. Jim Justice to call a special legislative session, heavily focused on addressing problems in state correctional facilities. 

During the August 2023 special session, state lawmakers enacted legislation providing funding for increased correctional officer pay and deferred maintenance. They also allowed the state Supreme Court of Appeals to design pretrial release programs throughout the state to reduce overcrowding in regional jails. 

But Pam Garrison wasn’t happy with the outcome of the special session because of the passage of Senate Bill 1009. The law allows state Corrections and Rehabilitation Commissioner Billy Marshall to determine whether care is “medically necessary” for incarcerated people, regardless of what licensed healthcare professionals say. 

Although Folio said he hasn’t monitored the implementation of the law, it could potentially impact incarcerated people with disabilities. 

“The fact that there would even be language to give the discretion to non-clinicians to decide clinical issues is kind of ridiculous,” Folio said. 

Ellie Heffernan a freelance writer drawn to investigating powerful people and the communities they often harm. Her work in newsrooms has taken her from Maryland to North Carolina to West Virginia, covering topics like city and state government, racial equity, education and disability rights. She has written for INDY Week, The Local Reporter, The Daily Record and, most recently, Mountain State Spotlight. Ellie tweets @elliepheffernan.


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