CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A federal magistrate judge cited the intentional destruction of records in recommending a default judgment in a civil rights lawsuit over conditions at a West Virginia jail.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Omar J. Alboulhosn’s order Monday evening followed a hearing in early October in which former and current corrections officials, including some defendants in the lawsuit, said that no steps were taken to preserve evidence, including emails and documents, at the Southern Regional Jail in Beaver.
Alboulhosn asked that U.S. District Judge Frank Volk find for the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit, noting the recommendation “is extraordinary, but clearly warranted considering the intentional conduct in this case.”
The magistrate judge also ordered that the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation purchase hard drives to preserve the jail’s video recordings effective immediately.
Alboulhosn said listening to witnesses describe that laws and regulations governing the preservation of evidence were not followed was “some of the most remarkable testimony” that he has heard.
The magistrate judge said he “believes the failure to preserve the evidence that was destroyed in this case was intentionally done and not simply an oversight by the witnesses. The Court does not make that statement flippantly but after much thought and reflection of the disturbing testimony that took place that day.”
State corrections commissioner Betsy Jividen, the jail’s superintendent and others left their jobs in the months after the lawsuit was filed. As a result, their email accounts were removed, according to testimony at the hearing.
Brian Abraham, the chief of staff for Republican Gov. Jim Justice, has said no one in the administration sought to have emails deleted in any agency. Abraham placed blame on an attorney who was aware of the litigation, could have stopped the deletions and “failed to do so.”
In the 2022 lawsuit, current and former inmates described jail conditions as inhumane. The suit references a lack of access to water and food, as well as overcrowded conditions and fights that were allowed to continue until someone was injured.
Justice said an investigation found no evidence of inhumane treatment at the jail. The Republican governor ordered the investigation after a television station reported allegations of water deprivation, failure to provide toilet paper and inmates having to sleep on hard floors without a mattress.