Family members and activists protest murderous West Virginia jails

Charleston, West Virginia

Two rallies were held in southern West Virginia to raise awareness of the high number of deaths at regional jails throughout the state in the last year. The over 100 prisoners, who have “mysteriously” died while incarcerated, are both Black and white, but people of color face harsher sentences than white people for the same “offenses.”

Rev. William Barber joins jail protest in Charleston, West Virginia, March 10.

A major focus has been on the Southern Regional Jail (SRJ), located in Beckley, a small city in Raleigh County which has a significantly larger African American population than most towns in southern West Virginia. The state chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) organized a militant, majority-Black protest march on March 4 in downtown Beckley.

Over 100 marchers chanted “No Justice, No Peace” and “Say his name: Quantez Burks,” followed by “Say his name: Alvis Shrewsbury” — referring to two of the incarcerated people who were killed while in custody at SRJ in 2022.

Family members of Quantez “Quan” Burks, 37, and Shrewsbury, 45, attended the March 4 rally. Burks was an African American resident of Beckley, while Shrewsbury was white and lived in a rural town in neighboring Wyoming County. Both counties were once thriving with unionized coal mining jobs but are now plagued with severe poverty, due to decades of union busting, corporate greed and capitalist automation that destroyed their communities. Burks died at the jail, while Shrewsbury was taken to a local hospital before he was officially declared dead.

The marchers made a symbolic stop outside the police precinct building, where many of the SRJ murder victims were booked before being incarcerated. They waved signs and held two banners that featured Burks’ image. 

PPC organizer Matt Kerner told Workers World, “Burks and Shrewsbury were two of 13 inmates who were killed at the hands of corrections officers at the SJR in 2022 alone. In addition to that, there were roughly 114 inmates who died last year at the regional jails across the state; and according to our (PPC) studies, that is more than any other state in the country.” 

Kerner further clarified: “A small number of the deaths have been from heroin and fentanyl overdoses, and that is still the fault of the COs who allow inmates to die. Inmates who seek medical attention are often denied.”

Disturbing discoveries

Quantez Burks was taken to the SRJ on Feb. 28, 2022, on a petty “obstruction” charge, and he was found dead the very next day. Burks’ fiancé, Latasha Williams, said there was blunt trauma “all the way from his head to his toes.” (WVVA, Oct. 31, 2022)

Workers World spoke with Kimberly Burks, Quantez Burk’s mother, at the March 4 rally. Her message was clear: “Our obtainable goal is to hold the Southern Regional Jail COs accountable for their cowardly acts of violence and their continuous efforts to destroy lives in their barbaric facility. I want justice for my son, for Alvis Shrewsbury, and for all victims of CO brutality at the Southern Regional Jail.” 

Alvis Shrewsbury’s family also spoke with Workers World, One family member stated, “Alvis was hopeful he would be released in 30 days, but unfortunately, he didn’t make it.” Another relative added, “From what we understand, corrections officers beat on him, and then they had inmates beat on him.”

March on the Capitol

The Poor People’s Campaign held another rally on March 10, which started off as a press conference at the Capitol building in Charleston. Rev. William Barber was the guest speaker, along with Kimberly Burks, West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign spokesperson Pam Garrison, longtime labor activist Stewart Acuff and Miranda Smith, Shrewsbury’s daughter. Family members of Burks and Shrewsbury stood behind the speakers, holding signs. Framed images of Burks and Shrewsbury were placed in front of the speakers’ podium. 

Kimberly Burks and Smith both gave passionate speeches that brought tears to this reporter’s eyes. Burks pointed out the inexcusable fact that the COs involved in her son’s murder are still employed at the SRJ. “We had to raise money and also save money to hold a funeral for my son,” she stated. “I don’t want any other family to experience what my family has had to go through.”

Rev. Barber informed the crowd that the PPC filed a federal civil rights investigation on behalf of the families of Burks, Shrewsbury and others. “We cannot rest until every family is given truth and every departed body has been given peace,” he declared.

Family members of Burks, Shrewsbury and others marched from the Capitol steps to the nearby governor’s mansion, where they attempted to deliver the petition. West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, as well as other state officials, have deliberately ignored the victims’ families’ demands. Gov. Justice has refused to hold a genuine investigation, and his office’s only “solution” is to increase the number of COs, despite the fact they are responsible for the mass deaths being committed inside the dreary walls of his state’s regional jails.

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