West Virginia 1st sexual abuse trial against jails set for early December

By Vicki Smith

Associated Press

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) -- The first of dozens of sexual assault and harassment lawsuits that women have filed against West Virginia jails and prisons is set to be tried in December, but the cases will likely play out in court for years to come.

The case that could go to trial Dec. 12 in Kanawha County Circuit Court involves Jessica Legg, a Mason County resident who says she was victimized while in the Anthony Correctional Center in 2008. That prison houses 18- to 22-year-old offenders.

In all, Huntington attorney Mike Woelfel says he has 61 clients and 50 pending cases against the West Virginia Division of Corrections and the Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority, and against individual corrections officers.

Eight cases involving civil rights violations were transferred to federal court at the state's request and have been settled, Woelfel said, while trial dates have been set in Kanawha County for another 15. Some allegations are still being reviewed and have not yet resulted in lawsuits.

Woelfel began suing the state in 2009, alleging a widespread pattern of sexual misconduct by male guards. The misconduct was particularly acute at the Southern Regional Jail and Beckley Correctional Center in Raleigh County and Lakin Correctional Center in Mason County, he said.

It came in all forms, Woelfel said, from asking women to expose themselves or have sex with each other to peeping into bathroom stalls and showers. In some cases, guards exposed themselves and masturbated.

The cases use essentially the same language, offer few details about the abuse and name not only individual correctional officers and the state agencies, but also unnamed "John Doe" defendants who collectively "conspired with, aided and abetted, acted as a lookout, served as an accessory" and otherwise facilitated the misconduct.

The complaints accuse the state of multiple acts of negligence, including failures of training, supervision and intervention that allowed a "continuing practice and pattern of sexual harassment, sexual abuse and sexual assault" of inmates.

The lawsuits seek unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

Joe Thornton, secretary of the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said his agency takes all accusations seriously and investigates them thoroughly, conducting an internal review and an independent investigation by law enforcement.

"All correctional employees, which includes jails and juvenile services, are reminded of their responsibilities as employees of their respective divisions, the department and the state of West Virginia," Thornton wrote in an email Tuesday. "There is zero tolerance if allegations are proven, and the resulting action is swift."

Woelfel said a number of state employees have been fired or allowed to resign since the lawsuits began.

"To the extent that some of these rotten apples are gone, that's a major plus," he said. "Although this is still going on and tolerated in our state, major efforts have been under way to correct the problem at the state level."

Thornton, however, would not say whether any staff departures have been linked to the lawsuits.

"Employees resign on a regular basis and for many reasons," he said. "I don't believe it would be prudent to speculate on why folks have decided to end their employment with one of the divisions."

The state also terminates employees for many reasons, but Thornton said he can't comment on why employment was discontinued, "voluntarily or otherwise."

Published: Wed, Nov 16, 2011