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West Virginia Rally Condemns Jail Deaths

Above Photo: West Virginia ACLU Executive Director Danielle Walker addresses rally against jail deaths around the state, Beckley, West Virginia, July 15, 2023. Otis Grotewohl.

Beckley, West Virginia – Nearly 100 prison abolitionists and family members of jailhouse murder victims rallied in Beckley on July 15 to raise awareness of the growing number of deaths in jails throughout West Virginia. In the last couple of years, the deaths have become epidemic, with dozens of incarcerated workers murdered at the hands of guards throughout the state.

Appropriately dubbed “Handcuffs Shouldn’t Kill You,” the event was organized by the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign and co-sponsored by the West Virginia American Civil Liberties Union and the Beckley chapter of the NAACP. Community and union activists from the area attended.

The Southern Regional Jail (SRJ), located near Beckley, has one of the highest number of deaths. Beckley is a small Appalachian town that historically has had a significant Black population, especially when coal mining jobs were common. One of the most well-known murder cases at the SRJ was that of 37-year-old Quantez “Quan” Burks, who was officially pronounced dead on March 1, 2022.  This African American man grew up in Beckley.

Burks was arrested on February 28, 2022, and authorities unsurprisingly gave his family a hard time from the beginning. When Burks’ family members were finally able to see his body, they discovered he had broken wrists and a broken nose, along with other broken bones throughout his body and internal bleeding. Their findings indicate Burks was beaten to death while in handcuffs.

LaTasha Williams, Burks’ fiancée, was among the rally’s speakers. She highlighted the racist double standard in the ordeal that the Burks’ whole family went through: “The guards initially lied to us, telling us Quan simply died of a heart attack, which is bulls–-t. Now, the police, the governor and the legislators refuse to answer questions we have. We know their treatment towards us would have been different had Quan been rich and white.”

Quantez Burks’ daughter, Kiera Cooper, and his mother, Kimberly Burks, gave passionate speeches. Cooper stressed, “We will not stop until we get the justice my father deserves.”

West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign spokesperson Pam Garrison and Beckley NAACP President Barbara Charles called out racism and poverty as the leading contributor to jail deaths in West Virginia, statistically the second-most impoverished state in the U.S. Longtime labor activist and Poor People’s Campaign leader Stewart Acuff read a passionate poem.

West Virginia ACLU Executive Director Danielle Walker gave a militant and well- received speech, calling out her former colleagues in the West Virginia House. As a Black woman who served several years in an increasingly Republican-led legislature, she witnessed and experienced violent bigotry within the system firsthand.

Walker explained: “We need to stop the stigma around the incarcerated, because the system sets them up to fail. As soon as you are released from jail, they make you continue to pay legal fees, other court costs and even wear an ankle bracelet. Meanwhile, it’s impossible to get a job to pay for all those expenses.”

The rally did a great job in exposing and confronting the blatant brutality of the racist, anti-poor criminal injustice system under U.S. capitalism. Loved ones of those murdered by the system refuse to be ignored!

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