CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Over the past two weeks, eight women have filed lawsuits in Kanawha Circuit Court alleging that they were sexually abused and harassed while prisoners in West Virginia jails or prisons.
The suits, all filed by lawyers Mike and Matthew Woelfel of Huntington, allege a widespread pattern of sexual misconduct by male guards, particularly at the Southern Regional Jail and Beckley Correctional Center in Raleigh County and Lakin Correctional Center in Mason County.
The suits, filed between Oct. 19 and 29, all name either the state Regional Jail Authority or the state Division of Corrections as defendants, as well as various individual guards, some identified only as John Doe.
"Since the opening of the Southern Regional Jail, there has existed a continuing practice and pattern of sexual misconduct visited upon inmates at the hands of correctional officers. This practice could not continue to occur without the tacit approval of supervisory staff of the West Virginia Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority," one suit reads. "A conspiracy to conceal such sexual misconduct is ongoing and involves Southern Regional Jail personnel."
Other lawsuits use almost identical language to describe allegations of sexual abuse and cover-ups at South Central Regional Jail and the DOC facilities at Lakin and Beckley.
"It would be unfair for me to generalize and make blanket statements, because you have different agencies involved here," Mike Woelfel said Monday. "For example, we've found that some of the regional jails are very well run from top to bottom. [But] we think that some of the other regional jails have allowed pervasive sexual abuse to occur over a number of years."
Calls to lawyers representing various defendants, including the Regional Jail Authority and the Division of Corrections, were not returned Monday.
Woelfel & Woelfel has other similar suits pending, and expects to file more as more women come forward, Mike Woelfel said. Some women may be afraid to accuse their jailers because they are still under their authority, he said.
"It's my impression that sexual misconduct in the jail setting is just as underreported statistically as sexual misconduct in the general population," he said.