Mar. 4—”We want answers. We want justice. We want it now.”
These were the words of Latasha Williams as she led a group of more than 100 in a peaceful protest through the streets of downtown Beckley.
Williams said the protest was also a march for justice in honor of her fiancée, Quantez Burks, who died at the Southern Regional Jail (SRJ) in Raleigh County in 2022.
“Somebody’s got to be held accountable for what they’ve done,” Williams said. “(Quantez) is not just a piece of trash. He’s not gonna be swept under the rug.”
Burks is just one of roughly a dozen inmates who died at the Southern Regional Jail in 2022. In 2018, there was one death at SRJ.
This spike in deaths as well as reports that inmates at SRJ have been denied food, water and proper medical treatment has sparked a number of investigations as well as a federal class action lawsuit.
Thus far, state agencies have denied these allegations citing an internal investigation conducted last year.
“Eventually they’re going to listen,” said Kimberly Burks, the mother of Quantez, referring to West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, US Sen. Joe Manchin and other state officials.
“It’s reached them. They just don’t listenin’. And when it gets to the point that they don’t have no choice but to listen and to do something, we’re going to know because they’re going to change their tune.
Williams and Kimberly Burks were also joined Saturday by the family of Alvis Shrewsbury, another inmate who died at Southern Regional Jail last year.
“We’ve got to stick together out here,” said Justine Shrewsbury, Alvis’ partner of more than 30 years. “We’ve got to be their voice because nobody else is going to be.”
Alvis Shrewsbury died on Sept. 17, 2022 after spending 19 days at SRJ.
In the lead up to this march, members from the Burks and Shrewsbury families took part in a virtual press conference, hosted by the Poor People’s Campaign, where they shared the stories of how both men died.
Kimberly Burks said Saturday that she plans to continue to share her son’s story and be his voice.
“My son, Quantez Burks, was murdered on March 1, (2022) at the hand of the (correctional officers) at the Southern Regional Jail… He was there on a misdemeanor charge for about 14 to 24 hours,” Kimberly Burks said. “It’s been a year and we still haven’t received any answers. We’re still seeking justice. And we haven’t had any acknowledgment . . . for the state, from the COs, from (Gov.) Jim Justice, from the mayor to the police department of what happened to him.”
According to both families, the state offices that investigated the cause of death for Burks and Shrewsbury decided they died of natural causes. However, independent autopsies, paid for by the families, paint a different story.
In the case of Burks, Kimberly Burks, said a private autopsy determined that Quantez died of a heart attack after sustaining blunt force trauma to his body and fractured bones in his forearm and wrist along with other injuries.
Shrewsbury’s family said he died of gastrointestinal bleeding which neither the state nor private autopsy could explain.
Kimberly Burks said she and Williams had been planning the march for roughly two months as a way to mark the one-year anniversary of Quantez’s death.
Saturday’s march began at Quantez Burks former home off West Neville Street in Beckley, which is only a few blocks from downtown. This is also where Quantez Burks was originally arrested on Feb. 28, 2022, on charges of wanton endangerment and obstructing an officer.
Before beginning the march towards downtown, Rev. Walter Leach of St. Paul Baptist Temple led the group in a moment of prayer.
They then made their way down Neville Street and into downtown Beckley while chatting the names of Quantez Burks and Alvis Shrewsbury and holding signs that read “#JusticeforQuan” “Everybody’s got a right to live” and “We will not be silent anymore.”
The marchers then made an impromptu stop in front of the Beckley Police station on 1st Avenue where they chanted, “No justice, no peace. Prosecute the police.” They also repeated the names of Quantez Burks and Alvis Shrewsbury repeatedly with chants that start with “Say his name.”
After leaving the police station, they marched down Prince Street before turning left onto Robert C Byrd Drive where they lined the sidewalk for more than an hour holding signs and chanting for justice.
Williams said she was grateful so many were there to peacefully support their cause.
“Everybody blowing horns and everything, everybody’s yelling. We got kids out here. We got a lot of support, so I hope this helps. I hope this helps,” Williams said.
Supporters of Quantez Burks and Alvis Shrewsbury are also hoping the march will help them gain national attention as they call for an independent federal investigation into SRJ.
Stewart Acuff, one of the chairs for the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign, said this is one of the reasons his organization is getting involved.
“We’re now circulating a petition that has about 5,000 signatures from people across West Virginia calling for a federal investigation,” Acuff said. “This is a crisis. It’s horrible. As one of the family members said to me, animals in animal shelters get treated better than human beings in a West Virginia jail.”
The petition is available online on the Action Network website at bit.ly/3kkqHCZ.
The Poor People’s Campaign is also organizing a similar march at the State Capitol Building in Charleston at 11 am on March 10.
“We’re gonna demand that Governor Justice and Senator Manchin join us in calling for a full federal investigation, not only of the Southern Regional Jail but of all the regional jails because this is happening everywhere in the state,” Acuff said. “The jail closest to us, we live in the eastern panhandle, the jail in Martinsburg, (the Eastern Regional Jail) leads the state in suicides. That means somebody’s not paying attention or the conditions forcing people to hurt themselves.”
The Register-Herald reached out to Manchin’s office last week following the Poor People’s Campaign’s virtual press conference to inquire whether he was aware of the situation.
A spokesperson with his office said, “Senator Manchin continues to monitor the reports coming from the state-operated Southern Regional Jail in Raleigh County and the ongoing investigation involving the conditions there.”