Honaker updates lawmakers on status of prison inspections

By Matthew Young, RealWV

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – “I personally am going to every prison and every jail in the State of West Virginia to conduct a comprehensive inspection.”

That’s what Mike Honaker, inspector general with the office of Director Mark Sorsaia from the W.Va. Department of Homeland Security, told delegates during Thursday’s meeting of the House Committee on Jails and Prisons. A November request from the committee prompted the series of inspections.

“The superintendents do not know when I will appear at their facility,” Honaker said. “It’s not a simple, quick visit. The last facility that I inspected, I was there for seven hours from the time that I arrived until the time that I left.”

In describing his inspection visits, Honaker explained that he meets with the superintendent, visits the kitchen and inspects the food, visits the medical facility to speak with staff and evaluate equipment and supplies, and observes the recreational facilities. 

“I actually will go into cells […] and talk with inmates,” Honaker said. “I will personally turn on their hot water and put my hand in it to make sure it’s hot.”

According to Honaker, inmate and staff interviews are also part of his inspection process, adding that he, not the facility, selects the interview participants. 

“I have enjoyed the full cooperation of the governor’s office, the secretary of Homeland Security, and the commissioner (of the W.Va. Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation),” Honaker noted.

In response to a question from Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, Honaker advised that he has inspected five of the state’s correctional facilities thus far.

“I anticipate being completely finished with inspections by probably […] May, and having a report ready to submit to the governor’s office that could perhaps be shared in a June interim (committee meeting),” Honaker said.

According to Honaker, the “inspection process” is as much an evaluation of the culture within the facility as it is the physical facility, noting that no interviewee is legally compelled to speak with him. Honaker said his line of questioning ranges from inmate daily activities, to staff responsiveness to medical situations. 

“I don’t rush through these interviews,” Honaker said. “They have as much time with me as they want. These interviews have been very productive.”

During the course of his inspections, Honaker explained, several “minor” issues have been uncovered which were immediately acted upon. Hoanker cited “something to do with water” and “grievance forms not being filed the right way” as examples of these issues. 

“But I want to be very clear,” Honaker said. “This is not simply a bureaucratic process. […] This is not something where, if an inmate tells me they’re being abused or mistreated, or they’ve been assaulted or the victim of rape – it’s not something that’s simply going to be put in a report that comes out in June.”

“If an inmate reported to me that they were the victim of anything like that, we’re going to stop right there and cause an investigation to begin right away,” Honaker added.

Overall, Honaker said his inspections have been highly positive, noting, “I’ve actually been surprised.”

“It seems like, so far, that the superintendents are absolutely very proud to welcome me into their facility,” Honaker said. “I’m going into facilities that are clean, well maintained. I have not experienced the first iota of uncooperation or resistance.”

“I assure you, I will include in the report if there is any resistance or interference,” Honaker added. But thus far, I’ve experienced nothing but 100% cooperation from our superintendents. So far they’ve been very proud of their facilities, their staff, and their relationships with their inmates.”

As an aside, Del. John Hott, R-Grant, asked Honaker to provide a brief explanation of his duties as inspector general with the secretary’s office, and his chain of command. In response, Honaker described the newly-created and appointable position of “Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security,” a position which both Gov. Jim Justice and Chief of Staff Brian Abraham have previously confirmed Honaker does not hold. 

“Well essentially an agency was created,” Honaker said, referencing the legislative action during the 2023 session which created the position. “Right now it is an agency of one person. […] On day one, I began writing policy for the office.”

“As far as the chain of command, the code I think is pretty clear that whatever investigations I conduct, when they’re complete, they are sealed, submitted to the governor’s office and to the secretary of Homeland Security,” Honaker added. “I haven’t received any pushback, and no one has told me what I can investigate or not investigate.”

The next meeting of the House Committee on Jails and Prisons has not yet been scheduled. 

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