The number of women admitted to prison in West Virginia is one of the highest in the country, having increased 677.5% since 1989, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Two years ago, West Virginia University Reed College of Media faculty and students embarked on a project to explore this high incarceration rate and to share the stories of formerly incarcerated women and advocate for change.
These efforts culminated November 12 with the Beyond Bars Summit. The virtual event featured Piper Kerman, author of “Orange is the New Black,” and brought together community leaders, policy makers, law enforcement representatives, judges, formerly incarcerated individuals and justice reform advocates.
Kerman, who served 13 months of a 15-month prison sentence in 2004 for money laundering, has since become a nationally known advocate for criminal justice system reform. In her keynote address, Kerman addressed the rapid increase in the number of incarcerated women in West Virginia and the U.S., the criminal “punishment” system and steps we can take toward reform.
“The entry point for women and girls to the criminal justice system and potentially to incarceration really hinges on three things,” Kerman said during her talk. “Those things are substance use disorder … mental health problems and sometimes full-blown mental illness, and I would say underlying those two things, an incredible survival rate for violence. So, 80 to 90 percent of women and girls who land in the criminal justice system are survivors of sexual assault or other forms of physical abuse prior to their incarceration.
“Prisons and jails are inherently punitive, and we cannot punish our way out of substance use disorder or addiction,” she continued. “We can't punish people into being mentally well and healthy. That will have the opposite effect.”
Kerman also touched on how the criminal legal system disproportionately affects Black people and other people of color. This particular topic was the focus of the Summit’s opening performance by Reginald Dwayne Betts.
Betts served eight-and-a-half years in prison for a carjacking. In 1998, he was 17 years old and serving his third stint in solitary confinement when he began reading “The Black Poets” by Dudley Randall.
“Too many writers in his country understand what the words ‘mass incarceration’ mean but have never been inside prison,” Betts said. “Too many prisoners have never seen a published author. So, the plan is to change that.… We want to radically transform the way people think about literature and prison. I fundamentally believe that freedom begins with a book.”
Betts continued by sharing poetic anecdotes from his childhood, about relationships with his father and his son, experiences in prison and beyond, and his journey to Yale Law School.
On voting in his first presidential election, Betts recalled, “You know your first ballot will be cast for a Black man in America while holding a black baby. Name a dream more American than that. Especially with your three felonies serving as beacons to alert anybody of your reckless yesterdays. That woman beside you is the kind of thing fools don’t even dream about in prison. She lets you hold your boy while voting as if the voting makes you — and him — more free.”
Following his performance, Betts participated in one of ten breakout sessions that explored topics including criminal justice reform in West Virginia, reentry after prison, breaking the school to prison pipeline, employment for justice-involved individuals, restorative justice, racial disparities in the criminal legal system, responding to crises in our communities, alternatives to incarceration and how the pandemic has affected incarcerated people.
Nearly 600 people registered for the virtual Summit, which was organized by Geah Pressgrove, associate professor and advertising and public relations program chair, and students in her event planning course. The students met at the College’s Media Innovation Center to host the breakout sessions from separate hubs and sat in a physically distanced arrangement to watch the main events together in the Center’s forum.
“While it wasn’t the in-person event we originally imagined, this virtual format gave us the opportunity to engage more politicians and policy makers, scholars, activists and community leaders from across the state who may not have otherwise been able to attend,” Pressgrove said. “My students and I have been incredibly invested in this project and while it’s coming to an end for us, I hope it’s just the beginning of a conversation about how we think about incarceration in this state.”
In addition to the summit and advocacy work, Teaching Associate Professor Mary Kay McFarland led teams of journalism students who interviewed and documented the lives of formerly incarcerated West Virginia women and their families. The students worked with McFarland to produce multimedia stories about the state's incarceration infrastructure, the women's experiences in prisons and jails, their struggles to rejoin their communities afterward, and diversionary programs designed to decrease the incarcerated population. These stories are featured in an interactive installation at the WVU Downtown Library through the end of the year.
“The benefit of a project like this one is the opportunity it gives students to produce real journalism and experience the difficulties of reporting on sensitive subjects where access to information is often a challenge,” said McFarland. “For most students working on this project, the experience expanded their worldviews and put them in a position to help the larger community hear about the lives of a marginalized segment of its members."
The Women Beyond Bars project was funded by a $170,000 grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation to engage students across disciplines in a two-year effort to document the problem of women’s incarceration, offer evidence-based solutions and create awareness that could lead to changes in policy and practice.
In July 2020, College of Media faculty and students involved in Women Beyond Bars won third place in the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s Best of the Web/Best of Digital competition for the project’s website. The annual competition recognizes excellence in web and app design and is judged by industry professionals.
Multimedia stories and recordings of the Beyond Bars Summit sessions can be found at www.womenbeyondbars.com.