For 21 months our state has been embroiled in a preventable jail crisis. During that time, lawmakers never asked for testimony from people living behind bars. They never asked for testimony from the parents, spouses, or children of people living behind bars. Only once did they hear from two people who had been previously incarcerated. Instead, as our new fact sheet shows, more than one-third of all appearances in front of the Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority came from people who control the jail and prison system.
I understand the temptation to rely on the opinions of people who work in the system. After a decade representing people charged in criminal cases, I thought I knew the ways the criminal legal system could be improved. But thankfully my first report at the WVCBP brought me together with Darrin Lester.
Darrin, who had spent several years in West Virginia prisons, was working toward his master’s degree in social work at WVU. Over the next year and a half, I turned to Darrin for the tough questions: how do we keep people safe behind bars? How do we help people not come back to jail or prison? What would rehabilitation in prison look like? How could we help people heal and rehabilitate in the community?
Darrin met my curiosity with his trademark generosity. He shared journals kept during his time in prison. He introduced me to men he had served time with – some who had been released and some who are still in prison. He respectfully disagreed. He patiently explained what I could not know having never lived in a cell. He bridged the gap between my assumptions about the system and his own experiences.
He was my favorite policy expert about the system.
Darrin worked with the WVCBP to produce a report on challenges and solutions for people returning home from prison. Through him, I met other people impacted by the system who were generous with their stories and insights, despite the pain that it brought them. A father at Mt. Olive prison demonstrated the cruelty of prison visitation policies and how they impact families. A man at Huttonsville prison painted a picture of aging in a system in which one in four people are considered “elderly.” A formerly incarcerated man helped turn a report about bad prison food into one that dug deeper into government purchasing decisions.
As Darrin would often say, “Those who are closest to the problem are the ones who have the answers.”
Darrin, who battled a chronic illness exacerbated by his time in West Virginia prisons, died in October 2023. His death cheated him out of so much: precious time with his son and grandson; earning his graduate degree; continuing the work of nurturing other men who were traumatized long before they were ever incarcerated.
There’s nothing West Virginia lawmakers can do to bring Darrin back, or to heal the harm the system did to him and his family. But they can learn from him, and from his legacy. They can do themselves the favor of opening their minds–and their committee meetings–to the insight, resilience, compassion, and wisdom of the West Virginians who know this crisis better than anybody.
Read Sara’s fact sheet, Who do Lawmakers Listen to About West Virginia Jails?, here.