“I don’t know how much time each of you has served, but if you served one day in a correctional facility, you have something to say, and somebody ought to hear it.” Darrin Lester addressed a group of formerly incarcerated people in Logan County, West Virginia this past summer, part of a session called “Be Heard and Take a Stand.”
Read the full issue brief.
For years, Race Matters has worked closely with Black West Virginians and other communities of color in southern West Virginia to address economic inequality, health disparities, and civic engagement. The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy (WVCBP) crafts criminal legal policies, advocating for fewer people in jail, reduced sentences, and fairer policies for people leaving prison. The organizations teamed up to learn more about what people needed when they left prison, and what policies could address those needs. To do this, they turned to people who had been to prison and come home.
Over the summer of 2022, Race Matters and the WVCBP conducted one-on-one interviews and hosted two listening sessions. In all, 92 formerly incarcerated people lent their experience to the project. They talked about the obstacles that stood (and stand) between them and reliable housing and meaningful work. They talked about the people and policies that can shrink those obstacles. Again and again, they returned to their mostly unmet hopes for financial security and acceptance in their communities.
This reentry experience plays out thousands of times each year across West Virginia. From 2019 to 2021, an average of 3,415 men and women were released from West Virginia prisons each year. They face hundreds of collateral consequences — that is, punishments that last after a person has finished their sentence and that get in the way of finding good jobs, securing a place to live, and connecting with loved ones. The return home is further complicated by the stigma attached to people who have been through the criminal system.
Most returning citizens who manage to overcome these barriers are still not in the clear. That’s because 76 percent of people leaving prison are released to parole for a period of community supervision. And yet, parole supervision is often a path back to prison. In Fiscal Year 2021, one out of five people entering a West Virginia prison was admitted because of a technical violation of parole — meaning a violation for behavior that does not involve a new crime, such as a positive drug screen or missing a parole appointment. West Virginia was “one of only four states to increase revocations for supervision violations during the pandemic, with a 25 percent increase from 2019 to 2020 alone — the highest increase in the nation.”
People in West Virginia prisons suffer physically and mentally. They have much higher rates of chronic physical conditions and infectious disease than the general population. Incarceration is also associated with a 45 percent increase in the chance of lifetime major depression — a risk that increases in prisons that are overcrowded and punitive, as are those in West Virginia. Further, prison takes years off one’s life. A study of New York parole data found that each additional year behind bars translated to a two-year decline in life expectancy for people on parole.
Prison harms people outside the walls, too. Four out of five people we interviewed were parents, and most of the parents (64.5 percent) had one or more children under 18 years of age. Having a parent behind bars is linked to illnesses like asthma, depression, and anxiety; acting out; economic hardship; and poorer physical and mental health in adulthood. Plus, incarceration strains relationships and frequently contributes to divorce.
When the state fails to respond to the needs of returning citizens, it costs all West Virginians. According to the most recent Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR) annual report, West Virginia taxpayers spend $38,788 per year to keep just one person behind bars. As such, our state spends more to lock someone up than the average West Virginian earns in a year ($30,195).
We wanted to give people the opportunity to imagine a better alternative to the reentry experience they had lived. With a focus on southern West Virginia, which has borne the brunt of the state’s economic decline, we gathered groups of returned citizens in Logan and Mercer counties to tell us what release from prison would look like if the ultimate goal was their success.
When we set out to listen to those who had been to prison, we paid special attention to the experiences of Black West Virginians, who have long been disparately harmed by criminal system policies. Although they comprise 3.7 percent of the state’s population, Black people make up 12.7 percent of the prison population — making them more than three times as likely to be incarcerated. The disparities persist across job earnings, unemployment rates, and the number of people living in poverty. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, wages were 18 percent lower for Black West Virginians compared to white West Virginians. Black West Virginians earned incomes 27 percent lower than their white counterparts. Black people had an unemployment rate of 11.0 percent compared to the white unemployment rate of 6.8 percent. The poverty rate for Black West Virginians is nearly double the rate for white West Virginians. We succeeded in reaching Black West Virginians, who represented 54.2 percent of those interviewed.
Returning citizens know exactly what they need when they leave prison. First, they want to know what to expect. People wish they had more information about community resources, provided to them by people who had once been in their shoes. Second, returning citizens want to land on their feet. People wanted an organized transition home that provided them ready-to-work documents like identification cards, plus assistance with affordable housing. Third, returning citizens want a chance to live a full life. They wanted to make a difference in their community — through work that allowed them to support themselves and their loved ones, by voting, and by shedding the stigma attached to their criminal convictions.
The stakes are high. But as Darrin Lester — a social work graduate student and formerly incarcerated person — points out, “Those who are closest to the problem are the ones who have the answer[s].”
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