Trey Kay, Emily Haavik Published

Us & Them Encore: Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars In W.Va.

Us & Them featured image shows a woman sitting with hand on knees. The image reads "Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars in West Virginia."

Overcrowding and understaffing have pushed West Virginia’s prisons and jails to what many believe is a crisis point. 

On this episode of Us & Them, we hear what incarceration is like for someone in a mental health crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people with mental illnesses are caught up in a criminal justice system that was never intended to treat them. 

In a recent special session, West Virginia lawmakers earmarked $30 million to address staffing shortages and provide pay raises and retention bonuses to correctional staff. There is also $100 million for deferred facility maintenance. However, a new lawsuit against the state on behalf of West Virginia inmates, demands more than three times that amount is needed. 

This episode of Us & Them is presented with support from the Just Trust, the West Virginia Humanities Council, the CRC Foundation and the Daywood Foundation.

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Three people stand in front of a building. One woman and two men. The woman has short white hair and is speaking to a group. She has a stand in front of her.
Bishop Mark Brennan and Jeff Allen, director of West Virginia Council of Churches, listen to Beverly Sharp, founder of the REACH Initiative in West Virginia at a West Virginia Council of Churches press conference on the subject of the criminal justice system in West Virginia.

Photo Credit: Kyle Vass
Woman with glasses in purple shirt with dark hair. Standing outside. A garden with red flowers can be seen behind her.
Lara Lawson from Milton in Cabell County, W.Va., has her master’s degree in sociology and is passionate about social justice issues. She has also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and manages that condition. Lawson told Us & Them host Trey Kay about her experience during a manic period of her illness when she was placed in Western Regional Jail and deprived of mental health medication. While Lawson said she was not suicidal – she recalled being put in a suicide watch cell for observation.

Photo Credit: Trey Kay/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Trey Kay stands with a woman wearing a white blouse, glasses and black skirt. They stand in a large sun room with several windows and comfortable looking chairs.
Us & Them host Trey Kay met with investigative reporter Mary Beth Pfeiffer at her home in the Hudson Valley of New York to talk about her book Crazy In America: The Hidden Tragedy of Our Criminalized Mentally Ill. Pfeiffer’s book shows how people suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, clinical depression and other serious psychological illnesses are regularly incarcerated because medical care is not available. Once behind bars, she reports that people with mental illness are frequently punished for behavior that is psychotic, not criminal. Pfeiffer’s reporting examines a society that incarcerates its weakest and most vulnerable citizens — causing some to emerge sicker and more damaged.

Photo Credit: Trey Kay/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
A woman in a dress stands on the steps of the West Virginia State Capitol. The sky looks overcast.
Ashley Omps testified at the West Virginia State Capitol before the Senate Oversight Committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority. She told this group of powerful strangers about the worst experience in her life — a time when she was incarcerated in Eastern Regional Jail after an intense, traumatic event and said she was denied mental health treatment. Omps  said it was uncomfortable to share her personal story, but it made a difference. West Virginia law has changed, because people like Ashley took their stories to the capitol.

Photo Credit: Trey Kay/West Virginia Public Broadcasting