Emily Allen Published

WVU Reed College Of Media To Host 'Beyond Bars' Summit On Incarceration

Prison Cell

The Reed College of Media at West Virginia University is hosting a virtual summit on Thursday to discuss incarceration in the Mountain State.

For two years, students have been working on the Women Beyond Bars project, highlighting the issues that women and their families face in prison and after prison.

Emily Allen spoke with Professor Mary Kay McFarland and student Patrick Orsagos about their reporting.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

ALLEN: How did this topic first kind of come to you? And how did you and the students determine where it went?

MCFARLAND: The dean of the Reed College of Media, who is now the provost at WVU, and the dean of the Gaylord [College of Journalism and Mass Communications] at the University of Oklahoma, they were actually looking for a project to do together. At that time, we were looking at the headlines in the news, and the headlines were that West Virginia and Oklahoma had the highest rates of incarceration for women in the country.

And it was No.1, because they were counting the women in federal facilities as well as the state facilities here. So, once they once they started assigning the women in federal facilities to the states they came from, then West Virginia isn’t No. 1 anymore, but it’s still in the top states for incarcerating women.

ALLEN: Turning to Patrick, in one of the stories on the website, you wrote about how a quarter of the women in West Virginia’s prison system aren’t actually in prison. They’re in regional jails, which typically are overcrowded.

Can you talk to us about what you’ve heard, and why stories like these should matter to West Virginians who ultimately have little to do with state corrections?

ORSAGOS: Whether you know somebody or not who’s incarcerated, your tax dollars are going to that. So when there is such this huge increase of incarcerated women, you know, the people of West Virginia are paying for that. And they’re paying for women to be treated people, I shouldn’t say just women, [it’s] men and women to be kind of treated unfairly.

What’s the most shocking thing, at least for me, is the fallout from that. So not only were these women sitting in regional jails, but a lot of these women were, you know, suffering from substance use disorder, and they had to detox in a regional jail without any help from anybody. Or, they were disconnected from their families, and they couldn’t talk to their kids for however long. And that affects more than just the person going through the system, that affects a whole lot of people. So the fallout definitely goes much further than just one person.

ALLEN: What’s interesting to me is that this project takes this focus on women in incarcerated situations, but we only have very little options for actually putting women in prison. Have these stories been difficult to pursue, since there’s not much space for them?

MCFARLAND: We did run into women who feared recriminations [from] talking to us. Women who were hoping to appeal, or on parole, and they were not willing to talk to us, because that was a process that could hurt them.

But once a few women began talking to us, I think we found that it was really empowering. It was an empowering thing for people to be interested in their stories.

ALLEN: What about this project and these stories have surprised you the most?

ORSAGOS: There are so many years when the jails are so overcrowded, and it’s been reported in official government documents. And nothing changes. Nothing happens. I think that’s probably the most shocking for me.

MCFARLAND: I just think the amount of money that we’re talking about is staggering. Just to incarcerate one prisoner for a year is more than $30,000. Are there not better ways to, to rehabilitate people to begin to address that issue?

And certainly, the Division of Corrections has been spending money with the Justice Reinvestment Act, they’ve spent millions of dollars on rehabilitation and programs to decrease that number. One of the problems is that as the opioid epidemic has escalated, that number has just continued to increase.

WVU is hosting the Beyond Bars summit Thursday, beginning at 3 p.m. Registration for the virtual event is open to the public. Find out more online at the Women Beyond Bars website.