Education a Way Back for Incarcerated Women - Women Beyond Bars
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Education a Way Back for Incarcerated Women

Rebecca Robey, 35, from Lumberport, West Virginia knows what it’s like to not have an education. She left high school young and began using alcohol after her father and her cousin died within the same six-month period.
 
“I left in my junior year to have my son,” she said. “I am only now going back to get my GED nearly 20 years later.”
 
Robey was convicted of DUI manslaughter, in 2018, and was given a plea deal for alternative sentencing. She was sentenced to 3-15 years of home incarceration allowing her a chance to get clean.  In August of 2018, she began to gain an education.
 
Robey is not unusual in the justice system in West Virginia. Fewer than half of the inmates in Lakin Correctional Facility, West Virginia’s female prison, have a high school diploma. Four of them have less than a middle school education according to the West Virginia Division of Corrections.
 
Lakin’s inmates are typical of female inmates everywhere. Lack of education is a common characteristic for the incarcerated. The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reports about 30 percent of women in state prisons have received high school diplomas; 28 percent of them have a GED.
 
In addition to putting people at risk of involvement in the justice system, a lack of education puts people at risk of living in poverty when they are released. With that lack of education, many struggle to find jobs and maintain a way of life where they feel secure financially.
 
Robey works three jobs, six days a week to make ends meet.
 
Lack of education is one obstacle former prisoners face, but spending time in prison has consequences that can make establishing financial security very difficult.  Former prisoners must disclose a criminal background when applying for rental housing as well as for most jobs. Former prisoners may be barred from certain jobs based on the nature of their crimes. For example,  if they have an offense related to alcohol they are not allowed to work in a restaurant that serves alcohol.
 

But for many women like Robey, education is the number one priority to getting back on their feet. More education is often the key to more job opportunities with higher levels of pay.
 
Robey recently started a class to get her GED in Clarksburg, West Virginia. She takes the class at the Harrison County Day center with Randal O’field. Robey has taken the Test Assessing Secondary Completion (TASC), required for a GED, and unfortunately did not pass the first time.
 
“It’s hard. Almost nobody passes the first time,” O’field said. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
 
In West Virginia the test is free. An applicant can take the test up to three times in a year with up to two retakes on each subtest at no charge. West Virginia uses the test scores to evaluate a person’s educational equivalence to a high school degree. The test requires a minimum of 500 points out of 800 in each of five categories. The categories are Language-Arts Reading, Language-Arts Writing, Mathematics, Social Studies, and Science. To pass the TASC test at the overall level an examinee must pass each subject area test.  Students earn a  diploma after achieving the required scores.
 
Though the test is free in West Virginia, unlike in many other states, the classes to prepare for the test can cost money. Additionally, a person must pass a readiness test to be able to enroll in prep classes for the exam.
 
Online classes in West Virginia Cost around $15 a month and in-person classes vary according to who is offering them. Registration can be found here for online classes.
 
Education is one key ingredient to a healthy life, but there are many others. Lou Ortenzio, the Director of Ministry at Clarksburg Mission,  is a peer recovery coach helping the formerly incarcerated. Ortenzio, once a physician before his own addiction cost him his medical license, has worked with many in all steps of the reentry process and says that a big problem is a lack of help for individuals with a criminal background.
 
“There is no plan,” Ortenzio said. “There is no plan for those who want to get their life together.”
 
“Incarceration is not a way of life,” Ortenzio said. ” There are no support systems in place and many find themselves back to where they were.”
 
For those that want to get better, there are a few options. The first thing is to make sure that you have an education before you apply for a job.
 
Reggie Jones is the CEO of the Kanawha Institute for Social Research and Action, which runs the ReFORM Initiative to help formerly incarcerated men get back on their feet.  The program is funded by a fatherhood grant offered by the state.
 
They help men who have criminal backgrounds find jobs and make sure that they have a way to get to their places of employment.
 
“We help them with financial literacy. We pay wages for up to ten weeks to help those who find jobs and a stable work environment,” Jones said.  “We work with those who have up to three months left and those who are up to six months out. We don’t have any women’s programs because the grants were started by a fatherhood act but, there is starting to be a need for a motherhood one.”
 
The program helps men by providing housing, jobs, and transportation when needed.
 
Ideally, women would eventually join the program but currently, it is designed only for men.
 
When Shatarra Stroman was arrested for a DUI and noncompliance, she was given alternate sentencing to prison. She was able to serve her sentence at home and get herself on the recovery road.
 
That’s when she found Rea of Hope in Charleston, West Virginia.
 
“It’s an all-women’s support center,” she said. “It turns people’s lives around.”
 
“It is a 12-step program with rewards after completion of each step and within 72 hours of arrival you are expected to get ready to find a job and prove you have an education or start classes to get a GED, “ she said. “The program is all about bettering yourself and how you can change the system.”
 
“Rea of Hope helps in all aspects of a job. They can sit down with you and help create a resume to show who you truly are not just a face to a conviction,” Stroman said. “They even allow children to stay over to allow them a better chance to regain custody.”
 
One of the biggest problems is discrimination against those with a record when they apply for a job.
 
“Many lack the skills and education required for a job,” Stroman said. “Many employers are not willing to give people a chance.”
 
“Women need support to help them find jobs and help them get an education to help them better their lives and help get them on the right path but there aren’t many places for them to get the help they need causing many to go right back into the system,” Stroman said.
 
The problem is that there aren’t many resources for Women with a criminal history.
 

Cassidy Thompson talks above about how her mother started her on the road to recovery and how she now helps formerly incarcerated individuals with their addictions and everyday struggles.
 
Story, video and graphic by Cassandra P. McPhail