Since May of 2019, more than 1,500 women and men who had previously been ineligible for food stamps in West Virginia, have signed-up for the program. Until May 21, 2019, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or food stamps, had been denied to anyone with a drug felony. The efforts of a group of formerly incarcerated people, working the West Virginia Criminal Justice Listening Project, changed that and several other laws in the 2019 legislative session.
Included in those are legislation to make state identification accessible even if a driver’s license is denied, called Easy ID; and expungement legislation, which allows for those with certain nonviolent felony and misdemeanor charges to apply for expungement after they’ve been off parole for five years.
The Listening Project began as an effort to establish credibility for changes in the criminal justice system. It was organized by Lida Shepherd and Rhonda Marrone working with the American Friends Service Committee as well as a large number of organizations in the state.
Shepherd and her colleagues saw the ways that poverty and incarceration were intertwined and wanted to do something about it. From January to September of 2019, volunteers and activists with the project talked with and documented the experiences of over 200 people, who had either gone through the criminal justice system or had family who had.
After the interviewing process, people were asked if they were interested in becoming leaders in the project. A handful jumped at the opportunity to be a part of criminal justice reform after their own encounters with the system. One of these leaders is Tracy Jividen.
After coming out of prison with a nonviolent drug charge, Jividen applied for food stamps and was denied. She was reliant on food assistance before going to prison, so without help or a job with a living wage, Jividen struggled. “Because of the drug charge, I couldn’t get all of these things I was supposed to get to help myself,” Jividen said, “I started writing [bad] checks for food.”
After serving time again for the bad checks, Jividen wanted to help others coming out of prison. So she dedicated herself to the efforts of the Listening Project, as well as the mission of Recovery Point in Charleston, West Virginia —the rehabilitation facility that helped her get back on her feet.
Jividen feels like there’s a stigma that makes life harder for returning citizens.
“I want to be that role model—lay it all out on the line and not be ashamed of anything,” she said.
The Listening Project leaders and volunteers make up a team that meets once a month and has developed a wish list of changes. Jividen is one volunteer who went to legislators to ask them to co-sponsor bills for justice reform—something she couldn’t have imagined herself doing before.
Jividen is one of the people who helped convince Delegate John Shott (R- Mercer) to sponsor the bill to get SNAP benefits reinstated. The bill unanimously passed in the house and senate.
“They brought to my attention some things I wasn’t aware of,” Shott said, “What struck me the most were the single mothers, who were trying to get back in the job market and were having a hard time making it without the benefit of SNAP benefits.”
Shott explained that what really hit him was the way in which drug crimes were singled out against other factors as a barrier for gaining food stamps. The appeals of Jividen and others on the leadership team are what motivated him to sponsor the bill.
Last year’s reforms during the legislative session were what the leadership team hopes is just the beginning. In the next session Shott is planning on working on parole and bond reform.
In November of 2019, members of the team released a formal report to state legislators and media which makes suggestions for reforms based on the experiences of those interviewed as well as research on the current state of the carceral system.
Some of those suggestions are aimed at reducing the prison population, which has grown by more than 2,700% from 1980 to 2016 causing overcrowding.
One formerly incarcerated women in the report described the consequences of a lack of space and resources due to overcrowding.
“I was in South Central jail for 11 months. It was terrible. There were 63 women in a pod which was designed for 16. Many people slept on the floor or in the day room. Lots of fights broke out over limited phone access and food,” she said.
In West Virginia, the growth in the women’s prison population was more than two-and-a-half times that of the growth in the men’s between 2009 and 2015.
For the most part, officials believe that this is partly the result of the opioid epidemic. But journalists from NPR and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern investigated and found that in prison, women are disciplined at higher rates than men. The disparities extend beyond prison. Women tend to be on parole longer than men once being released from prison, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
Ann Bartolo, the first Chief of Female Offenders for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, was tasked with assessing inequities in federal incarceration for women and men between 1989 and 1992.
Bartolo said, “The most striking [part] was that prisons were actually built for men by men. So when it came to women being incarcerated, they built and adapted facilities for them, but they never changed the policies,”
Policies on gender-specific training and resources, including better specialized healthcare in prison, were some of the suggestions made by those interviewed in 2018 for the Listening Project report.
Lida Shepherd is optimistic about future reforms. The West Virginia Criminal Justice Reform Coalition has set goals for sentencing and bail reform among other policy changes in the next session.
“We have arrived at this place because of policy decisions that have been made, and [if] they have been made, they can be unmade,” Shepherd said. “ I see it as a really ripe political opportunity. I think we are in the right moment politically to really have an impact on those issues.”
Other organizations in the state, which were part of the West Virginia Criminal Justice Listening Project included: the Friendship Room in Morgantown, Sister of Saint Joseph Health Foundation, Recovery Point of West Virginia, Covenant House, Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Laotong Yoga, Kanawha Institute for Social Research and Action, West Virginia Council of Churches, Union Mission, WVU Extension, The Anchor Project and Step by Step West Virginia.
Story and Videos by Anna N. Saab and James Whitley