IMORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Students at West Virginia University and the University of Oklahoma are collaborating on a two-year research project regarding the respective states’ disproportionate numbers of incarcerated women.
WVU Assistant Professor of Multi-Media Journalism Mary Kay McFarland is working with more than 55 students at WVU as they kicked off the research this fall.
“West Virginia is 14th in the nation if you only count our state prison, which is Lakin, for women’s population,” McFarland said on a recent edition of WAJR-Clarksburg’s “The Gary Bowden Show.” “However, West Virginia is home to more federal prisons (per capita) than any other state, so we also have Alderson and Hazelton, which house an enormous amount of women.”
Oklahoma, meanwhile, leads the nation in women’s incarceration rates.
“We actually were number one until they re-figured that the federal prisons aren’t all West Virginia residents natively. But they are now, so I think it matters,” McFarland said.
The rate of women’s incarceration, McFarland said, has grown by more than 800 percent since 1978.
“Just to give you a personal idea on how this affects West Virginians, the cost of incarcerating any inmate is about $26,000 per year to tax payers,” she said. “So just on a cost level, we need to be concerned about how many people we’re putting in prison.”
However, the issue is with more than just the cost.
The conditions in prisons for women tend to be much less amenable than for men, McFarland said.
“Recent studies have come out and said that when needs are not being met that disproportionately, women in prisons have mental health issues and abuse,” she said. “That when they come out, the deck is stacked against them, and so the odds of them going back to prison or living in poverty are very high.”
More so, many of the women incarcerated are severely under educated.
“Women in Lakin’s facility, less than half of them have a high school education,” McFarland said. “That’s not all that surprising.”
McFarland said it’s even worse for those here in the Mountain State because there are so few programs to aid them, which is not the case in Oklahoma.
“Because they’ve been number one in this for a long time, there are a lot of programs already established to help women and so they have more actual official people and reentry programs,” she said. “It’s (beneficial) for our students to see that compared to West Virginia where when women come out, it’s a much more rural issue and there aren’t nearly as many organizations helping women.”
Of course, those working for the Division of Corrections do try, McFarland said.
“But it’s harder because we don’t have the same public transportation,” she said. “Just getting a driver’s license back is prohibited for women to be able to find a job, to be able to reenter society.”
Students are now in the first semester of the two-year project, what McFarland calls a “survey semester.”
“This first semester is more of us just getting a picture of what it looks like in West Virginia of where women are coming from, what their educational background is,” she said.
One interesting fact that they’ve already found is that many of the crimes for these women are non-violent and often drug-related.
“Even the ones that are theft are fraud tend to have a drug component to them,” McFarland said. “The question then becomes is the better policy to incarcerate what the American Medical Association says is a mental health issue, or is it to find a diversionary program to actually treat the problem?
“That’s one of that we’re looking at, what is our approach? How do we rehabilitate people with drug abuse or substance abuse issues?”
McFarland said this has been a rewarding experience thus far for her students, to be a part of such a project.
“It’s wonderful to have students go out and come back having talked to real people and really just light up and say, ‘Wow this is really substantive work,'” she said.
The group will start publishing their findings as early as next semester on a website they’ve yet to decide the name of, McFarland said.
“Right now, the advocacy students are putting questionnaires in the field to even just gauge public awareness of the problem and what the issues are that are most engaging to people,” she said. “That will build so that at the end, we’re hoping to have a big public event and share our findings and drive public awareness on this issue.”