Women’s History Month – Making History for the Wrong Reasons

The month of March is observed as Women’s History Month. But in the West Virginia criminal legal system, women are making history for the wrong reasons. West Virginia ranks ninth in the country for rates of incarcerating women, and female incarceration has grown 2,731% between 1978 to 2019. Nearly three-quarters (72.21%) of women incarcerated at Lakin Correctional Center (the state’s only prison for women) are under the age of 40 years old, with a combined total of 96.6% of Lakin’s women having completed less than high school (47.64%) or high school only (48.96%) as their highest educational attainment. Low educational attainment and related diminished employment opportunities often lead women into the criminal legal system through survival behaviors such as theft or drug charges. Upon release from incarceration, criminal convictions make it even more difficult for women to become gainfully employed or return successfully and self-sufficiently to society 

The incarceration of women negatively impacts the next generation. Nationwide, the majority of incarcerated females are mothers and this is also true in West Virginia. According to a report by Rayna Momen with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, an estimated 80% of women in jail and 62% of women in Lakin are mothers. When women are incarcerated, their children tend to be cared for by an extended family member and not the father of the child. Otherwise, the children enter the foster care system which, in West Virginia, is already overburdened. Having an incarcerated parent is counted as an adverse childhood experience and children with incarcerated mothers are more likely to become incarcerated themselves.  

Women are more likely to have experienced abuse, substance use, and HIV prior to incarceration. Nationally, 85% of incarcerated women were sexual or physical violence victims at some point in their life, with 3 of 4 women in prison having experienced physical abuse by an intimate partner and 1 in 4 women having been raped before entering prison. These high rates of victimization and harm not only result in high rates of substance use and trauma, they also underlie women’s incarceration.  

The SWIFT Defense of Women project was created to address these high rates of underemployment, victimization, and parent-child estrangement experienced by women defendants in West Virginia. By taking a trauma-informed approach to female defendants in five public defender corporations in the state, the SWIFT Defense social worker assesses female defendants for trauma, substance use, victimization, low educational attainment, underemployment, and parenting needs that – if met – will enable females to become more self-sufficient and exit the criminal legal system in favor of a healthier, safer, more sustainable life. The SWIFT Defense social worker partners with female defendants to understand their goals and ensure these goals are met through appropriate forms of treatment and resource referral. By engaging female criminal defendants in a gender-responsive manner, the SWIFT Defense social worker can address the root issues of oppression, survival, and disenfranchisement that many female defendants experience as an entry point into the criminal legal system.  

To date, the SWIFT Defense social worker has advocated for female defendants to have their needs met and rights restored with Child Protective Services, with substance use treatment programs, and with practitioners of trauma treatment and mental health care. The SWIFT Defense social worker recognizes that the rehabilitation of the individual means the restoration of rights, reunification of family, and well-being of the individual. The SWIFT Defense social worker supports female defendants as they embark on the path of rehabilitation and restoration so these defendants may support and sustain themselves and the next generation.

The SWIFT Defense of Women project is making history in West Virginia for the women the project serves by intervening into the lives of female defendants to decrease incarceration rates of women. Through the project’s strategic interventions, SWIFT Defense of Women hopes to reduce West Virginia women’s incarceration rates and ensure women make history for the positive changes they are making in their lives as they contribute to the success of the state.  

For more information on SWIFT Defense of Women, a Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation-Chan Zuckerberg Initiative donor advised fund grant project, please contact Stephanne Thornton at stephanne.c.thornton@wv.gov  

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