Women Beyond Bars
A two-year grant-funded project in the WVU Reed College of Media explores the causes and effects of the high incarceration rate of women in West Virginia.Written by Rhy Wiethe
A two-year grant-funded project in the WVU Reed College of Media explores the causes and effects of the high incarceration rate of women in West Virginia.Written by Rhy Wiethe
“It’s like anything with life, you find something that you’re passionate about, and if you don’t follow it to the end, then you’re cutting yourself short,” said Judy Utley. “These women that are incarcerated need someone to believe in them.”
Utley is a volunteer recovery coach in the Lost Creek, West Virginia area, for Celebrate Recovery, a Christian-based recovery network focused on helping individuals recover from addiction. She has a passion for helping formerly incarcerated women like herself.
“I was behind bars in Michigan because I started smoking crack [cocaine] in the ‘90s,” Utley said. “This led me to a life of crime and eight years behind bars.”
Watch an interview with Judy Utley on the importance of a support system, produced by Patrick Orsagos.
Upon release from prison, Utley moved to West Virginia for a fresh start and tried to leave her addiction in the past – but that past still follows her 20 years later. In one instance, she bounced a check and was sentenced to home confinement for two years because of her record.
“There are a lot of things that stay with you forever,” Utley said. “When you’re young, you don’t always realize that.”
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, West Virginia incarcerates women at one of the highest rates in the world, which has taken a massive economic and sociological toll on entire communities. Another state that ranks high in terms of women’s incarceration rates is Oklahoma. In the summer of 2018, Dean Diana Martinelli, who was an associate dean under Dean Maryanne Reed at the time, saw an opportunity to partner with colleague Ed Kelley, dean of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma, to address this issue through a collaborative solutions-based journalism and advocacy project. Martinelli and Kelley appealed to the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, and were awarded a grant that would allow them to engage students and faculty in a two-year project to raise awareness about women’s incarceration in the two states.
Reed called on Mary Kay McFarland, teaching associate professor of journalism, and Geah Pressgrove, associate professor of advertising and public relations, to lead this two-year initiative in and out of the classroom. McFarland’s talent and passion for multimedia reporting paired well with Pressgrove’s aptitude and enthusiasm for advocacy.
The project began in fall 2018, so to prepare, Pressgrove and McFarland spent hours mapping out ideas on the glass walls of Martin Hall’s Alexis and Jim Pugh Media Innovation Lab, creating and recreating goals for what would become known as “Women Beyond Bars.” In the two years since, students have gained invaluable experience, while sharing the stories of formerly incarcerated women and aiding efforts for proactive change in the West Virginia justice system.
Two Women Beyond Bars–related courses were offered that fall. While McFarland’s multimedia journalism students began in-the-field interviews, Pressgrove’s advertising and public relations research course focused on better understanding public opinion on and issues around women’s incarceration.
Over the next several weeks, Pressgrove’s class would conduct over 40 interviews and survey more than 830 West Virginia residents to gauge which factors have the largest impacts on their communities. Three major themes were identified: 1) concern for the children impacted by incarceration, 2) the lack of post-incarceration employment opportunities, and 3) the effects of government policies on recidivism. These findings were used to influence the advocacy communications class that took place the following spring semester.
Students conduct an interview with Kayini Wilson. Watch Kayini's interview, produced by Photo by Mary Kay McFarland
On the journalism side, McFarland was pulling from her work reporting on women and children affected by obstacles such as addiction and poverty. Over the years, she has developed a passion for using journalism to shed light on these issues.
“The state of West Virginia has a lot of obstacles [to overcome] before its people can experience what we call prosperity,” McFarland said about the opportunity to report on issues harming the state.
Students in McFarland’s class began reporting on the driving factors of mass incarceration, including policy, prison conditions and types of crimes being committed. They interviewed law enforcement officials, policymakers, and representatives from organizations that provide resources for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people to gain a more holistic understanding of the issue. Throughout the process, they learned not only how to create quality multimedia content and news packages, but how to use a “solutions journalism” approach to reporting. This approach evaluates the solutions being applied to a problem for their successes and failures.
“It takes a lot of time to understand the justice system – how people are involved in it, how they become involved in it, and to understand them as human beings. Otherwise, you just scare people, and you make them feel like the world around them is dangerous. It’s important when talking about issues like crime and violence and real brokenness to help people understand why it’s happening, who it’s happening to and what people are doing about it to make your community and life better.”
“It takes a lot of time to understand the justice system – how people are involved in it, how they become involved in it, and to understand them as human beings,” McFarland said. “Otherwise, you just scare people, and you make them feel like the world around them is dangerous. It’s important when talking about issues like crime and violence and real brokenness to help people understand why it’s happening, who it’s happening to and what people are doing about it to make your community and life better.”
That first semester, students produced stories about the state’s Drug Court system, the state’s use of Justice Reinvestment Act money and how successful those investments were, policies on court fines and fees that prevented individuals from getting driver’s licenses after release, and the demographics of West Virginia women serving prison sentences. From their work, the students learned that fewer than 50 percent of incarcerated women in the state had completed high school.
The students’ research and reporting provided a foundation for the following term. Pressgrove’s students were split into three groups and asked to produce an advocacy campaign based on the research findings from fall.
As part of the team tasked with advocating for employment after incarceration, public relations student Hunter Bennett helped create “Back-On-Your-Feet” boxes, which contained such items as professional clothing, self-care products and resume and interview tips to help women find jobs during reintegration. Bennett’s grandmother works for the Hampshire Lighthouse halfway home in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. The home helps women adjust to life outside of prison or jail and prepares them for the workforce and independent living. Bennett personally delivered some of the boxes to the home, and it had a profound impact on him.
“They were overjoyed with just this simple gift and were genuinely thanking me because they were happy to know that people were looking out for them and acknowledging that there is a [justice] system that needs work,” Bennett said. “Many of the women in the home had their children with them, and these boxes provided hope for a better life.”
When the Women Beyond Bars project began, Anna Saab (BSJ, 2020; M.S. IMC 2021) was a journalism junior who already had a passion for justice and community development. After taking McFarland’s course in fall 2018, she enrolled in Pressgrove’s spring 2019 course to continue working on the project.
“There’s probably a majority of us that if we do not know someone that’s incarcerated or has had some sort of run-in with the law, we know someone who does,” Saab said. “To have concepts of what something is like and then to actually be able to interview people and go into communities and see how complex the experience actually is, is very unique.”
Saab’s team was charged with educating communities on the importance of being trauma-informed – especially regarding children. This education helps community members and leaders understand how to intervene in different situations to help break the cycle of incarceration, addiction and poverty.
The final team of students in Pressgrove’s advocacy class helped get three policies passed in the West Virginia legislature: one that allows those formerly incarcerated for drug crimes to receive SNAP benefits; a second ensures that individuals obtain a state-issued ID upon release from prison to help with employment; and the final policy addresses applications for expungement of nonviolent felony convictions to help people obtain post-incarceration employment.
On the journalism side, McFarland’s students conducted video interviews with formerly incarcerated women and began to document some of their experiences. Patrick Orsagos (BSJ, 2020; MSJ, 2021), a journalism junior at the time, conducted many of the interviews, the first of which was with Judy Utley.
“On top of the interview nerves, we were talking about the deep and sad reality of substance abuse and ruined relationships, which was intense. Judy is one of the most amazing women I’ve ever met. Getting to know her and helping to tell her story changed my outlook on journalism, and she has impacted me more than this project has perhaps impacted her.”
“She lives in the middle of nowhere, and I interviewed her on her porch,” Orsagos said. “On top of the interview nerves, we were talking about the deep and sad reality of substance abuse and ruined relationships, which was intense. Judy is one of the most amazing women I’ve ever met. Getting to know her and helping to tell her story changed my outlook on journalism, and she has impacted me more than this project has perhaps impacted her.”
Orsagos continued working on the Women Beyond Bars project in some capacity every semester throughout the rest of his time in the College of Media. In October 2021, he successfully defended his master’s project, which was a podcast on bail reform that was posted on West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
As the end of the spring semester drew near, a group of students from both courses travelled to Washington, D.C., to meet with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, Sen. Joe Manchin and Rep. David McKinley. The journalism students documented meetings and made contacts for future stories. They also got a closer look at how lobbying works to reform policy and learned about the role politicians’ aides play in shaping and writing reform bills. The public relations students advocated for multiple bills that, if passed, would help reform incarceration and reintegration practices. They discussed the importance of the bills and the impact they would have in their own backyards. The students also had the opportunity to share their work with representatives from national programs like the Vera Institute for Justice, the Sentencing Project and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“The trip to Washington, D.C., opened my eyes and allowed me to witness firsthand how policymaking, support systems, coalitions and advocacy groups each play into solving problems in our society,” Bennett said.
During the summer of 2019, McFarland built and launched the Women Beyond Bars website to host the news stories and interviews produced in the journalism classes. Students continued adding stories to the site until the project’s end in 2020.
After a productive spring semester, an even busier fall was in store. Another public relations research course and journalism multimedia storytelling course were on the books, as well as a Women Beyond Bars–based capstone class. Since the project was designed to build upon previous semesters’ findings, the research class worked on the same three campaigns that the advocacy communications class had created. Their task was to come up with recommendations to improve and sustain the campaigns. Meanwhile, the public relations capstone students traveled to the Second Chances Job Fair in Flatwoods, West Virginia, to interview employers about the importance of hiring justice-involved individuals and to hear firsthand from women about what a second chance has meant to them.
The capstone students also worked to build important community relationships and to reach a wider audience. Part of this initiative was hosting a Second Chances Breakfast and Reentry Simulation, an event that was spurred by conversations with employers at the job fair who still had doubts about hiring formerly incarcerated women. More than 50 employers from around the state attended the breakfast, where students presented their research and shared some of the benefits of hiring this population. During the Reentry Simulation, which is offered and run by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, attendees experienced some of the challenges that incarcerated individuals face once they depart from the justice system and attempt to construct a productive life.
Community members participate in a Reentry Simulation, offered by the U.S. Attorney's Office, to gain a better understanding of the challenges that exist for the formerly incarcerated.
“This simulation changed my entire view on incarceration,” said Damian Clement, WVU Honors College assistant dean. “I have never known an incarcerated person, so I didn’t have a very thorough understanding of the struggles of post-incarceration.”
Students in McFarland’s storytelling class continued working on news stories for the Women Beyond Bars website and began developing multimedia content for the Humanities Action Lab’s States of Incarceration traveling exhibit and website. The States of Incarceration project focused on the roots of mass incarceration across the country and invited university students to explore those roots in their own states. Students from more than 20 universities contributed to the exhibit and website.
The Reed College of Media’s journalism students traveled throughout West Virginia and reported on several topics, including the work of an organizational coalition dedicated to working for justice reform, overpopulation resulting in a quarter of incarcerated women serving prison sentences in regional jails with fewer resources, the shortage of rehabilitation programs in women’s prisons and the KIDS program that allows newborns to stay with their mothers in prison for 18 months.
“To be a fly on the wall and simply listen and observe people telling their stories is extremely impactful,” Saab said. “We don’t have enough experience with incarceration to make preconceived notions about people, but witnessing the human factor can change biases and spark conversation.”
On Jan. 31, 2020, Pressgrove and McFarland took a group of 30 students to Lakin Correctional Center, the only all-female prison in the state.
“This experience helped bring to light and humanize issues that the students had only studied from afar,” Pressgrove said when recalling the trip. “There are young women who could easily be one of their classmates imprisoned alongside women who could easily be their own mother. It was really impactful.”
“This experience helped bring to light and humanize issues that the students had only studied from afar. There are young women who could easily be one of their classmates imprisoned alongside women who could easily be their own mother. It was really impactful.”
McFarland hoped that this experience would help shape students’ views of incarcerated women and help them empathetically engage with the project.
“I feel like as you talk to [incarcerated] women, you find that they want to be gainfully employed, they want to be good parents, they want to have options and be educated,” McFarland said. “And if there is a way forward for them to do that, they will do it.”
Around mid-semester, McFarland’s capstone students traveled to Wayne, West Virginia, for a weekend immersion experience with women living at Marie’s House Women’s Recovery Center. They recorded video interviews with more than a dozen formerly incarcerated women at various stages of addiction recovery, while they worked their way through Wayne County’s Drug Court system.
The two-year Women Beyond Bars project was scheduled to culminate in spring 2020 with a series of luncheons, breakfasts and speakers, as well as a large-scale portrait exhibit and the States of Incarceration display. But as students in the two capstone courses, a research course and multiple independent studies finalized their work on the project, the world was in the throes of the COVID-19 global pandemic, and in-person activities were canceled.
Although all in-person events came to a screeching halt, there remained positive opportunities. The research class was still able to present at the University’s virtual Spring Undergraduate Research Symposium and the journalism capstone students each produced a print and video story evaluating different solutions to mass incarceration, including legislation for bail reform, a restorative justice initiative, and the need for more reentry resources as a result of COVID-19 early prison releases. These stories and videos were published on the States of Incarceration website as well as the Women Beyond Bars site.
As students adjusted to hybrid online/in-person class formats in the fall 2020
semester, the final phases of the Women Beyond Bars project were coming to fruition.
Pressgrove’s event planning class planned and executed the virtual Beyond Bars
Summit featuring Piper Kerman, author of memoir-turned-Netflix show “Orange is
the New Black,” and Dwayne Betts, author of the best-selling book “Felon.” More
than 600 attendees registered and tuned in to the event online, where Kerman
and Betts each shared their experiences from prison and life after prison as
a testament to the struggle of the formerly incarcerated. Since their imprisonment,
both have been advocates for change to the criminal “punishment” system, as Kerman
refers to it.
Following Kerman’s and Bett’s presentations, students from the event planning course facilitated ten different breakout sessions with experts on such incarceration topics as public health, education and childcare.
In this final semester, McFarland’s independent study students finalized two portrait exhibits. One was installed in the WVU Downtown Library and featured portraits of formerly incarcerated women with QR codes that viewers could scan with their phones to see multimedia stories of their experiences. The installation also included a donation box for the Appalachian Prison Book Project, which provides books to prisoners in six Appalachian states.
The second portrait exhibit was a condensed version of the WVU Library installation and was placed in a variety of high-traffic locations on the WVU Evansdale, Downtown and Health Sciences campuses. The traveling portrait exhibit collected a total of 110 books for the Appalachian Prison Book Project.
After two years of working with College of Media students and faculty on the Women Beyond Bars project, Utley was hopeful owing to the increased awareness of these issues and actual policy changes that had taken effect. And for this next generation of people fighting for criminal justice reform, she had a bit of advice: “Don’t lose your passion,” she said. “Don’t get frustrated and lose your passion. Since COVID started in March , I’ve lost 73 clients to overdose. I could just turn my back and walk away, but if I don’t get up and go to work every day, I would lose 73 more. So you just have to be willing to take the bumps and bruises and keep going.”
Rhy Wiethe is a senior public relations student in the Reed College of Media at West Virginia University. She is also pursuing three minors in French, English and vocal performance. Wiethe worked as the Public Relations Director intern for Women Beyond Bars during the fall 2020 semester and facilitated the Women Beyond Bars traveling portrait exhibit as well as organized the Appalachian Prison Book Project book drive. Wiethe is currently participating in the Accelerated Masters Program to earn a Master’s of Science in Journalism while completing her Bachelor’s degree. She plans on continuing her education after her Master’s program to pursue a PhD in public relations.