This report was written for WVCBP by Rayna E. Momen, MA.
Over the past 40 years, the mass incarceration of women has exploded in West Virginia (WV), growing by a staggering 2,731 percent from 1978 to 2019. Female incarceration has grown so quickly, in fact, that women are being incarcerated at a higher rate than men in Mountain State prisons.
But the reasons more women are going to prison in WV have less to do with rising crime and more to do with social drivers (like poverty and substance abuse), and policy drivers (like changes in the way police respond to crime, and in sentencing decisions that determine who goes to prison and for how long). Many residents struggle to meet their basic needs in this largely rural state that ranks poorly on a number of social and economic indicators and falls entirely within the Appalachian region. Factors such as poverty, rural isolation, under-education, and addiction increase the chances that women will come into contact with the criminal legal system and end up behind bars. Once incarcerated, a range of far-reaching consequences impact not just these women, but their families, communities, and the state as a whole.
The good news is, there are practical ways to reduce the number of women going to prison, and the number of women who go back to prison after release. Better supporting women in their everyday lives — before and after a period of incarceration — along with changes in outdated and harmful policies means more women can remain with their families and in their communities, better positioned to meet their needs and access critical resources. Identifying the most impactful interventions requires a better understanding of the scope and prevalence of female incarceration in WV, which rests heavily on the data that is collected and what we do with it.