By Jeffrey Kanode, RealWV
In a press conference on Monday, the West Virginia Council of Churches highlighted the ecumenical group’s ongoing advocacy for reform in West Virginia’s criminal justice system.
The council also called for three days of intentional prayer within the West Virginia faith community,
around the issues of justice and humane treatment of the incarcerated, and for equitable pay and
good working conditions for those who work within the prison system.
In his opening statement, Rev. Jeff Allen, Executive Director of the West Virginia Council of Churches, articulated a theme that each of the other speakers would echo: he praised the state legislature and the governor for the six bills just passed in a special session to deal with the workforce crisis in the state correctional system. Allen called the legislative package “a very good and substantial first step to remedy the current crisis. But a step a journey does not make. We do not want to lose sight of the many issues facing the criminal justice system in West Virginia.”
Bishop Mark Brennan of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese of the Catholic Church, presented a broad argument explaining why criminal justice reform should be an issue the faith community engages.
“Why do we care about people who are in prison or the people who guard them?” Brennan asked. “We care because we believe every human being is made in God’s image and likeness, and deserves genuine respect simply for that fact.”
Brennan also emphasized the belief that someone’s action does not change their humanity or their human rights which must always be respected.
“That image does not depend on our behavior,” Brennan said. “We can behave badly, or well, but we still do it as human beings made in God’s likeness. For those who are incarcerated, respecting the divine image means they are provided safety, reasonably good living conditions…recreational opportunities, educational opportunities.”
Brennan lifted up Catholic Distance University, based in Charles Town WV, as an example of an institution providing classes – even degrees – to incarcerated people.
Rev. Roberta Smith, an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) pastor, and the president of the Charleston Black Ministerial Alliance, focused on incarcerated mothers, and their children. According to Smith, sixty percent of incarcerated women have children under ten years old, and those women were the primary caregivers for those children. She said that the criminal justice system makes it very hard for incarcerated women and their children to stay connected.
“Children of incarcerated mothers have no memories of baking cookies with their mothers, or going on family vacations. Their memories are talking to her through bullet proof glass, and watching guards lead her to a cell,” Smith said. She offered solutions such as minimizing the amount of times an incarcerated mother moves from prison to prison, and making visits and communications between mother and children more consistent.
“Mothers need ongoing, positive contact with their children, predictable in-person visits with their children. Children need better access, more flexible ways of communicating with their mothers,” Smith reflected.
Rev. Gregory Pennington of St. Christopher Church, and the Episcopal Diocese of West Virginia Ecumenical Officer, spoke of the need for prayer.
“In a resounding call for solidarity and change,” he said, “The West Virginia Council of Churches has called for August 18-20 to be ‘three days of prayer and support’ for those incarcerated, and for correctional staff. With an enduring commitment to justice and compassion, the Council aims to shed light on the challenges faced by individuals in the criminal justice system, and those who serve them,” Pennington said.
He noted that fifty-two deaths occurred in West Virginia prisons last year.
Beverly Sharp, the Executive Director of REACH Initiatives, also cast light on the number of incarcerated people who die in West Virginia. She said we are “sentencing people to death” due to poor conditions in the prison.
A decades long veteran of the Federal prison system, Sharp called for comprehensive reform—more humane treatment for prisoners, and better pay and equity among employees of the criminal justice system.
“I worked in the system for thirty years, not the state system, but the federal system,” Sharp said. “I am not speaking as someone who does not know the system or has not been engaged in the system, but as somebody who has spent the majority of my life working with people that have been incarcerated.”
According to Sharp, there are 808 “collateral consequences” to having a criminal record in West Virginia, and an additional 1,824 collateral consequences on the federal level. She described these “collateral consequences” as impediments that impact a former incarcerated person’s ability to find livable housing, find employment that pays a living wage, and even impedes the person from acquiring adequate food.
“I don’t know how anyone here who could navigate 808 collateral consequences to a bad decision you made in your life,” Sharp noted.
Lida Shephered, of the American Friends Service Committee, and the co-chair of the West Virginia Council of Churches’ prison ministry, spoke of restorative justice, so important in the Quaker tradition.
She said that restorative justice asks “what has to change?” in individuals and in the community, in systems, so that harm no longer occurs and people can lead whole lives. Shepherd continued to flesh out the foundation of restorative justice by calling for West Virginians to ask if “our criminal justice system promotes true and lasting accountability for harm and wrong doing… or does it create a vicious cycle of pain and suffering?”
Shepherd lifted up systemic problems such as poverty, lack of mental health care, and the housing/homelessness crisis as underlying causes of crime.
Shepherd said there are 9,740 incarcerated people in West Virginia.
“For the vast majority of these individuals, they are being locked up not because they pose any threat or
danger—and in fact, over half in the regional jails have not been convicted of a crime—but under our current money-bail system, they do not have the financial means to purchase their freedom,” she said.
Rev. Alton Dillard, African Methodist Episcopal (AME) pastor and Presiding Elder of the West Virginia/Pittsburg District enumerated ways local churches could become advocates for incarcerated people, their children and families, and formerly incarcerated people.
Churches are ideal places to have job fairs, he noted. Churches could buy gift certificates to barber or beauty shops, and provide nice clothing for formerly incarcerated people who have job interviews.
“If you feel good on the inside, you look good on the outside,” he said. “I work with young kids
whose parents are in jail. I see how they hurt. If you have lawyers in your church, talk to your
lawyers and let them fight for them.”
Dillard said that the prayers of churches are essential. The labor of people of faith must go hand-in-hand with those prayers, though.
“We need to go outside our walls, wherever the people are,” he reflected. “The word of God tells me it is our responsibility to take care of our people. I don’t care if you are red, yellow, black or white, Methodist, Catholic, whatever you are – the word of God is telling us to stand up.”