West Virginia’s prison population has ballooned, and formerly incarcerated people face numerous obstacles when they are released. A Charleston-based program pairs them with mentors for one year, to help them successfully adjust and reorient their lives.
Amber Blankenship, peer-entry program coordinator with the REACH Initiative, said most people typically have “zero support” after their often traumatizing experiences in the criminal justice system. She added that many are also struggling with substance-use disorders.
“When they’re released, we just expect them to make all these decisions and be responsible, and it’s just, their brain has to heal,” she said. “They have to train their brain back to do that.”
Housing, health care and employment all are challenging to find for people coming home. A survey this year by Race Matters and the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy found nearly half of respondents said their biggest worry after leaving prison was coping with the social stigma around their conviction and incarceration.
Blankenship emphasized that the mentorship program is a starting point for creating community and healing.
“People in West Virginia are hurting, they’re broken, and they need hope,” she said. “They need another individual that has, maybe, a similar story that can build that relationship, build trust.”
Sara Whitaker, criminal legal policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, pointed out that prison sentences aren’t served alone.
“There are obvious ways that this hurts the people who live with them and who rely on them for care,” she said, “but it’s particularly bad for children.”
She added that one in 10 West Virginia kids has had a parent go to jail or prison. Research shows most incarcerated parents in the Mountain State have one or more children younger than 18 years of age.