Skip to content Skip to navigation

Creating more chances for life after incarceration

In West Virginia, formerly incarcerated people and allies are eliminating barriers to food assistance and employment.

By Lida Shepherd, Program Director, AFSC West Virginia Economic Justice Project 

After serving nearly a year in jail for a felony drug conviction, Summer Meade was determined to get her life back on track. The 29-year-old mother has struggled with drug addiction for nearly a decade in West Virginia, a state where the opioid epidemic has devastated families and communities and led to the highest drug overdose death rate in the country.  

Summer completed an intensive residential program focused on long-term recovery—and proudly became a peer mentor for other women dealing with similar struggles. 

But despite these accomplishments, Summer worried about whether she could earn enough money to pay for food and other needs. She knew she couldn’t get food assistance. As part of the welfare “reform” program enacted in 1996, people with felony drug convictions were barred from getting food benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). 

"When I first got out of jail, I couldn’t feed myself because I couldn’t get a job—nobody would hire me,” Summer says. “At one point, I went back to stealing just to be able to eat. It was a huge struggle for me.” 

The lack of access to stable employment or to public benefits—or both—are two of the biggest obstacles for people trying to get back on their feet after serving time in jail or prison. 

"Serving time” is generally used in reference to time spent behind the walls of a prison. But the reality is that people continue to serve time after their release, as well—through denial of food benefits, jobs, and housing and the stigma of a criminal conviction. Each of these can hurt the longterm health and well-being of their children and families, as well.  

Breaking down barriers to assistance

The good news is that West Virginia has taken major steps to end these unfair, discriminatory policies. This year, the state legislature made sweeping changes to eliminate barriers to food assistance and employment, thanks to organizing and advocacy by a coalition of formerly incarcerated people, their families, and organizations like AFSC. Here are some of the new laws that will take effect this year:

Easing re-entry after prison

Having a driver’s license is especially important in a rural state like West Virginia, where it is often needed to get to work on time, take children to school, and make doctors’ appointments. Eliminating the counterproductive practice of revoking a person’s license for non-driving related offenses is an issue AFSC has worked on for years. Another bill passed this year also makes it easier for people to obtain a state ID after being released from prison.

Increasing food security

Tens of thousands of West Virginians with felony drug convictions, like Summer, will now be eligible for SNAP, helping them afford the food they need. West Virginia now joins 48 other states that have already modified or eliminated the ban (South Carolina is now the only state that has yet to do so).

Improving job opportunities

Employers often reject job applications from people who have criminal convictions. The unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people is nearly five times higher than that of the general population. A new law helps to address that by allowing West Virginians with nonviolent felony convictions to petition to expunge their criminal record after five years of completing their sentence. Another obstacle to better-paying jobs are laws that limit those with criminal convictions from obtaining professional licenses. A new law will ease the restrictions on dozens of licenses— including social work, real estate, and occupational therapy. 

The time is now

As our state’s opioid epidemic continues to take an unfathomable toll on our communities, a growing number of elected officials —on both sides of the aisle—are recognizing that we cannot incarcerate our way out of this crisis. One reason for the shift in thinking is that the issue has become personal for many legislators. They have watched someone they know—a child, a nephew, a close friend—develop an addiction, go to prison, and struggle to restart their lives. 

Formerly incarcerated people and their families are also making a difference with their leadership. When I first met Summer, she had never engaged in a campaign. But over three months, she met with legislators, spoke to the media, and—in front of a crowd of 300 people at the state capitol—shared her story, showing lawmakers and the public what can happen when we invest in people instead of continuing to punish them after incarceration. 

“I shared my experience because I wanted people to know that I was trying to make a major come-around and wanted to help others,” Summer says. “When the bill to end the ban on SNAP passed, I was overwhelmed with joy—to know that I would get help to take care of myself and my kids and to be part of something that made me feel like I was doing something with my life.” 

Thanks to people like Summer and a strong network of allies, the movement to improve lives for West Virginians who have been incarcerated is growing. Together, we will continue working for a system that is fair, safe, and humane for everyone—and a state that invests in healing more than punishment.