MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Women Beyond Bars, an interactive installation that explores the story of women’s incarceration in West Virginia, is on display at West Virginia University’s downtown library.
It was created by Reed College of Media students with funding from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. The installation focuses on previously incarcerated women who have been interviewed by students over the last two years and includes portraits of these women and their stories. Hunter Bennett, a WVU junior who helped collect the women’s stories and organize the exhibit, said one of the goals is to face criminal justice reform in the state.
“I think a large part of this exhibit is a human element of things because there are the statistics, and for some people, I think statistics are the thing. It’s numbers for them,” Bennett said. “But when you hear someone’s story directly, that really — that can be really impactful for someone, that can do a lot more than just seeing a graph.”
Bennett said while getting human stories out is important, so too is the data. The installation has facts about how much West Virginia spends on incarcerating women and the different ways women are imprisoned, among other things.
The junior said while criminal justice is a big topic in the state, people still don’t have all the facts and details, so the installation wants to arm them with that knowledge.
“I think this exhibit adds a lot more specific data, like when you see that there’s something that says ‘one in ten children in the state of West Virginia will have a parent who’s in the justice system,” Bennett said. “I think that’s really impactful on somebody, and it adds that human effect when you see these stories to just destigmatize these issues because there is a large stigma around incarceration.”
Mary Kay McFarland, a teaching associate professor at the Reed College, said one of the goals is to make sure everyone who visits the exhibit understands that there’s actually no part of the community or state that isn’t touched by the number of people being incarcerated and the amount of money being spent on it.
McFarland said this project leads up to something bigger, a virtual criminal justice reform summit, which will be held on Nov. 12.
“Piper Kerman will be speaking at that and Dwayne Betts — to actually lead people in discussions about the different ways we might find solutions to decrease the criminalized population here in West Virginia,” McFarland said.
Kerman and Betts are two best-selling authors who were formerly incarcerated and had “unique experiences” that will be very useful during the summit, McFarland said. During the summit, there will be discussions led by the two of them and break out sessions to talk about subjects like the pipeline to prison and getting women resources they need to survive once they are released.
In the meantime, those who want to visit the installation can visit whenever they want if they are a WVU student or email ahead to schedule a tour if they are not. At the exhibit, visitors can scan QR codes on each portrait to learn each woman’s entire story.
To schedule a tour, members of the public can email Rhy Wiethe at email@example.com .