The most powerful advocates for changing unjust systems are the people who are most affected by them. Last month, AFSC’s West Virginia Economic Justice Program hosted Leading for Justice, a summit for people impacted by the criminal legal system in West Virginia. Led by those with lived experience, the summit gave participants a space to share personal stories, build their advocacy skills, and create stronger bonds with one another.
The summit culminated in a collective day of action at the West Virginia Capitol on the first day of the 2023 state legislature. Participants met with their legislators, advocating on a range of issues. Those issues included restoring voting rights for people on probation and parole as well as increasing access to feminine hygiene products for people in prison.
For many attendees like Payton Childers, it was their first time advocating with elected officials—or even setting foot in the Capitol building. In this interview with AFSC’s JoAnna Vance, Payton talks about what that experience was like.
Q: Could you tell us a little about yourself and why you took part in the Leading for Justice summit?
A: I got in trouble in 2019, and it was due to addiction. Now I’ve been working as a recovery coach for about a year. As part of my job at the day report center, I work really closely with the legal system in Wayne. My recovery coach called me and said, “There’s this summit and you should really go.” And I’m so glad that I went. It gave me the opportunity to have a voice, to say hey, these are the things that are wrong.
Q: What is one of the issues in the West Virginia criminal legal system that you want addressed?
A: One of the biggest things is access to feminine hygiene products for people in prison. I dealt with this while incarcerated. They gave me boxers instead of proper undergarments so I couldn’t even use a pad. Then, I didn’t have enough pads to sustain me for the whole week. When [the guards] come in, they drop a box of pads on the floor. And then you’ve got 20 to 30 girls all rushing to that box to get as many as they can because they don’t know when they’re going to get them next.
It’s crucial for so many reasons that people in prison have better access to these products. It’s a must. They’re human, this is a need. When the state doesn’t make these products more accessible, people’s survival skills kick in. I think the women who are incarcerated would get along a whole lot better if all of their needs were met and they weren’t all having to fight to get their needs met.
Also deferred adjudication is so important. [In deferred adjudication, a judge gives a defendant a period of time to satisfy certain requirements to avoid a criminal conviction.] It gave me the opportunity to turn my life around and not have felony charges, which makes a huge difference now. If I had a felony charge, I wouldn’t be sitting where I’m at. My whole career path would be completely different.
If we focused on rehabilitation and getting people into treatment, instead of sticking them behind bars and hoping that they figure it out, then I think the recidivism rate would go down tremendously.
Q: What was your experience at the Leading for Justice summit?
A: The experience at the summit was amazing. I learned a lot. The parts that stick out the most was hearing how others were impacted. And their stories. I was impacted in certain ways, but you have others who were impacted in different ways. It really sheds a light on how much is wrong and needs to be fixed.
It also gave me the opportunity to build relationships with people I would have never met otherwise. That in turn steered me in the right direction to begin making changes.
The training on how to tell your story for purpose in "X" amount of time was really helpful. It prepared me for the meeting with Sen. Patricia Rucker. In that meeting, I only had eight minutes. The training gave me the opportunity to learn how to tell my story and make it compelling. I have a whole lot of things to say, but it helped me understand how I do it and who I talk to.
By the end of telling our stories, [the senator] ... was ready to sponsor the bill.
Q: You met with the senator about the bill to expand access to feminine hygiene products in prisons. How did your meeting go?
A: This was the first time I’d ever done something like this. I didn’t know what to expect or how much time I had, but I truly don’t think it could have gone better than how it did, given we ended up having only eight minutes. By the end of telling our stories, the senator seemed very receptive and was ready to sponsor the bill. She also asked what else could be done, which gave me hope. Because there’s so much more that needs to be done.
Q: What would you say to people who have been personally affected by the criminal legal system but have not advocated on these issues?
A: I would tell people that their voice matters. It can be intimidating, and you can feel that regardless of what you say it won’t matter, which is probably due to the trauma of being incarcerated. But there are so many people who are fighting for what you’re passionate about, too. And when you have so many people together working on one thing, it can make a world of difference.
Getting people connected to the right people through opportunities like the summit really help. Most people aren’t going to just walk into the Capitol without knowing what to say or what to do or where to go. Had it not been for the summit and going to the Capitol together, I would not have been able to do what I did in the senator’s office that day.