Inside the spotless industrial kitchen at Recovery Point, a long-term drug treatment facility in Charleston, W.Va., Tracy Jividen helps to cook three meals a day for the nearly 100 women she calls her sisters. This space is her domain, and the irony isn’t lost on her: Last winter, she was stealing so she could eat.
At 37, Jividen has been locked up nearly all her life for crimes related to her addiction. She was first convicted of a drug felony seven years ago, when police found a meth lab in her home. She stayed off drugs for more than two years after she was released from prison, completed drug court, got one of her kids back, had another child and got married. When her marriage fell apart, she became depressed, and lost her job, her car and her kids. She started using heroin when she could afford it. And she wasn’t sure where her next meal would come from.
“There would be times I would walk around, and I would be hungry, and I would think, ‘Man, can I just get a sandwich?'” Jividen said.
SNAP benefits denied
Jividen can’t get food stamps for herself because she’s a drug felon in West Virginia. Increasingly desperate, she started shoplifting and writing bad checks she said were for food. Then one morning last November, she walked into a Piggly Wiggly, ate a sandwich in the store and tried to kite a check. Police said she had blank checks that didn’t belong to her, and they charged her with forgery.
Then, she walked back into jail.
“I said several times, ‘Mom, if they just gave me food stamps I would not have to do this,'” said Jividen.
Only West Virginia and two other states — South Carolina and Mississippi — still enforce a lifetime ban on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, for people who commit drug-related felonies. Indiana had a lifetime ban, but just changed its law to lift it, effective in 2020.
Most states have either opted out of the federal ban or adopted some restrictions — for instance, in some states, drug felons might have to take a drug test or complete a drug treatment program to qualify for SNAP.
West Virginia’s law does allow kids to get SNAP if their parents are drug felons, and in Jividen’s case, she chose to eat some of the food she bought with her kids’ benefits rather than go hungry.
“I was taking from them every day, and that’s not right,” Jividen said.
Emily Wang, a Yale School of Medicine professor who has treated those released from prison for more than a decade and has studied the ban’s impact, called such policies “punitive.”
“When people have served their time … and come home and yet still have these barriers, [that] is striking,” she said.
More than 2,100 drug felons were denied SNAP benefits in West Virginia in 2016, according to the state Department of Health and Human Resources. That figure doesn’t include those who didn’t apply knowing they’d be denied. The number has more than tripled during the past decade. For some comparison, Nebraska, a state whose population is similar to West Virginia’s, denied benefits to about 675 applicants in 2015 because of drug felony convictions.
West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources didn’t have a breakdown by county available or more recent numbers.
W.Va. numbers are “disturbing”
Experts called West Virginia’s numbers significant.
Marc Mauer, a leading expert on sentencing policy and director of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, The Sentencing Project, called them “disturbing, especially in a place like West Virginia,” considering its outsize opioid problem. The rationale behind the rule of law is flimsy too, he said, because it targets a single type of conviction.
“I could go to prison on three armed robbery convictions, but the day I get out, I could go and apply for food stamps, and if I met the income requirements I would qualify. It’s not clear why this is only applied to drug offenses,” he said. “It places people that are on the edge … a big shove over the edge in many cases.”
Nearly a fifth of West Virginians use SNAP benefits, and five of its counties rank in the top 100 nationwide for the concentration of food-stamp recipients per capita.
Lawmakers passed a federal ban on food stamps for drug felons in 1996 under the Clinton administration, a small part of a package of major welfare reform laws. Under the rule, felony drug offenders can’t get other welfare benefits either. Mauer calls the provision an outgrowth of War-on-Drugs-era policies — but one not based on evidence.
“This particular provision was thrown in as a relatively minor provision. It received literally two minutes of debate,” Mauer said. “When one thinks about the tens of thousands of people in various states affected by it, two minutes of debate in Congress seems pretty shameful for such an important policy shift.”
The federal policy was designed to punish drug offenders and potentially deter people from committing such crimes, said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, an expert on federal and state welfare policy at CLASP, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit, who has studied the ban’s effects.
“I do think most states have, over time, recognized this isn’t helpful for the goal of reducing drug use,” she said. “Obviously, people who are suffering from addiction may not be thinking about the long-term consequences on many levels, and the added punishment does not seem to influence behavior.”
The issue gained some traction in West Virginia in 2011 when Daniel Foster, a Charleston physician who served 10 years in the state Senate, became the lone sponsor of a bill that would have lifted the ban entirely. The Senate passed the measure 27-6, but it died in a House committee before the end of the legislative session.
Seven years later, Foster maintains that the law “doesn’t put West Virginia in a good light … It just seems like penalizing folks in this way doesn’t provide any real benefits to society.”
West Virginians with felonies, drug-related or otherwise, have a tough time transitioning back into society as it is. The state Legislature passed a law last year that allows people with non-violent felony convictions to ask a court to reduce them to misdemeanors — but they have to maintain a clean record for 10 years first.
Other barriers remain: A so-called “ban the box” bill that would have prevented public employers from asking job applicants about their criminal records stalled in committee in February. And many felons can’t get public housing, although each West Virginia county housing authority has such discretion.
Shawn Tackett remembers feeling bereft of a support system when he was released after 10 years in federal prison.
Tackett, 40, runs a sober-living home in Cross Lanes, a Charleston suburb, called the Rock. He’s been off drugs for five years, but he did two stints in lock-up, including a sentence for conspiracy to distribute and manufacture meth.
“I look at it now and think of all the poison that I put on the streets, and the families that I destroyed, and the people that I hurt. And sure, I deserved it,” he said.
In prison, he said, he earned several trade certificates, and was done with drugs and ready to reunite with his sons. But he said even with those new skills, he couldn’t get work in those fields when people saw his criminal record. Without a driver’s license, he said it didn’t make sense to take a bus to a minimum-wage job. He stayed with a friend in the small town of St. Albans and applied for public assistance.
A DHHR representative called back with bad news: He was eligible only for a Medicaid card.
“First thing she said was, ‘What kind of charge?’ I said a drug charge. She said, ‘There’s nothing I could do for you,'” he recalled. “I’ve been behind a wall for 10 years. The world has changed dramatically. Just help me to help myself.”
Tackett visited food banks and pantries for months. Eventually, he went back to making meth and got locked up again.
Set up to fail?
Stories like Tackett’s and Jividen’s are exactly what policy analysts worry about. Research shows the ban disproportionately affects poor people and also sets up drug offenders to be rearrested.
“Blocking the formerly incarcerated from basic nutrition assistance after they have served their debt to society is a form of extended punishment, which leaves them more vulnerable to food insecurity and may put them at risk of returning to illicit activity to meet their basic needs,” Elizabeth Wolkomir wrote in March for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Seth DiStefano, policy outreach director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, put it this way: “If you put people in a position where they have no other choice but to fall back to a life of crime in order to feed themselves or feed their families — if that’s the only option you give them — don’t be surprised when that happens.”
Opting out of or modifying the policy would require a change in the law.
DHHR collected the numbers of drug felons who requested SNAP for state Delegate Kelli Sobonya as part of a larger, general request she made into what kinds of benefits drug felons receive in West Virginia. She said any change in the policy would require parameters. That could include consideration of benefits on a case-by-case basis or some temporary assistance to those recently released.
“When you come out without support, I don’t think that serves anybody very well,” Sobonya said.