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Updated 12:00 PM April 2, 2008
 

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Rising prison population an undeclared national crisis

U-M profs call Pew study 'alarming,' national debate urgently needed

Nearly a month after a published study on the increasing U.S. prison population revealed more than 1-in-100 American adults are behind bars, two U-M professors are aiming to elevate the public debate on prison reform.

The timing, they say, should coincide with the intensely debated presidential campaign, where the growing prison population topic should be considered along with the economy and the Iraq War.

"This is an invisible subject," says William "Buzz" Alexander, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and professor of English language and literature at LSA. "It's a crisis and no one is really talking about it."

In late February, the Pew Center on the States reported that about 2.3 million people are incarcerated in state and federal prisons, and local jails. Last year, the prison population grew by 25,000. After three decades of growth, prison population has tripled. The results show an alarming and widening gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged, say Alexander and Jeffrey Morenoff, associate professor of sociology, LSA.

"The current system is destroying the life-course of those incarcerated, and not providing them with ways to become part of the American economic and cultural fabric," says Alexander, founder of the Prison Creative Arts Project, which inspires inmates to express themselves through the arts.

"We are not making active efforts to rehabilitate people in prison," Morenoff says. "The rehabilitation ideal died in the 1970s and 1980s. But there are examples of rehab programs in and outside prison that are successful and lower rates of recidivism. The criminal justice system hasn't caught up with the social science."

Each U-M professor has his own way of drawing attention to what they both consider as a national crisis that goes unnoticed and hardly discussed. For Alexander, it's through engaging prisoners to create and participate in the arts; while for Morenoff, it's through extensive research into the causes of recidivism rates.

Alexander has worked since 1990 with state prisoners, offering workshops on visual and performing arts. The 13th annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners runs from March 25-April 9. The exhibit is held at the Duderstadt Studio Gallery on North Campus.

Based on his first-hand experience working with prisoners, Alexander said the sentencing often is arbitrary, perfunctory and inhumane, and it singles out ethnic and racial groups.

For instance, 1-in-36 adult Hispanic men, 1-in-15 black adult men; and 1-in-9 black men ages 20-34 are behind bars. While rates of violent crime have fallen by 25 percent over the last 20 years, prison population has tripled. Overall the U.S. imprisons more people than any other nation. Second is China, with 1.5 million people behind bars.

While there appears to be a public need to make sure people are punished for crimes, the financial cost of incarceration is staggering. To incarcerate each prisoner, Morenoff estimates that it costs $25,000-$30,000 per year in public money. That cost significantly increases with older prisoners and those who need medical care.

"Right now, we have punishment for the sake of deterrence, and making examples of people," Morenoff says. "But the deep-seated reason is that people feel that justice is being served.

"You would think that sending more people to prison would lower crime rates, but there is some evidence — albeit controversial — that communities which send more people to prison have higher crime rates," he said. "Incarceration can deplete communities of their assets and disrupt their social fabric, which can actually increase crime rates. It's still an open question."

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