By JULIA CUNEO, Guest Writer
If you drive east on I-94 long enough you come to a sign that says: PRISON AREA DO NOT PICK UP HITCH HIKERS. Every other week, I pass this sign on my way to the Macomb Correctional Facility, an imposing brick building that is home to some of my closest intellectual friends and allies – the very people this sign refers to with distrust and disdain.
We come together to talk, debate, and laugh. We call ourselves The Theory Group, because we spend a lot of time talking about “Theory”. We are all alumni of a University of Michigan-Dearborn class called “The Inside Out Prison Exchange”. This class brings together students from inside the Macomb Correctional Facility and inside the UM-Dearborn institution for a deeply reflective, analytical examination of our prison systems, our society, and our biases.
This class does what that sign on I-94 refuses to do. It recognizes our common humanity, and the ways that we are all impacted by the injustices plaguing this country. It is also an example of people from extraordinarily different circumstances participating in a common struggle to make the world better, safer, stronger, kinder.
The United States prison system is bigger than any in the world. In 2012, the National Research Council released a report that stated that our country incarcerates nearly one percent of its population, accounting for 25 percent of the entire world’s prisoners. That’s an incredible number of people locked up, families torn apart, and resources redistributed.
This emphasis on punishing people for every little thing says more about our values as a country than it does about the individuals being punished. Michigan is one of the worst offenders. According to Citizens Alliance on Prisons and Public spending, we spend about 4.2 million dollars every day to support our prison system, 21 percent of our state’s general funds. We keep people inside longer, on average, than any other state. The prison industry has been Michigan’s fastest growing sector for decades.
How does this affect you? Well, in the mean time, spending on your education is being cut dramatically. In 2012, Governor Snyder announced that state funds for Michigan universities were cut by 15 percent. When the University of Michigan was founded, state funding made up a majority of their budget. Now, they have to make that up with tuition hikes, service fees, and constant growth.
If you think this balance is unjust, you support prison reform. If you’d like to see us invest in things, like education, instead of imprisoning more and more people, you support prison reform. It might seem like an overwhelming problem at first – how do we change an entire country’s direction when we can hardly afford this semesters’ bills?
On Tuesday, Sept. 30, the executive director of the Citizens Alliance on Prison and Public Spending (CAPPS) will be speaking on campus about three important reforms they’re advocating in Michigan. The event starts at 6 p.m. in Kochoff and will include discussion break outs around the topic. If you’d like to learn more, this is the place and time to start.
Don’t stop there. Sign up for the Inside Out Prison Exchange class. Join us in making this world better, safer, stronger, kinder and more just – one classroom at a time.