Panel Discussion focuses on mass incarceration

By Amy Huber, Editor –

While the U.S. has only 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses 25 percent of the

world’s prison population.

This was the opening statement in a recent panel discussion on mass incarceration, part

of the “. . . And Justice for All. . .” series at MCC, co-sponsored by the ACLU of Michigan.

The group first discussed crime, which has risen continuously since the 1960’s.

“When you talk about a crime, you are talking about one aspect of it,” said panelist Sherri

Deboef Chandler, MCC instructor of psychology and sociology and a former parole and

probation officer.

She said that after World War II, the economy prospered, and then the 1960’s brought

the drug culture. Following that, the 1970’s and 1980’s brought fewer economic opportunities,

as well as drug and alcohol problems.

“We are a culture of capitalism; we don’t invest in families,” she said.

A nation addicted to drugs and alcohol brought about a special set of problems for the

legal system, as drug offenses brought about more arrests.

“In the ’80s, cocaine became big, followed by violence,” said Dean Roesler, Muskegon

County sheriff. “Communities got fed up with violence and created stricter laws.”

Panelists agree that a correlation between drugs and crime exists.

“In the ’80s young men began to sell drugs on the streets of Detroit,” said Cliff

Washington, a cultural integration coach for Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services who

spent 14 years in Michigan prisons. “The ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ led to basketball score sentences,

45 to 90, or 20 to 40 compared to formerly one to four years. Criminals began to carry large

guns.”

This alone caused the prison population to grow by 10,000 every four years.

“We’ve seen a trend in Michigan considerably because of the war on drugs,” he said. The

panelists agreed that drugs cause people to commit crimes. They commit a crime when they

purchase them. If they cannot afford them, they will rob or steal to get the money.

“Some 65 to 75 percent of state prisoners have substance abuse problems, yet only 11

percent get treatment while incarcerated,” said Andy Wible, chair of the Arts & Humanities

Department and the panel’s moderator.

Many people do not realize that prison population and mental illness are related.

“About 56 to 65 percent of prisoners receive mental health treatments,” said Wible.

Michigan’s prison’s increase in population was created by an accumulation of things.

The closing of mental health facilities, combined with the onset of the drug culture, created an

environment that escalated the census of the state’s prisons.

“In the 1980’s, they [Michigan state government] shut down state run mental health

facilities, they all ended up in the system,” said Roesler.

This cost-cutting move was begun by President Ronald Regan in 1982, when he took

away funding for mental health, refusing to recognize that many Americans had psychological

problems. This problem spiraled into effect once Michigan Gov. John Engler closed down all

16 of Michigan’s mental hospitals in 1997.

“It would be good to get back some mental health facilities to keep people out of

prison,” said Sherry Burt, warden at Muskegon Correctional Facility.

Both Regan’s and Engler’s cuts to mental health care have long been blamed for

increase in both homelessness and jail and prison populations.

“Better care for mental health would show a decrease in jail and prison populations,”

Roesler said.

Changing direction in the discussion, Wible noted that there is a one in three chance of a

black male being incarcerated in his lifetime. Rosler and Burt added the statistics that 30

percent of all prisoners eventually return to the system, as well as 60 percent of former jail

inmates return within three years.

Burt also indicated that contrary to common opinion, some felons can vote. While they

cannot vote while incarcerated, after they are released they have full voting rights.

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