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The United States detains more citizens in prison than in any other country in the world, as well as more people under correctional control than any given moment in American history.
At the University of Michigan, a team of five professors — Heather Ann Thompson, Matt Lassiter, Ruby Tapia, Ashley Lucas and Amanda Alexander — are working together to combat mass incarceration within academia.
Thompson, a Pulitzer Prize winner and professor of History and Afroamerican and African Studies, recently proposed the creation of an center devoted to researching the carceral state. Besides centralizing the academic study of prisons across units and schools, the professors also aim to make the research benefit individuals serving time, and potentially help them obtain an associate’s degree from the University.
“This center will be a focal point for the study of the carceral study,” Thompson said. “There are people interested in this subject in LSA, in the law school, in social work, and even in the medical school. Michigan has an usually rich environment in terms of the scholars that are working on this question.”
The University isn’t the first institution to attempt such a project — a number of elite colleges run successful initiatives disseminating educational opportunities to incarcerated individuals, including Bard College, University of California, Los Angeles, and Harvard University. Bard, for example, has granted over 50,000 credits and almost 450 degrees since its pilot programs in 2001.
Thompson said the degree-granting program would help bring the University to the level of those other institutions and beyond. She hopes to engage not only the campus community, but the greater Washtenaw County area and even the state of Michigan.
“Michigan is adjacent to a number of cities — Flint, Jackson and of course Detroit — that are hyper-incarcerated,” Thompson said. “So, we feel as if there is a community component needed. (The center) could really be a resource for people in our general community, whether it be with re-entry into society or for potential students getting into college. Essentially, we want to bring Michigan up to speed where a lot of institutions already are."
The center would also connect the already existing programs at the University, such as the Prison Creative Arts Project and Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, to work together and further enhance the relationship between the University community and those incarcerated.
PCAP is the one of the world’s largest prison arts programs and operates within each of Michigan’s 52 correctional facilities. These workshops allow for joint projects between students and incarcerated individuals to communicate and creatively write, draw and perform. Each week, about 80 volunteers enter facilities and meet with those inside. At the end of the semester, PCAP publishes both exhibitions of art and a journal of writing by the Michigan prisoners they have worked with all year.
PCAP operates through the Residential College, where both Thompson and Lucas are faculty members and organizers.
LSA junior Liv Naimi, a PCAP executive board member, is excited about the prospect of a new carceral studies program.
“(PCAP) allows students to see that people inside are not only creative but productive and amazing people — it really humanizes them,” Naimi said. “Some of them will be in there forever, and some of them won’t. Sometimes, something as little as playing an improv game, where people just simply get to laugh, feels like a transformative moment.”
PCAP Director Ashley Lucas, a Theatre & Drama associate professor, believes education inside doesn’t just benefit incarcerated individuals, but society as whole by means of public safety.
“Education and family support are the two things that really help people to be successful after they come home from prison,” Lucas said. “The vast majority of the people we’ve locked up are coming home someday. Do we want them to come home uneducated, angry, having lived in social environment that didn't prepare them for the outside world? Do we want them to have a lack of connections to communities outside? Education helps to fix all of those issues.”
Moreover, Lucas said many of those behind bars were not afforded opportunities to receive a good education in the first place — or perhaps an education at all. These programs intend to give prisoners the chance to have that quality educational experience, which Lucas hopes will help them succeed when they reenter everyday society.
“If you don’t give people educational opportunities, they may never know what they’re really good at,” Lucas said. “They may have come from a place with little stability and crime was the only viable option, or it may feel that way if you're in a certain set of circumstances and you don't realize you have other choices. There is nobody who really knows what their life and career is truly going to offer, but education helps us think those things through and plan for a better life. It helps us build relationships and relate to other people in a lot of ways you really can't function in the outside world without: It teaches you a completely different social code.”
Both Lucas and Thompson emphasize the barriers many with criminal records face in securing employment, housing and higher education. Earlier this month, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill into law banning felon boxes from state job applications, but private employers and even the University itself still require self-reporting on applications.
Students applying to the University have to check a box whether or not they have served time. To Thompson, this act is unjust, and she hopes the new center will mitigate the harmful after-effects of incarceration.
“We want to make sure we open our doors to people who, if they are qualified to be here, their criminal history should be irrelevant,” Thompson said. “We have invested unprecedented public resources in the project of punishment in the last four years, which has enormous ripple effects: it has impacts on our U-M school system, it has impacts on our economy, and it has impacts on our voting and on our democracy. Institutions of learning are places where we ask questions.”
Thompson said she aims for the new center will allow the University to become a leader and change-maker in the field of carceral studies.
“Whether you’re a political scientist interested in voting participation or whether you're a sociologist interested in family structure or whether you're a doctor interested in health outcomes — you can't ask any of those questions without noting the impact of this massive carceral state,” she said. “Michigan is a public institution. It is time we take the lead on this.”