CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Today, the United States has the world's highest incarceration rate, reaching 25 percent of all the world's prisoners. American taxpayers pay hundreds of millions of dollars funding our increasingly overcrowded state and federal prisons.
Alan Elsner, a reporter and author, will speak about the nation's prison system on Saturday, Dec. 1 at the Woman's Club in Charleston's East End.
Elsner's speech, "What Prisons Are Doing to America and What Americans Can Do About It," is part of the annual fundraising Bill of Rights Dinner held by the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia Foundation.
"We have an incarceration rate of five to seven times as high, as a proportion of population, than most of the world's industrial democracies," Elsner said during a telephone interview with the Sunday Gazette-Mail.
"We have about one-quarter of all the world's prisoners," Elsner said.
"West Virginia has the second-largest percentage increase in its prison population in 2010 [of all 50 states]. Prison overcrowding in West Virginia increased from 1,500 prisoners in 1990 to about 6,500 in 2010" -- more than four times as many.
Figures from the West Virginia Division of Corrections, Elsner said, show 27.6 percent of all our state's prisoners were convicted of drug offenses.
The proportion of prisoners' convictions included: 29.1 percent for crimes against property, 21.7 percent for crimes against other people and 21.6 percent for actions against "public order."
Education is a major factor related to imprisonment, Elsner said.
Only 4 percent of all West Virginia prisoners have college or any post-high school education.
In addition, 28 percent never graduated from high school, while another 41 percent later earned General Educational Development diplomas. Many earned their GEDs while serving time in prison.
"Maybe the solution to the prison crisis would be to send more people to college," Elsner said.
"Solutions have everything to do with fixing our communities. I view imprisonment as a symptom and byproduct of poverty, not as an isolated issue."
Elsner said he also plans to talk about the positive economic impacts that prisons may have on communities, "especially in areas that are otherwise depressed.
"You see this not only in West Virginia. In Pennsylvania, Virginia and Kentucky, governments also put prisons in rural areas where the coal industry or the forestry industry has fallen on hard times. Prisons become part of the economic fabric of the community."
But prison officers often seek other employment.