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Reporter and author to discuss overcrowded prisons

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.

"Federal officers in West Virginia are fleeing prisons. Their jobs are very stressful and can be very unpleasant," Elsner said.

Many people tend to look at prison populations in racial and ethnic terms.

"In West Virginia, a lot of people view the prison system through a kind of racial lens, believing the proportion of African-Americans and Hispanics in prison is very disproportionate to the whole prison population.

"West Virginia doesn't have large African-American or Hispanic populations. People in prison are, for the most part, poor people. I think that is a correct way of viewing this issue," Elsner said.

Opposition to our current prison system is growing, especially among many political conservatives, according to Paul Glastris, editor of "The Washington Monthly," a magazine published six times a year.

For decades, conservatives championed "tough-on-crime policies that swelled America's prison population to gulag-like levels."

In recent years, the nation's press, Glastris argues, failed to report on the thoughts and writings of "right-wing policy intellectuals" who are challenging and changing conservative attitudes about crime.

"Instead of promoting harsher sentences as a bulwark against disorder, more and more conservatives are challenging the prison-industrial complex as a statist abomination that wastes taxpayer dollars and countenances homosexual rape," Glastris writes.

The magazine's article, "The Conservative War on Prisons," was published in its November-December 2012 issue.

Elsner's first book, "Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in American's Prison" was praised as a "wake-up call" by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., as well as by many other people on the political left and right.  

Elsner worked for the Reuters News Agency, where he covered the State Department, the White House and international affairs. He will shortly become Vice President of Communications for J Street, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates a peaceful solution to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Saturday's ACLU dinner also will present retiring Sen. Dan. Foster, D-Kanawha, with the Roger Baldwin Founders' Award.

The evening begins with a social hour at 5:30 p.m., followed by a buffet dinner at 6:30 p.m. Music will be provided by Worldbeat Ensemble Option 22 and a silent auction will take place throughout the evening.

Tickets are $65 per person for the program at 1600 Virginia St. E. in Charleston. For information, contact Nancy Hill at 304-345-9246, ext. 102.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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