If Michigan were a country, it would incarcerate more people per capita than every country on the planet except one—the United States. Michigan’s per capita incarceration rate of 641 out of every 100,000 residents far exceeds that of Cuba (510), Russia (413), Iran (284), and China (118).[1]  Of even greater significance is the racial disproportionality that exists in prison populations.

Racialized mass incarceration is systemic, and it affects the criminal justice system at every level. Even the police, who are essentially gatekeepers to the criminal justice system, can play a considerable role in the size and composition of prison populations. Racial profiling and racially targeted patrolling can have implications for the racial composition of prison populations.

Arrests, aggressive prosecution, inadequate defense, harsh sentencing, increasingly punitive parole legislation, and an inactive parole board have together expanded Michigan’s prison population since the 1970s. This has strained prison resources, reduced rehabilitative programming and contributed to a growing sense of insecurity among those currently serving time in Michigan state prisons.

There are many concerns related to the conditions of prisoners’ confinement and the length of prison stays, and important advocacy concerning these issues appropriately focuses on law, legislation and policy. This report will hopefully expand the consideration of these issues into a different dimension by giving primary attention to the personal circumstances and stories of prisoners who have endured the horrors and indignity of solitary confinement and prisoners who are trapped in long-term prison sentences.

This report was made possible by a grant from the Vital Projects Fund. The primary drafters are Eddie B. Allen, Jr.,[2] a distinguished, veteran journalist based in Detroit, Michigan, and Dr. K. Aaron Van Oosterhout,[3] who has held teaching positions at Northwestern University, Hope College, and Michigan State University. The report has been edited by Mark P. Fancher, Staff Attorney for the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Michigan.

[1] Peter Wagner and Alison Walsh, “States of Incarceration: The Global Context 2018,” Prison Policy Initiative, 2018.

[2] Mr. Allen has a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Wayne State University in Journalism and Africana Studies. Before embarking on a freelance writing career in 2003, Mr. Allen worked alternately as a writer or editor for: The Blade (Toledo); City View; the Associated Press; and the Michigan Chronicle. He has also managed communications for the non-profit organizations Focus: HOPE and Books 4 Buddies. He is the author of Low Road: the Life and Legacy of Donald Goines; and he is the ghostwriter of Our Auntie Rosa: the Family of Rosa Parks Remembers Her Life and Lessons.

[3] Dr. Van Oosterhout’s scholarship has focused heavily on Mexico’s history, religion, culture, politics, and racial dynamics. He is also a journalist who has written and edited for: The Bradenton Herald (in Florida); The Grand Rapids Press, The South Bend Tribune; and The Herald-Palladium. He earned his Ph.D. in history at Michigan State University in 2014, and graduated magna cum laude from The University of Notre Dame. He currently works as a research scholar at the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy’s Community Research Institute, at Grand Valley State University.