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UVA-Published Book Scrutinizes U.S. Prison System - NBC29 WVIR Charlottesville, VA News, Sports and Weather

UVA-Published Book Scrutinizes U.S. Prison System

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A new book put together by scholars at the University of Virginia raises some tough questions about America's prison system.

"The Punitive Turn" is based on UVA's 2009 Conference on Incarceration and Race. Now experts say addressing what has been called an "incarceration crisis" takes a community effort.

The book not only addresses prison growth and the consequences, but also some statistics that force us to wonder who benefits when so many people are behind bars.

Director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute Deborah McDowell, who organized the 2009 conference, also helped edit “The Punitive Turn" and says the United States locks up 25 percent of the world's incarcerated people.

"And we have accelerated rates of incarceration in this country at a time when crime rates are actually down, yes, indeed,” McDowell said.

The book, published by the University of Virginia Press, explores racial disparities in the prison system.

"People who do not have the resources to pay for defense and a very, very strong and vigorous defense tend to be incarcerated at higher rates. Who are those people? Those people tend to be people of color."

But the book also takes a look at the consequences of mass incarceration. For prisoners who have paid their debt, being welcomed back into society is difficult, as they’re often denied employment and don't have the support to overcome a stigma. McDowell says that's where the community can step in.

"That communities invest in reentry programs and persuade businesses and employers to give the formerly incarcerated a chance,” McDowell said.

McDowell says research shows that when prisoners are released without gainful employment they are likely to go back into the system.

"We cannot live as societies or members of society constantly on edge, constantly in fear. There are only so many gated communities that you can build so what we can do is simply invest,” she said.

The prison industry has been called one of the fastest growing in America, employing more people than Walmart, General Motors, and Ford combined.

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