When I was in prison …

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Whenever I see mention of 11×15 I think it’s the size of a photo frame. What it references is not a pretty picture.

Most of us take prisons for granted. We drive by them on interstate highways. Prisons are places where people get what they deserve. Most of us don’t know prison employees.

That’s fine, except that prisons are costing the state of Wisconsin a fortune, about $1.3 billion at last count, according to the Wisconsin Catholic Conference. That’s more, by the way, than is spent on the University of Wisconsin System and a drastic increase from the $200 million spent in 1990. But what’s most problematic about Wisconsin’s prisons is not simply related to money. It has to do with people — lots of people. Many would suggest, far too many people.

In 1995 the state was incarcerating 11,000 people. That number has doubled. Which brings us to 11×15. It’s an effort initiated by Wisdom, a statewide coalition of congregations and various faith-based organizations, to reduce the size of Wisconsin’s prison population to 1995 levels, thus 11,000 by the end of 2015.

David Liners, state director of Wisdom, will be in Stevens Point on Wednesday, Sept. 25 to address the issue of prison reform and to explain why this is a Christian concern. He’ll speak at 7 p.m. in the Encore Room of UW-Stevens Point’s Dreyfus University Center.

Among those supporting this effort is the public policy arm of the Wisconsin bishops. “Wiscon-sin’s prisons are full of men and women whose non-violent crimes were fueled by underlying mental health and addiction issues,” says Barbara Sella, associate director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference. The 11×15 campaign’s backers realize that lowering the prison population requires treatment and monitoring alternatives, some of which have been successful in other states and even a few Wisconsin counties. As an 11×15 statement acknowledges, “Making thoughtful policy and fiscal changes takes time.”

And it takes an aware and knowledge public, which is where we come in.

David Liners will explain things more eloquently and in far greater detail, but here’s the general premise, as I see it: We have more people in prison than most states of our size, prisons cost a lot to maintain, incarcerating non-violent offenders doesn’t prepare them to live productively once they are released, if there are other options that allow us to reform individuals and the system why not pursue that.

Advocating just and humane treatment of prisoners is not new to the Church. Visiting prisoners is a profound work of mercy, but Pope Benedict XVI in 2011 said such mercy must extend beyond visits. “To be complete,” he said, “this (work) requires a full capacity for welcoming the inmates, making room for them in our own time, in our home, in our friendships, in our laws, in our cities.” Instead of 11×15, maybe we should call this the “Making Room” campaign. TL

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