Jackson, Mich. — From Route 106 the towering brown-brick walls seem to stretch as far as the eye can see.
The State Prison of Southern Michigan, known to many who live and work here as ''Jacktown,'' has an inmate population of about 5,000 - larger than the total prison population of 32 other states. It is said to be the largest walled prison in the world.
Indeed, the difficulty of managing such a large institution in an effective, humane way with enough qualified guards on duty - in tight fiscal times - is one of many reasons this prison erupted in riots on two occasions last May. The disturbances sparked riots at two other Michigan prisons. Numerous injuries and close to $10 million worth of damage resulted.
State correction authorities would like to see Jackson divided into four prisons, but the cost is currently prohibitive. Ideally, they would like to replace Jackson with still smaller, all new institutions. But that goal is even farther out of reach in a state where voters rejected an income-tax surcharge aimed at financing four new prisons.
Though each prisoner here has his own cell - a Michigan-wide corrections policy - Jacktown, like other prisons in the state, has at times been overcrowded. Last summer when the numbers shot over the limit set by state authorities, minimum sentences were cut by 90 days under an emergency overcrowding law and some 700 of those serving time around the state were released early.
Corrections Department spokesman Cal Goddard notes that Michigan prisons are again nearing that legal limit and that more early releases may be ordered in 1982.
The story on prison overcrowding is much the same around the United States. Cells are too few and often antiquated. At the last official count, in mid-1981, there were 350,000 inmates in state and federal prisons, a 75 percent jump over the last decade. In many cases two or three inmates share one cell. The reasons behind the sharp rise range from increased prosecution of violent crime and longer sentences often mandated by legislatures to a greater reluctance by parole boards to grant early releases (and in some cases, such as Indiana, abolition of parole altogether). More than half the states are under federal court order to ease overcrowding. To comply, states have resorted to delayed admissions, early releases, and temporary housing additions, ranging from the purchase and conversion of motels (in Oklahoma) to tents (in Texas).
For many, the only logical response to the problem is to build more prisons. Indeed, multibillion-dollar building projects are under way in a number of states.
But it would cost an estimated $8 billion to $10 billion to give every inmate in the US the 60 square feet of living space generally considered minimally desirable. Though many, including the US attorney general's Task Force on Violent Crime and the National Governors Association, have urged massive federal aid to states for prison construction, both Congress and the Reagan administration appear to be backing away from any large funding package. And voters, when asked to support bond issues or income-tax surcharges for prison construction, have often said, ''No.'' Many are also emphatic that new correctional institutions be located far from their own neighborhoods and cities.
Similarly, a number of criminal justice experts, while agreeing that crowding exists, now question just how pressing the need for more buildings actually is.
Statistics show that young people commit most of the nation's crime. Some demographers argue that the natural aging of the population and the end of the baby boom is bound in time to affect the size of the prison population just as it has that of the schools. Alfred Blumstein, a professor in the School of Urban and Public Affairs at Carnegie-Mellon University, notes that the bulk of the prison population is in its mid-20s and that, at least in the Midwest and Northeast where migration trends tend to be relatively stable, it may peak about 1990. He and a number of other experts suggest that during the '80s, while the numbers continue to climb, use of such temporary facilities as unused prisons and jails on military bases (as the administration has recommended) and abandoned mental institutions may be a more appropriate answer.
While much of the new construction is aimed at replacing outdated facilities, most states end up using both new and old.
Many criminal justice experts now argue that the time is ripe for a deeper look at the root causes of prison overcrowding - rather than just its physical effects. It could provide the opportunity, they say, to strike out in a dramatically more constructive direction than just more building construction.
One key alternative, so far one of the least popular with the general public, is to restrict prison assignments to those offenders whose removal from the streets would be a clear protection to society. Currently, maximum-security cells make up the bulk of the accommodations and house 70 percent of all inmates. The attorney general's task force says that only 15 to 20 percent of those now in such secure facilities need to be there.
Living in group homes, halfway houses, or other low-security institutions, many nonviolent offenders could thus work out their sentences in community-based programs, working for the community or paying back the victim, under the supervision of probation officers with the added help of job counseling and alcohol or drug therapy.
''What we don't need are more places to lock people up,'' says Dr. Ronald Scott, assistant professor in the University of Missouri's Department of Administration of Justice, and a former parole officer. ''But judges operate almost independently of the prison system - they're responding to the social and political climate. And as long as everybody thinks of probation as easy and a slap on the wrist, rather than a legal status with conditions and supervision, we'll never be able to treat it as punishment.''
Dr. Scott also argues that rehabilitation, if it is possible at all, is much more likely in a community-based setting. A full 97 percent of those serving time end up back on the street once the sentences are finished.Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of sociology at the University of Miami, says he thinks there may be some need to build more prisons in some states such as Texas and Florida where migration and immigration flows are heavy and where the need for maximum-security space may be particularly strong. But he thinks current crowded conditions in some prisons need be no worse than those of ''summer camp'' if inmates are made to feel safe and that their personal problems - from what happens to the custody of their children to the car payments if a spouse is on welfare - are being attended to. He suggests further exploration of more civil legal-aid help for prisoners. ''Prison is like a magnifying glass - it makes everything else worse, including overcrowding,'' he says.
Altering the length of inmate terms is another route to at least temporary easing of prison overcrowding. Many states now cut sentences and release prisoners early when the situation gets particularly bad. Proponents say there is little evidence that this policy either increases the danger to society or diminishes the punishment or deterrent value of locking someone away.
As the situation stands, the US has proportionately more of its population in prison for longer terms (two years is the average) than any other Western nation. The Netherlands, for instance, where the average prison stay is only 35 days, is considering tightening sentences still further.
A growing number of criminal justice experts argue that eliminating mandatory sentences for specific crimes and sentencing more criminals to shorter terms could ease overcrowding and render a better quality of justice and societal protection than the current practice. Sometimes now judges wait until a first offender builds up several convictions and then send him to prison for several years. But several recent research studies suggest that sure punishment and a shorter sentence may be more effective deterrents than the severity of the sentence.
In their new book ''Imprisonment in America,'' criminologists Michael Sherman and Gordon Hawkins say the probability that all convicted criminals will get some kind of punishment needs to be increased. They say the key reason for choosing prison over another form of social control should be to keep society safe and that community-based alternatives should be given more consideration for nonviolent offenders.
''In large measure imprisonment is overused because legislators, prosecutors, and judges do not know what else to do,'' say the authors.
The real need in construction, many experts say, is for more minimum- or medium-security institutions and more buildings with a broad mix of security possibilities.
''We do have a problem of prison crowding, but I'm not convinced we're overimprisoning,'' says James R. Jacobs, a professor of law and sociology at Cornell University. ''It just may not be necessary to build more maximum-security prisons.''
Professor Jacobs says he thinks more prisoners could be put in less secure facilities near the end of their sentences, when they are less prone to try escape and risk the heavy penalty involved. But the expense of running such facilities and the problem of locating them in places where the public does not object remain key problems.
In the end, experts say, a more supportive, understanding public remains the key to any change in current imprisonment practices. One major problem has been a public desire for stiffer sentences but a lack of willingness to pay the higher cost that goes with them.
''The public wants to be tougher, but somewhere else and on the cheap,'' says Professor Blumstein. He cites a new Pennsylvania bill as a model in coupling tough talk with economic responsibility. It calls for longer mandatory minimum sentences and includes bonding legislation to back the added building space that would be required.
''The problem is that a lot of people don't give a hoot until crime involves someone in their family or comes into their neighborhood,'' says Jacktown's Deputy Warden Elton Scott. Noting that Michigan taxpayers are paying the cost of both new prisons and the job of cleaning up the riots through state appropriations, he says, ''It's really a question of whether they're willing to pay for it now or later - because eventually they do.''
Many such as Dr. Scott continue to hold out hope that the possibilities for criminal justice system reforms will remain broad:
''As imaginative as our society is, we ought to be able to come up with a whole series of more rational alternatives that have the potential of a constructive impact and aren't just aimed at keeping those sentenced out of society's hair.''