Baz Dreisinger’s disturbing but ultimately hopeful study of carceral practices around the world has a somewhat misleading title, Incarceration Nations, suggesting that governmental policies of the countries she examines result in draconian prison sentences. They often do, of course. But her sub-title (“A Journey to Justice in Prisons around the World”) is a much more accurate indication of what she has observed and learned from two years of travel to prisons in Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, Jamaica, Thailand, Brazil, Australia, Singapore and Norway. The elephant in the room is the prison system in the United States, acting as a distorting mirror of what she observes overseas and, too often, the exporter of failed prison policies to other nations. Let it be said here that any number of other countries Dreisinger did not visit (North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Russia, Venezuela, and Turkey, for example) are often cited as having some of the worst prisons in the world.
A professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, Dreisinger has worked with prisoners for years, teaching them writing and founding the university’s Prison-to-College Pipeline program. She understands the field and—as everyone I have ever known who has taught in prisons—she has great compassion for her incarcerated students. Thus, throughout her narrative, she includes updates about many of her own American students: the release of some of them, their problems with adjusting to the outside world, their possibilities of recidivism. The latter becomes a major theme in her book, as she moves from country to country. The recidivism rate in the United States is 60 percent, in Norway (the country with the most enlightened prison policies in her study), the rate is 20 percent. As she notes at the conclusion of her book, “For every student who begins college [in the USA] in the fall, another is on the verge of being rearrested.”
What Dreisinger wants to observe in the prisons she visits overseas is not their worst practices, but their best ones—especially creative ways to engage prisoners and thereby promote more humane tendencies than those that have resulted in incarceration. In Rwanda, it’s creative writing, with an emphasis on forgiveness. In South Africa, it’s “restorative justice” week, again with an emphasis on creative writing. In Jamaica, it’s music behind bars. In Thailand, drama. But in Brazil (with 550,000 prisoners) it’s an innovative program called “Rehabilitation through reading,” which enables prisoners “to strike four days off their prison sentences, up to forty-eight days a year, for every preapproved work of literature, philosophy, or science they read and write a summary of.” That’s a low-cost rehabilitation program in a country that has some one of the most brutal solitary confinement systems in the world.
Australia, Singapore, and Norway all have recidivism rates in the 20s, clearly the result of their more humane treatment and attitude towards prisoners. The prisoners in Australia, for example, mostly work outside the prisons. The country has 33,000 inmates and the prisons are operated by corporations, but with almost opposite results of prisons-for-profit in the United States. The one obvious negative of incarceration in Australia is that 27.5% of the prisoners are aboriginals, mirroring the high percentage of African Americans in American prisons. How ironic that the country’s origins were as a penal colony—perhaps a good thing for prisoners today because so much of the general population can trace its origins to the original settlers sent from Britain. Their attitudes toward prisoners are not as negative as they are in most other countries. Singapore shares the penal colony origin and—in spite of some extreme penalties for such infractions as spitting or chewing gum—most of its institutions are halfway houses with significant training for the labor market.
Then there’s Norway as the model for the world regarding carceral practices. It’s obvious why. One prison director Dreisinger meets provides the context. Prisons in the country are small, “most housing fewer than fifty people and some just a handful. They’re spread all over the country, which keeps prisoners close to their families and communities, and are designed to resemble life on the outside as much as possible. An incarcerated person’s community continues to handle his health care, education, and other social services while he’s incarcerated; the Norwegian import model, as it is known, thus connects people in prison to the same welfare organizations as other citizens and creates what’s called a seamless sentence—meaning a person belongs to the same municipality before and after prison.”
How enlightened. Norway’s prison system is designed to “inflict as little pain as possible.” Not like prisons I’ve visited in the United States, where prisoners can’t have any dental work because they don’t have the $5 fee needed to pay for the work; where phone calls are prohibitive—because they generate a source of income—or where the commissaries charge outrageous prices for items such as coffee or underwear, not provided by the prison. No surprise, of course, since capitalism reigns supreme in American prisons just as it does in much of the world, and the general attitude toward prisoners is that they are something less than human.
The last three countries Dreisinger visited more for their enlightened policies rather than to implement courses in creative writing and the arts. Those are the only countries were she is not outraged by what she also observed. By contrast, in spite of Brazil’s reading program for prisoners, the country’s SuperMax system (also known as a “twenty-three-hour-a-day cell isolation policy”) has been implemented to break up prison gangs. The five supermaxes in the country cost Brazil $120,000 per prisoner, each year, “compared to what can average $36 per prisoner in Brazil’s impoverished state system, where prisoners often feed and clothe themselves.” She meets a prisoner who spent two years and eight months in solitary confinement, but this is nothing compared to supermax prisons in the United States. (Our country’s longest supermax prisoner has spent “thirty-two years under a ‘no human contact’ order.”) The mind reels. One observer of the practice has called solitary confinement “gradual psychological genocide.” Dreisinger’s own observation is that “Supermaxes and solitary are not only a global reality, they’re a growing global reality: an American nightmare from which the world has chosen not to awake.”
It’s not, however, the worst carceral policies that Dreisinger dwells on or the intent of her study. Rather, in spite of writing programs and reading programs, of drama and music—which are mostly Band-Aids in prisons with much larger problems—it is the hope for restorative justice, for rehabilitation, for forgiveness that she applauds, beginning with her first overseas visit to a prison in Rwanda. “Prisons…are revenge on a grand scale,” she tells us. Most prisoners—if released—are in worse shape than when they entered. Beginning in 1998, Rwanda’s prisons were emptied—a policy determined by President Kagame, once he realized there was a crisis going on in the country’s prisons. Most inmates were punished for participating in the country’s genocide, in 1994. So he emptied the facilities, instigating a policy of forgiveness, and zero tolerance for tribalism. Dreisinger cites Desmond Tutu’s observation: “Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done…. It means taking what happened seriously and not minimizing it; drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence. It involves trying to understand the perpetrators and so have empathy, to try to stand in their shoes and appreciate the sort of pressures and influences that might have conditioned them.”
Forgiveness is a hard sell for most people in the United States, perhaps for most people in the West. Our trigger response is for vengeance, for punishment—getting even with those who harmed us. Yet virtually all of the “successful” examples in Incarceration Nations (Australia, and Norway, and to a lesser extent Singapore) involve empathy, forgiveness and community. As Dresinger states in her concluding remarks to this important and unforgettable book, “Prisons are a failure of imagination in the most tragic sense of the term.” In the United States, we spend 54 billion dollars each year locking up prisoners and figuratively tossing aside the keys to their cells. We ought to be able to invest this money much more humanely than we do. Fortunately, Dresinger believes that recent moves in the United States have been in the right direction. If nothing else, politicians of both parties have begun admitting that we incarcerate too many people. Some states have begun releasing prisoners, selectively.
Baz Dresinger is more optimistic about the world’s prisons than many of us. There are places in her narrative—such as a remark implying that prisoners are “brilliant citizens”—where I find her positiveness cloying. Still, her attitude is absolutely necessary if anything is ever going to change with worldwide carceral practices. In her own words, “Justice work is ultimately a grand redundancy, restlessly demanding more of itself: more labor, more movement, more struggle, more victories and losses. And that work is powered by the potent thing I strap on daily, like a life vest, the thing that buoys me and keeps my spirit alive with mission and meaning: hope.”
Baz Dreisinger: Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World
Other Press, 336 pp., $27.95