book review: Incarceration Nations

incarceration nations

Incarceration Nations by Baz Dreisinger. Other Press| February 2016| 241 pages | $27.95| ISBN: 978-159051-727-7

RATING: ****/5*

“Privilege cannot be discarded when convenient, however many barbed-wire fences one crosses. In fact, denial of privilege is the ultimate mark of it.”

Our criminal justice system needs a substantial overhaul. People receive lengthy prison sentences for nonviolent crimes and first-time drug offenses. It’s rather ridiculous. Death row wastes time and money. Solitary confinement deprives people in a cruel manner. The death penalty itself remains inhumane and barbaric.

Does prison work? Author Baz Dreisinger wanted to answer the question: She decided to examine what works and what does not work in prisons throughout the world. She also wanted to use these varied prisons to compare and highlight what’s wrong with the United States penal system, Dreisinger traveled to Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, Jamaica, Thailand, Brazil, Australia, Singapore and Norway to find out what works, what doesn’t work and the state of the prisons throughout the world.

Dreisinger helps establish a prison visiting program in Rwanda, a country torn apart by genocide. People practice forgiveness. Dreisinger writes: “Ultimately, revenge cannot undo; it merely does again. It arises from a feeling of helplessness, from the need to re-create a painful situation with roles reversed.” She teaches a creative writing class in Uganda. She examines the music program in Jamaica. She notes: “Singing along, I come to the depressing conclusion that music in prisons is the sweet sound of a salve. Because ultimately Uganda’s prison library and Jamaica’s prison music studio add up to the same thing: a Band-Aid on an amputated limb.”

In South Africa at the Pollsmoor prison, Dreisinger assists with a restorative justice program. South Africa remains an extremely violent country in the aftermath of colonialism and apartheid. “South Africa’s rate of violent death for men—in 2012, some 16,000 cases were reported—is eight times the global average, while the female homicide rate is six times it. Over 40 percent of men report having been physically violent to a partner and more than one in four report having perpetrated rape, three-quarters of them before age twenty.” The prisoners focus on forgiveness in the restorative justice program. “Restorative justice literature outlines the four needs of victims: truthful answers; empowerment; restoration of respect, usually achieved by the repeated telling of their stories of harm; and restitution, what can be a statement of responsibility or a literal payback.” She observes the prisoners practicing scenarios in which they speak with their victims and assists in writing narratives about their crimes and the consequences of the crime.

She works on a drama workshop for female prisoners in Thailand. Globally more than 625,000 women are in prison and 70% incarcerated in the United States are in prison for nonviolent offenses. Dreisinger notes: “In Thailand about 21,000 of the 25,231 convicted women in prison are in for drug charges and a mere 550 for violent offenses.” “Thailand is a major transshipment point for heroin from neighboring Myanmar, the world’s second-biggest producer of opium, after Afghanistan.” There are vocational training classes in food catering, sports, beauty and arts. Prisoners can access yoga, massage, salons and meditation. She notes that this prison “has in some ways managed to piece together a sisterhood– a commune and community. It’s a fragmented family, rife with cracks and haphazardly glued together but a kind of family nonetheless.”

In Singapore, she learns about the prison reentry program. In Singapore prisons, the prisoners work in the bakery or the laundry which serves many hospitals in Singapore. “The result is a movement and, conveniently, a labor force. Prisoners have been the backbone of Singapore’s labor force since the country’s inception.” In Australia she visits private prisons. She investigates solitary confinement in Brazil and model prisons– focused on correction–in Norway.

A few facts about United States prisons culled from Incarceration Nations:

–2.3 million people are incarcerated

–25% of the U.S. prison population is mentally ill

–160,000 people are serving life in prison in the U.S.

–73% of incarcerated women are mentally ill

–75% of imprisoned women are mothers

–2.7 million children have parents in prison

–80,000 live in solitary confinement

–recidivism is 60%

In her travels, she meets and converses with prisoners in each country. Dreisinger shares some moving and surprising stories and interactions. In volunteering at these prisons she examines the prison structure and system in these countries. She writes: “My journey has taken me to global hellholes, and being a witness there has changed me irrevocably. It’s made me a far better teacher, enabling me to connect the dots and map injustice from one side of the world to another.”

Dreisinger is an Associate Professor in the English Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY and the Academic Director of the Prison-to-College Pipeline [P2CP] program. The P2CP program offers college courses and re-entry planning to incarcerated men in New York State. Incarceration Nations explores humane treatment, redemption, rehabilitation and re-entry into society and the workforce. It’s fascinating and intense. A must-read.

–review by Amy Steele

 FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Other Press.

Baz Dreisinger will be at Brookline Booksmith on Wednesday, April 13 at 7pm.

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purchase at Amazon: Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World

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