Posts Tagged incarceration

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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SICK JUSTICE: book review

sick justice

SICK JUSTICE: Inside the American Gulag by Ivan G. Goldman. Publisher: Potomac Books/University of Nebraska Press (2013). Nonfiction. Cloth. 256 pages. ISBN 978-1-61234-487-4.

If you’re like me, you may already doubt the U.S. justice system after reading, hearing or watching cases such as George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin, O.J. Simpson, The West Memphis Three and The Central Park Five. Or like me you’ve had your own experiences with the ineptitude or inequities of the legal system. 2.3 million people are incarcerated in the United States. That’s big business. After I’d watched The Central Park Five documentary and been discussing it on Twitter, an author friend told me I should read this book. Author Ivan Goldman thoroughly researched our criminal justice system– visited several prisons, interviewed inmates and included details about little known cases and well-known cases such as Boston mob boss Whitey Bulger and the West Memphis Three.

Goldman explains the brutally ridiculous and unfair mandatory minimum drug sentences, three-strikes laws, punishing nonviolent first-time offenders, the ineffective war on drugs, closing mental health institutions around the country and how that pushes the mentally ill to seek other treatment for their illnesses. He also reveals the big money business in private prisons and bureaucracies running prisons that don’t want to see anything change. Egregious injustices occur when those accused lack money or power. It’s angering, disturbing, eye-opening and a difficult read [meaning you might need to put it down from time to time to reflect].

Some compelling points from the book:

–“one in thirty-one U.S. adults in jail, prison, or on parole, according to a 2009 report from the respected Pew Center on the States.”

–“The National Employment Law Project found that 90 percent of employers check potential employees for criminal backgrounds. More than two-thirds of the states allow hiring and professional-licensing decisions to be made on the basis of an arrest alone; no conviction is necessary. By age twenty-three, 30 percent of Americans have been arrested; this number was 22 percent in 1967.”

–“The New York Innocence Project fond that in more than 15 percent of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing, an informant or jailhouse snitch had testified against his defendant.”

–“In June 2011 The Global Commission on Drug Policy, a high-powered group of former world-leaders, including former United Nations (UN) secretary-general Kofi Annan and past presidents of Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia, issued a report that concluded the global war on drugs has been a disastrous failure that foments violence and doesn’t curtail drug use.”

–“Wackenhut is a private security firm that was renamed the GEO Group in 2003. As the GEO Group, it currently runs lockups in fourteen states and is a component of British-based G4S, the world’s largest security company.”

–“The National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors estimated that in 2008-11 states cut $3.4 billion in mental health services, while an additional 400,000 people sought help at mental health facilities.”

–“In January 2004 the Sentencing Project estimated that a black man had a one-in-three chance of serving time in prison at some point in his life.”

–“The practice of stop-and-frisk rests on a 1968 decision that established the benchmark of ‘reasonable suspicion’—a standard lower than the ‘probable cause’ benchmark used previously.
From 2004-2009, New York City police officers stopped people and checked them out three million times. “Nearly 90 percent of the people stopped were completely innocent of any wrongdoing.” Crime was going down and the number of people stopped and frisked during this time period went up.

–“In 2007 Texas began place more low-risk, nonviolent offenders on probation or freeing them on parole. It also started providing treatment to inmates suffering from drug and alcohol addiction or mental health problems.”

–“Convicts who maintain contact with family and friends in the outside world are less likely to be convicted of additional crimes and usually have an easier reintegration back into society, yet the clumsy federal system still incarcerates inmates far from home.”

–“Up to 60 percent of ex-convicts in New York State are still unemployed after release, according to a study from the Independent Committee on Reentry and Employment.”

RATING: ****/5

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Potomac Books.

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book review: Orange is the New Black

Title: Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison
Author: Piper Kerman
ISBN: 978-0385523387
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau (April 6, 2010)
Category: memoir
Review source: publisher
Rating: 5/5

In such a harsh, corrupt and contradictory environment, one walks a delicate balance between the prison’s demands and your own softness and sense of balance and sense of your own humanity. Sometimes at a visit with Larry I would be overwhelmed, suddenly overcome with a sadness about my life at the moment. Could our relationship weather this insanity? I worried.

Not that long ago, I got cuffed COPS-style and it completely freaked me out—my wrists ended up bloodied and bruised. I grew up in a WASPy middle-class environment in a suburb in Massachusetts. In 1991, I graduated from Simmons College, a small women’s college in Boston. Piper Kerman graduated from one of the Seven Sisters– Smith College– at around the same time. That’s where the similarities between my life and Piper’s life end. In 1992, I drove across the United States with a friend from my days as a competitive equestrian. While I visited San Diego, Las Vegas and Bryce Canyon, Piper hung out in Bali with drug runners and carried drug money to Brussels.

Indonesia offered what seemed like a limitless range of experience, but there was a murky, threatening edge to it. I’d never seen such stark poverty as what was on display in Jakarta, or such naked capitalism at work in the enormous factories and the Texas drawls coming from across the hotel lobby where the oil company executives were drinking.

A decade later, Piper’s criminal past, which she had long left behind, caught up with her. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed, well-educated Piper found herself in lock-up for a felony. Sentenced to 14 months in the women’s correctional facility in Danbury, Conn. Piper chronicles every detail in Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, a candid and reflective memoir.

Only 30 pages in, when Piper surrenders to the women’s prison in Danbury, Conn., I find my own heart racing as she describes the process so vividly. I would have had a major panic attack and passed out. Piper remains relatively composed as her fiancé dropped her at the door. Piper decides from the get-go that she needed to be brave, even if she just puts on a brave face. If she didn’t remain in that state of mind she felt that she’d be doomed to harassment and not getting through her sentence unscathed both emotionally and physically.

I had only the most tenuous idea of what might happen next, but I knew that I would have to be brave. Not foolhardy, not in love with risk and danger, not making ridiculous exhibitions of myself to prove that I wasn’t terrified—really, genuinely brave. Brave enough to be quiet when quiet was called for, brave enough to observe before flinging myself into something, brave enough to not abandon my true self when someone else wanted to seduce me or force me in a direction I didn’t want to go, brave enough to stand my own ground quietly. I waited an unquantifiable amount of time while I tried to be brave.

When Piper first arrives she immediately notices the tribal system where many women tend to “stick” to their own—blacks with blacks; Latinos with Latinos; whites with whites and so-forth. Over time, Piper has friends of every color and more importantly, these women accept her. [It was all very West Side Story—stick to your own kind, Maria!] Piper ends up in B Dorm aka “The Ghetto.”

Single-sex living has certain constraints, whether it’s upscale or down and dirty. At Smith College the pervasive obsession with food was expressed at candlelight dinners and at Friday-afternoon faculty teas; in Danbury it was via microwave cooking and stolen food. In many ways I was more prepared to live in close quarters with a bunch of women than some of my fellow prisoners, who were driven crazy by communal female living.

In Orange is the New Black, Piper provides the real scoop on good prison guards vs. bad. She details earning various privileges like using the phone and procuring special items from the commissary. Then there’s smuggling choice food from the cafeteria in the front of one’s underwear for cooking up later. There’s a plethora of protocols and methods to avoid trouble or privileges revoked. Piper recalls work duties. First she works in the electrical area and learns many tricks. Then she moves on to construction which allows her a bit more freedom and some fresh air. A true respite for her. Then there are a few prisoners who make passes at Piper which she manages to ward off, avoiding any insults.

It’s not all completely terrible despite being locked up. Piper slowly makes a close posse of friends on the inside. She reads a ton and has so many books that she lends them out to various inmates. To avoid stress, Piper runs on an outside track six miles a day and longer on the weekends. She also starts yoga classes with a vegetarian known as Yoga Janet. Piper gets hooked and finds it’s a great stress-reducer and a chance for personal reflection. Things also aren’t all rosy. There are many times when Piper falls into despair and retreats to her bunk to read or runs around and around and around the track to escape into NPR or a college radio station.

Piper touches on several controversial subjects including incarceration of non-violent drug offenders. I agree with her on this one. It’s similar to arresting the prostitutes by not the johns. Or pimps for that matter. One Dominican lady in her 70s was in for four years for a “wire charge”: she took phone messages for her drug-dealing relative.

Long mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses are the primary reason that the U.S. prison population has ballooned since the 1980s to over 2.5 million people, a nearly 300 percent increase. We now lock up one out of every hundred adults, far more than any other country in the world.

She discusses restorative justice as a result of reflecting on what she had done and some of the women she befriended in prison– But our current criminal justice system has no provision for restorative justice, in which an offender confronts the damage they have done and tries to make it right to the people they have harmed. Many who itch to return to the streets go right back to the drugs that got them locked up. The Bureau of Prisons [BOP] lacks the basic ability, funding and time to rehabilitate the incarcerated and thus the recidivism to commit the same crimes once released remains real. Some women turn to bad behavior as a coping mechanism against their poverty, lack of family support, abusive spouse and boyfriends and general hopelessness. She also talks candidly about her shock that very little is done for the women who’ve completed sentences and have no resources for release: reuniting with children and family members, finding housing and finding employment.

Piper’s story is at times upsetting and at other times amusing. She’s a courageous woman and Orange is the New Black is a gift to readers and an inspiration. Its truth will open your eyes to unfair treatment, lack of rehabilitation and repeated frustrations within the U.S. prison system. Orange is the New Black is at turns daunting, authentic, provocative and spellbinding. The best part is that it’s about women from all different backgrounds bonding to endure a miserable situation.

Reading/ Book Signing with Piper Kerman: Tuesday, May 11 at Brookline Booksmith

Piper’s website and twitter

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Buy at Amazon: Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison

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