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Incarceration Nations by Baz Dreisinger

Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World - Baz Dreisinger

This book’s premise caught my attention: an American professor of criminal justice travels the world to study and compare various prison systems. Unfortunately, despite a promising beginning, it turns out to be less an in-depth learning experience than the author’s touring a bunch of prisons and using them as a soapbox to argue for the abolition of incarceration.

Dreisinger, who teaches college classes in a New York prison, visited prisons in Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, Jamaica, Thailand, Brazil, Australia, Singapore and Norway. This book catalogues her trips, interspersing the narrative with statistics and research. And while there’s a lot to criticize here, I can’t say I didn’t learn from it. It turns out that the American prison model is being emulated around the world, from mass incarceration (particularly for drug offenses) to supermaxes and solitary confinement. And the author’s observations on the connection between incarceration, social control and economics are particularly interesting. Many of the prisons she visits began as colonial institutions, while in the U.S., mass incarceration began shortly after African-Americans gained civil rights. Prisons have provided cheap or free labor around the world: in Singapore, for instance, the prisoner and ex-offender manual labor market reduces the need for “undesirable” immigrant labor in the jobs no one else wants.

That said, I wish the author’s information had been better sourced. She includes a bibliography for each chapter, but does not document in endnotes the source of specific facts; I wanted to know where startling statistics, such as the purported 25% of South African men who admit to having committed rape, came from.

Dreisinger’s trips also turned out to be more superficial than I’d hoped. She spends limited time in the actual prisons, so there’s no in-depth knowledge of the inmates’ lives. Her time inside ranges from a week of workshop participation in South Africa and Uganda, to literally just touring prisons in four other countries. The chapters are padded out by accounts of her accommodations, food and entertainment along the way. On several trips, she visits model prisons that bear little resemblance to the typical ones; in Thailand, she even realizes later that her entire visit was staged, but rationalizes that it was still worthwhile for bringing publicity to the topic. Some of the topics she chooses to focus on also seem less important than others: her trips to Uganda, Jamaica and Thailand focus on arts programs in prison, and while she backs up the value of such programs with statistics, the topic seems out-of-place in a book otherwise grappling with big ideas about justice and incarceration.

But then, “grappling” is perhaps not the right word here. The author begins her journey with definite views, and only once does she rethink them: in Australia, upon visiting well-run private prisons, she concludes that privatization isn’t necessarily the anathema she’d thought it to be – it all depends on accountability. (Australian private prisons seem to be more accountable than government-run ones, with their profits tied to reducing recidivism. This is not the case in the U.S., where the private prison industry lobbies heavily for more incarceration because its profits depend on number of beds filled.)

Most of the time, though, Dreisinger’s views don’t admit challenge, and her visits feel less like a learning experience than like a platform to share her existing opinions. In Brazil, when several men are trying to tell her their stories, her interpreter gives up; this matters little to the author, though, because “I know what they’re saying. Because I’ve heard it in America, in Jamaica, and especially back in Pollsmoor [South Africa].” She’s only halfway through her journey at this point; if you already know it all, why are you there? And in Norway, when she visits a prison that sounds more like a luxury campus and meets a young man who laughs at the conditions (“‘This place is great,’ he’d said with a haughty chuckle. ‘The first day I got here I laughed out loud. This is prison? Ha.’”), she simply refuses to believe it. “I suspect that in fact [he] is, somewhere inside, crying . . . or that he’d bought into the hype.” But if an actual inmate believes what she calls “the whole ‘Halden-is-a-five-star-hotel’ routine,” that doesn’t sound like empty hype, but rather an accurate description.

And with the author building the narrative around her opinions, it wasn’t quite the learning experience of international justice systems that I’d hoped for. To me, the most valuable chapter was the first one, on Rwanda’s response to genocide: in dealing with an enormous number of perpetrators, Rwanda has focused on community healing, addressing the problem not just through incarceration, but through confession programs, community service such as having offenders build infrastructure, and reconciliation between communities. While the author seems to view Rwanda through rose-tinted glasses (ignoring the role incarceration plays in the healing process), it is a fascinating lesson in restorative justice and I wish the book contained more like that.

But Dreisinger’s primary argument is for eliminating prisons: an argument not based in her journey at all, as no countries discussed have done so. There are several reasons typically given for incarceration – punishment, deterrence, incapacitation, rehabilitation – and the only one Dreisinger approves is rehabilitation. She dismisses punishment as “profoundly questionable with regard to any sort of wrongdoing,” even violent crimes. She dismisses deterrence by pointing out that those in prison weren’t deterred by its existence when committing their crimes, overlooking the fact that the vast majority of people are not in prison and most probably have been tempted to break the law at some point in their lives. Nor does she believe in incapacitating criminals by removing them from society, arguing that “we’ll never have a risk-free society” but that we’re all in this together – so we all need to tolerate crime in the interest of not subjecting our fellow citizens to prison. With her primary interest being minimizing the effects of crime on the lives of the offenders, she recommends replacing prisons with “interventions”: “a transitory space that promotes healing.”

So the author’s opinions are so far from mine and from society’s in general that I didn’t ultimately find her views or suggestions very helpful. I think that the American criminal justice systems are broken: the fact that someone can be sentenced to just a few months for rape in California, while leaving a victim traumatized for life, but to 20+ years for drug possession while hurting no one, says it all. But I do believe violent crime needs to be punished and that some people need to be removed from society long-term, even permanently. So to me, a book that – especially after the early chapters – focuses exclusively on the needs and interests of the prisoners while ignoring those of the rest of society is not a particularly useful contribution to the debate on criminal justice reform.