In an October 2014 edition of The New Yorker, Jennifer Gonnerman wrote about sixteen-year-old Bronx resident, Kaleif Browder, who, in the spring of 2010, was sent to Rikers for allegedly stealing a backpack. After three years – two of them in solitary confinement – his case was dropped due to lack of evidence. Kaleif returned home a shattered nineteen-year-old. Two years later he committed suicide. Sadly, Kaleif’s story is not unique.
As the human tragedy that America’s courts have inflicted upon so many of our citizens comes into ugly focus, the call to reform the criminal justice system may be reaching a tipping point. President Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan recently went on record vowing to work together on a reform plan during the President’s last year in office. Let’s hope they can.
The United States has five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the prison population, most of them poor, vulnerable and minorities. Shockingly, not even China, with a population four times larger, comes close to our percentages. In fact, according to a recent National Research Council report, the one country whose prison rates are estimated to equal or exceed ours is North Korea.
Arriving at this propitious moment is Baz Dreisinger’s new book, Incarceration Nations. An Associate Professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and founder of the innovative Prison-to-College Pipeline program, Dreisinger knows first hand the human faces, and family heartbreak behind the statistics.
In an effort to re-think America’s punitive model of justice, Dreisinger turned a recent sabbatical into a bold quest. She visited prisons in nine countries – Uganda, Rawanda, South Africa, Jamaica, Brazil, Austraila, Thailand, Singapore and Norway – engaging whenever possible with inmates through drama workshops, art and writing classes, and restorative justice programs. She hoped her experience would deliver a shock to her system and help her imagine what true reform might look like. How were other countries managing their prisons? What was working? What was not?
In Thailand she directed women prisoners as they acted out the scenarios that landed many of them in prison: serving as drug mules for their boyfriends. Deep in the Rwanda hillside, she worked with genocide survivors who forgave then welcomed back into the community the perpetrators who, nineteen years ago, slaughtered their neighbors. In Uganda’s notoriously over crowded prison system, where there are no toilets and human beings are crammed together like sardines, she led a writing workshop where inmates wrote about childhoods filled with poverty and abuse. And in Brazil’s Penitenciária Federal de Catanduvas, the country’s first supermax, she met Carlos who compared his solitary confinement (an American export started by Quakers) to the feeling of being buried alive.
Dreisinger’s first person narrative reads, to great effect, like a series of ominous set-ups to a variety of hellish nightmares. In South Africa “the air is el dente” and her hotel room feels like a “royal carriage house” albeit within walking distance of Pollsmoor Prison, one of the most dangerous places on earth. At other times, she disrupts the flow of her thought-provoking narrative with observational platitudes. “Punishment” she writes “is backword looking. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is forward looking.”
Such idealism may make us feel good but the challenges necessary to bring about real change mean confronting messy, complex truths like our history with slavery, prejudice, economic inequality, and the hopelessness all that entails. More instructive is Dreisinger’s Martin Luther King, Jr. quote: “Compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that the edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Society must find a way to guard the safety of its citizens within a justice system that guarantees respect and compassion for the victim while offering perpetrators a realistic path to redemption, not the inhuman treatment that shames all of us who imagine we live in a civilized society.
Dreisinger’s last stop, Norway, is the only true relief to what is, in the end, a very dark journey through deep pockets of abandoned humanity. Norway boasts of its “penal exceptionalism,” where short sentences are the norm, prisons have flat screen televisions, all kinds of classes, wrap around sofas, well-educated correction officers, and very low rates of recidivism. Yet Norway’s inmates caution Dreisinger not to be fooled; despite their surroundings, they are prisoners all the same.
Incarceration Nations is an important book, one that pulls back the curtain on a global human tragedy that, for most of us, is hidden from view. The author’s unique ability to draw out the humanity in even the most troubled of souls reflects the passion and understanding she brings to her work. Her Prison-to-College Pipeline program, like her writing class in Uganda and drama workshop in Thailand, is a beacon of light that illuminates a steping stone on a path to change. One can only hope that if President Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan stay true to their vows to begin the long-awaited criminal justice reform, activists like Baz Dreisinger will be invited to take a seat at the table.
Top photo: Colin Williams