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
Robin Weaver (top photo on left with Campbell Brown) dashes into the Women’s National Republican Club in a whirlwind – she’s allotted an hour for our breakfast interview prior to dashing to Brooklyn for her next appointment. Recently elected President, she’s on a mission to transform the Club by raising political awareness and making it a forum for debate and discussion. “Although our membership adheres to Republican principles, especially lower taxes and fiscal responsibility, we want to make it a welcome place for all. As a matter of fact, a number of my friends who are Democrats attend our events,” she notes. Her goal is to make the Club a place where everyone, Democrats and Republicans alike, feels comfortable, a go to spot for political and social events, and a destination for banquets and weddings. In office since May 2015, Robin already has made big strides, making the Club a mecca for New York men and women to exchange ideas, dine, and socialize.
The volunteer role of running any organization can be a thankless job—demanding time, energy, and the skills to manage the various personalities to get things done. Robin faces a big challenge—but her can-do attitude, fresh ideas, and attention to detail appear to be working.
Robin’s interest in politics was inspired by her father, now deceased, with whom she watched William F. Buckley’s Firing Line every week growing up in the Pittsburgh area. She joined the Young Republicans in high school, and her yearbook from that time attests to her involvement, sprinkled with comments from classmates acknowledging her extracurricular political activities. Her curiosity carried over to college (where she majored in political science and economics) and then law school, where she joined the Federalist Society, and now serves as Vice President of the New York Chapter. When she moved to New York City in the 1980s, Robin began attending social and political events at the WNRC, and became an official member four years ago. She also attended both political conventions in our city: the Democratic Convention, at which Bill Clinton received the nod, and the Republican one in 2004 at which George W. Bush was re-nominated.
In most cases, success in running an organization is measured by the numbers, and Robin’s gig is no different. Increasing its existing $5.5 million revenue is a primary objective, and she’s going full force with two initiatives: broadening membership and promoting its 3 West Club’s banquet and catering capabilities. “It’s also important that we tap into Republican organizations in the city, as Republicans are outnumbered by Democrats by about six to one. I have a special focus on young people, as they often bring innovative ideas that in the long term will help our Club flourish.”
The Club’s banquet facilities are impressive. Located on 51st Street, just a few steps west of Fifth Avenue, it boasts two ballrooms sizable enough to accommodate weddings, bar mitzvahs, and corporate events. Under Robin’s stewardship, banquet revenue is on the rise. The Club also has 27 prettily appointed rooms (including two suites) available both to members and non-members alike. Visitors would be hard pressed to find a better value: rates range from $140 to $220 per night, depending on the season. And its prime location, in the heart of the city’s prestigious shopping district, and within walking distance to the theatre, is an added attraction.
The Club’s pub and dining room, serving breakfast, lunch, dinner, and cocktails, are accessible to anyone with a credit card (and are a great value, with prices ranging from 15 percent to 20 percent lower than other private clubs). Robin plans to host social events on the 9th Floor’s solarium, which has a terrace, once warmer weather arrives.
She’s already attracted a stirring roster of Republican speakers, including Dana Perino, Peggy Noonan, Judith Miller, and Margaret Hoover. Judith will be honored on April 11 at the Club’s 95th Annual Awards Dinner, along with Jack Pritchard, the NYC Fire Department’s most highly decorated fire fighter. Other honorees at the dinner include Michael Mukasey, the country’s 81st Attorney General, as well as Congresswoman Martha McSally of Arizona (who was elected to the seat previously held by Gaby Gifford).
Among the Club’s members are Candy Straight, previously a Wall Street executive, whose film Equity starring Anna Gunn was previewed at the Sundance Film Festival and just sold to Sony Pictures; and Christine Todd Whitman, former New Jersey Governor and Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the George W. Bush administration.
Alice LaBrie and Robin Weaver
An election cycle creates buzz, and Robin has cleverly capitalized on it by organizing a Debate Watch Party for each of the Republican debates. (Full disclosure: I’ve attended most of them, and they are colorful, fun-filled, and spirited). Our talk of the slate of presidential candidates quickly turns to Republicans whom she admires: Speaker Paul Ryan, Ohio Senator Rob Portman, and Maine Senator Susan Collins. She also includes four Congresswomen in her list: Virginia Foxx (North Carolina), Kathy McMorris Rogers (Washington), Elise Stefanik (New York, and the youngest woman ever to be elected to Congress), and the aforementioned Martha McSally.
Right on cue, our time is up, but Robin makes one final observation: “We’re committed to recruiting from a broad demographic of all ages, especially younger women, men who can serve as associate members, and as diverse a group as possible. Although male members can’t vote, nor serve on the Club Board, we want them to join and participate in our programs and events. It’s part of our plan to make the Club a welcome spot for all Republicans in New York.”