Michelle Alexander is the author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” and a senior fellow at the Ford Foundation.
What is justice? I’ve asked my children this question from time to time, hoping they will give me an encouraging answer. Usually they parrot what they’ve learned from television or the games they play with friends; they talk about good guys and bad guys, jails and police. I banned toy guns and handcuffs from our home and often say things like: “There is no such thing as good guys and bad guys. All people do good and bad things, including you. You can never know for sure what you would do in another person’s shoes.” They pretend to listen. I will never forget telling my youngest, when she was still in preschool, that police officers in Britain do not carry guns. She looked at me quizzically and asked, “Is Britain another planet?”
Norway might as well be another galaxy, considering the description offered in Baz Dreisinger’s intriguing new book, “Incarceration Nations.” Prisons there are small, typically housing fewer than 50 people and some fewer than 10. They are spread throughout the country to keep prisoners close to their families and communities. Sentences are short, generally just several months, and almost no one serves all of his or her time. On a tour of Bastoy, Norway’s famous prison located on an island that is also a nature reserve, Dreisinger buoyantly describes the lovely grounds, absence of prison uniforms and bars, beautiful housing units, windows “designed to admit optimum sunlight,” colorful murals, friendly prison choir, poetry hung on walls, incredible health unit and well-stocked library. She marvels at “the gorgeous, private visiting rooms, stocked with condoms and lubricants.”
Dreisinger, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, takes us on a tour of prisons around the globe in search of clues that might answer the question of what justice is or, rather, what it ought to be. The great gift of “Incarceration Nations” is that, by introducing a wide range of approaches to crime, punishment and questions of justice in diverse countries — Rwanda, South Africa, Brazil, Jamaica, Uganda, Singapore, Australia and Norway — it forces us to face the reality that American-style punishment has been chosen. It is not normal, natural or inevitable.
Drastically different approaches are being pursued in other parts of the world, often with greater success. In Rwanda, an entire nation has committed itself to healing, forgiveness, reconciliation and restorative justice following a genocide in which neighbors hacked one another to death in the streets. Here, we have the world’s highest incarceration rate and an abysmal recidivism rate, 60 percent. Norway’s rate is 20 percent. Top-quality public education, universal health care and free child care are among the many benefits provided by the state in Norway, reflecting its long-standing egalitarian culture and spirit of communitarianism — a spirit that extends to its prisons. “It’s really very simple,” says the governor (not “warden”) of Bastoy, whose inmates include people convicted of drug trafficking and violent crimes. “Treat people like dirt and they will be dirty. Treat them like human beings and they will act like human beings.”
What have we chosen instead, as a nation struggling to overcome a legacy of slavery, segregation and ghettoization? As a capitalist society that embraces individualism and survival-of-the-fittest notions of economic advancement? Answer: the death penalty and indefinite solitary confinement, practices that are viewed with horror in most Western democracies. Mandatory minimum sentences, three-strikes laws, militarized police forces and a prison building boom unlike anything the world has ever seen. More than 2 million of our poorest, darkest and most marginalized citizens locked in cages, often hundreds of miles away from their families and communities. Upon release, they are relegated to a permanent second-class status and stripped of basic civil and human rights. And yet we call ourselves the land of the free.
To be clear, this is not a typical criminal justice reform book stocked with data, policy analyses and prescriptions for change. Nor is it written by a criminal justice expert. Dreisinger is a self-described “white English professor specializing in African-American cultural studies” who is also a Caribbean carnival lover, a prison educator, a criminal justice activist, a freelance radio producer, a reggae fanatic and an agnostic Jew. She is the founder and academic director of the groundbreaking Prison-to-College Pipeline program, which enrolls prisoners in college courses and grants them admission to the City University of New York to complete their degrees upon release. It is her love for her students that thrusts her into the world, searching for answers to the needless suffering that is inflicted upon them.
Anyone who is looking for detailed, nuanced descriptions of the various justice systems will be disappointed. The book reads much like a rambling, yet frequently insightful diary entry as she roams the globe, one day witnessing a restorative-justice session in a Rwandan prison, another day discussing literature with a Brazilian prisoner through a tiny hole in the door of a supermax cell, and then suddenly off to Thailand to lead a drama workshop in a facility that Princess Bajrakitiyabha hopes will be a model for progressive prison reform.
Dreisinger’s unpolished, breezy narrative is rife with virtue and some vice. She candidly wrestles with her own doubts, blind spots and contradictions, and acknowledges that she has put herself in the “horrible position of ogling human beings.” She condemns the “unfortunate, too-familiar white-savior-of-black-souls dynamic,” even as she finds herself in precisely that role. In one chapter, prisoners in Uganda literally beg her to stay as her one-week writing class comes to an end. “Guilt and grief wash over me,” she says. “I foster a spirit of humanity, creativity, and intellectual freedom, open up emotional scars, then parachute right out, back to business as usual. . . . What good is a week of transcendence if it can’t be sustained?”
Perhaps it is a testament to the power and potential of her project that I ended each chapter wanting to know more. How exactly does the reentry program she visited in Singapore manage to place 99 percent of its graduates in jobs? Do elected leaders in South Africa understand that mass incarceration in the United States has helped to reverse racial progress and reinforce patterns of racial segregation, exclusion and stigmatization?
It is not possible for a short book styled as a memoir to provide a comprehensive overview of the justice systems of seven nations and their political, social and historical contexts. In many respects, I am grateful that Dreisinger did not attempt that feat. The heart and soul of this book are the stories of the people she encounters along the way. A South African gang member bursts into tears and collapses into his sister’s arms when she utters the words “You are loved.” A Brazilian man trapped in solitary confinement whispers: “I am suffocating. I am dead. There is nothing else to say. Buried but alive, still.” Dreisinger brings skepticism to many of these stories, asking herself over and over whether the contrition is real, whether healing and reconciliation are truly possible.
The prisoners have questions too: “Is it true that in America you still have the death penalty? . . . And life sentences? Is it true that America is responsible for this prison? For the supermax?”
I appreciated the range of stories and experiences shared, yet I could not help but worry that difficult issues had been glossed over. Most glaringly, in Australia, Dreisinger is shocked that the private prison she is allowed to visit is a beautiful, efficient, well-run facility. “Perhaps there’s such a thing as privatization with a conscience, implemented morally and progressively in the name of true corrections,” she writes. A quick Internet search reveals numerous scandals and horror stories involving other Australian private prisons, yet Dreisinger seems reluctant to view these as indictments of privatization itself, musing that maybe “it’s not about private or public — it’s about accountability and process overall.”
Her casual suggestion that private prisons might provide a pathway to justice for the poorest and most marginalized people of the world is a jarring departure from one of the book’s most powerful and persuasive themes, namely that “slavery, prison, capitalism, and race have long been a deadly global cocktail.” The countries that have the most punitive (and rapidly growing) prison systems all have brutal histories of colonialism or slavery combined with capitalist exploitation of prison labor. “These are the roots of the prison industrial complex,” Dreisinger explains, “a tangle of legal, business, and government interests that has existed for centuries.”
It is curious that Australia is cast as a possible exception to the rule. The country now holds the world’s largest proportion of prisoners in private facilities and has a wholly private immigrant detention system. Australia’s prison population has doubled in the past decade, with Western Australia boasting the country’s highest number of prisoners. The ratios of Aboriginal people jailed in Western Australia are now worse than the racial disparities for African Americans in the United States. Is it possible that privatization has something to do with this? Could profit margins be stimulating the Australian appetite for mass incarceration?
No answers are offered to these questions, but we do learn that Dreisinger is permitted to meet with an entirely white group of Australian prisoners, with the exception of one Sri Lankan. Her guide has selected only “college-ready” students, and the Aboriginal inmates do not qualify for her class. The white students read slave narratives and are deeply moved — more so than the Ugandan prisoners, who found nothing at all shocking in them.
The book ends with Norway, undoubtedly to inspire us to imagine that a radically different system of justice is possible in America. But I wish the book ended where it began, with Rwanda — a nation that is struggling to overcome a history of genocide, ethnic division and unspeakable suffering. Rwanda aims to rebirth itself by facing its history honestly, unflinchingly, with open hearts and minds, yet we learn little about this reckoning and national awakening.
If there is any hope that we in America might one day overcome our own history of genocide, slavery, discrimination and oppression, and create a justice system that is truly a source of international pride rather than shame, I suspect Rwanda may have as much to teach us about what is required as any tour of a Norwegian prison.
By Baz Dreisinger
325 pp. $27.95