Book review: Incarceration Nations has admirable aims but neglects the victims of crime

Studying the prisons of nine countries, Baz Dreisinger has the heart to challenge some of her own assumptions, but she could have used an editor who disagreed with her more

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 March, 2016, 5:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 March, 2016, 5:00am

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

by Baz Dreisinger

Other Press

Toward the end of Incarceration Nations, the author describes a lively afternoon in which she taught Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story Cell One, about a middle-class Nigerian youth, favoured by his mother for his light skin, who is jailed for theft. The students, all men imprisoned in Australia, thrill to the text.

“Not only do the men adroitly unpack the complex race, class, and gender dynamics of an African country they’ve barely even heard of, they transform the analysis into a weighty moral discussion about lessons learned and unlearned behind bars,” writes Baz Dreisinger. Can such uplift, she wonders, be enough?

SEE ALSO: Henning Mankell’s parting words on what it means to have a good life

A founder of the Prison-to-College Pipeline initiative at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, Dreisinger is a gifted teacher. (She is also an audacious one – deciding to trek through prisons in nine countries.) She uses her American credentials to open prison doors in Australia, Thailand, South Africa, Singapore, Rwanda, Norway, Jamaica, Brazil and Uganda.

“To minimise the inevitable anthropological rubbernecking, I would, when possible, volunteer in the prisons, working and doing instead of watching and writing,” she states in the introduction. “Perhaps I could make my zealous curiosity contagious, for the greater good.”

She isn’t coy about her idea of the greater good: she marches to the tune of Angela Davis’s crusade for the abolishment of prison. Here is a typical, acidic sentence: “Call someone a ‘criminal’ or ‘ex-con’ or ‘offender’ and you have, in one fell swoop, reduced them to their worst act and vindicated yourself for tolerating their lynching.”

Tellingly, there are no scare quotes around the word lynching. Still, readers who can stomach bombast will be rewarded with a comparative look at the systems that have locked away 10.3 million human beings. The range of arrangements is dizzying.

In Norway, for example, the incarcerated enjoy “gorgeous shared housing units, with their stainless-steel countertops, wraparound sofas, chic coffee tables, and long vertical windows designed to admit optimum sunlight”. And the visiting rooms are “stocked with condoms and lubricants – these do surprise and impress me”, Dreisinger writes.

In Uganda, she describes “brimming infernos”, spaces designed for 23 inmates made to warehouse 265. In Jamaica’s General Penitentiary, there are no toilets – men urinate into water bottles, and, if lucky, have a scrap of newspaper on which to defecate. The solitary confinement in Brazil is terrifying.

Dreisinger earns respect for travelling to tough places to pose hard questions, even if her visits are essentially drive-bys. Still, Dreisinger openly wrestles with her own assumptions – that prisons-for-profit are nefarious, for instance, as she considers the greatly improved conditions in some jailhouses run by the Australian private sector.

The author proves unusually nuanced on race and class, starting with a cheerful declaration of her own co-ordinates: “I am a white English professor specialising in African-American cultural studies, a Caribbean carnival lover who is also a prison educator and criminal justice activist, a freelance producer for National Public Radio, a reggae fanatic, an agnostic New York Jew.” She grew up listening as her mother regularly played the Schindler’s List soundtrack in their living room, and has produced two documentaries about hip-hop and the justice system.

This book jumps off with a hauntingly apt quote from Dostoyevsky and a nifty lyric from Bob Dylan. But these samplings underscore Dreisinger’s own overheated, grandiose prose, and her flattening we’re-all-the-same-despite-our-actions argument. How she might have benefited from an editor who didn’t sit in the amen corner.

Bryan Stevenson’s 2014 criminal-justice critique, Just Mercy, makes a powerful contrast. Stevenson, who runs the Equal Justice Initiative in Birmingham, Alabama, joins Dreisinger in characterising American justice as broken, but he is careful to stress that he hates crime. He acknowledges victims. Even as Dreisinger emphasises the admirable practice of restorative justice in South Africa, the teary reconciliations she depicts are among family members, not perpetrators and victims.

The work Dreisinger does is vital, occasionally lifesaving. Her bibliography is excellent. But for almost the entirety of Incarceration Nations, the only victims are the ones already behind bars. The grieving families of terrible acts? Undetectable.

Tribune News Service