As one who has spent more than 20 years as a volunteer teacher in prison, I wanted to read Baz Dreisinger's Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World. Dr. Dreisinger is an Associate Professor in the English Department of John Jay
We Americans lock people away in prison for four reasons: (1) as punishment for a criminal act; (2) to remove dangerous people from society; (3) to deter others from doing the same thing; (4) as an opportunity to change—to correct—criminal/anti-social behavior. Spelling these out, of course, raises all kinds of questions. How much punishment is appropriate? Is losing one's freedom enough punishment? Does prison—even long mandatory minimum sentences—deter crime? (One student told me that the certainty of being caught deters crime, not a long sentence.) Is it even possible to correct a person's behavior? We call them correctional institutions, but does anyone think they correct anything?
With a background as a "white English professor specializing 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, [and] an agnostic New York Jew," Dreisinger took two years to visit prisons in Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, Jamaica, Thailand, Brazil, Australia, Singapore, and Norway, comparing and contrasting their prisons and answers to the questions above to America's answers. She visited prisons and met with prisoners, staff and officials, criminal justice advocates, and more.
The result is a number of fascinating snapshots of very different institutions, culture-bound in some ways, American-influenced in others. For example, "Throughout the colonial world . . . prisons served the aims of whites, extorting money by the way of bribes to stay out of prison and obtaining free labor from prisoners for cotton production . . . colonial powers adroitly manufactured reasons to put bodies behind bars." (So that could be reason (5) for locking people away: Obtain cheap labor.)
Perhaps examples of American-influence are drug laws. "Across the globe, draconian drug policy is packing prisons. Drug users and traffickers represent more than half of those in federal prison in the United States and Mexico, a quarter of all those in prison in Spain, and one-fifth entering prison in Japan; in Malaysia they constitute more than half of the nine hundred incarcerated people awaiting execution. And these are mainly small-time users, more than 83 percent of them, worldwide, convicted of possession."
But while much of the news is grim (don't get arrested for drug possession in Singapore), it's not all dire. It turns out that, given the Australian experience, private prisons may not be all bad all the time. Thanks to Thailand's princess, the country's prisons for women are becoming less oppressive. Norway is showing the world its commitment to corrections over punishment. Whether the positive lessons can—or should—be replicated elsewhere remains in my mind an open question.
I thoroughly enjoyed Incarceration Nations for the insights Dreisinger gives into foreign prisons. I would have enjoyed it more with end notes and an index. It does have an extensive bibliography, but, buff that I am, I would like to be able to look up the original studies she cites. Nevertheless, I recommend the book to anyone interested in incarceration here and elsewhere in the world.