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Incarceration Nations: On the Dangers of Exporting US Prison Systems

Baz Dreisinger visits nine countries to see how the exportation of US prison system leads to incarceration nations.

Barbed wire surrounds a tower in Maitland Jail, a former Australian prison, in a photo taken on July 17, 2006. (Photo: Weapons of Mass Distortion)

While issues of mass incarceration have become part of the United States’ national discourse, we discuss less how the exportation of the US prison system has impacted countries abroad. It is for this reason that Baz Dreisinger, a professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, sets out to understand prisons globally. In Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World, Dreisinger exposes us to the varied forms of criminal punishment and restorative justice measures enacted in nine countries.

During her travels, Dreisinger meets with prisoners and local community members leading prison-based arts programs in Jamaica and participates in restorative justice initiatives in Rwanda and South Africa. She also leads her own workshops on creative writing, literature and drama in Uganda and Thailand, partly in an effort to avoid assuming a voyeuristic role all-too-often taken up by Western journalists documenting violence abroad. The classes that Dreisinger leads draw from the justice work that she conducts as the co-founder and director of the Prison-to-College Pipeline (P2CP), a college re-entry program that enables formerly incarcerated people to pursue a higher education.

Though Dreisinger makes a persuasive case for reconsidering prison systems, there is much that she glosses over. For instance, after detailing the cruel treatment of prisoners and their inhumane living conditions, she remains “hopeful that progress in prison reform might continue.” One reform that she seems to advocate for is the privatization of prisons.

During her time in Australia, a place where “the prison population has doubled in a decade,” Dreisinger visits a couple of private prisons that mirror beachy rehabilitative centers and writer retreats. These prisons are run by two multinational British security companies, “justice services” giants Serco and G4S, which supply technologies like military weapons to detention centers, prisons and schools. Though Dreisinger offers this information, she posits that “perhaps there’s such a thing as privatization with a conscience, implemented morally and progressively in the name of true corrections.” The underlying point is that treating “people in prison more humanely costs less, and that private prisons are more accountable than government-run prisons.” Dreisinger’s argument is incongruous with the fact that private corporations are in the game to make a profit from prisons, and lobby heavily to keep incarceration numbers high in order to rake in profits.

It can be difficult to discern these discrepancies since Dreisinger dangerously enlists reformist language and similarly calls for “smart policing,” “community policing” and “true corrections,” without unpacking what she means by these terms. This may leave the reader thinking that policing and punishment are desirable and positive, if they are employed “effectively.” Without rigorously developing these terms, she fails to make the reader aware that this language is often used in the service of extending new punishment measures under the pretense of progress.

Prison reform, as she notes, reinforces “racist, classist social structures” that maintain practices of incarceration. Despite acknowledging this, Dreisinger makes a strong case for criminal legal system reform, not abolition.

Nevertheless, Dreisinger’s narrative remains a worthwhile testament to our need to rethink prisons, and to rethink how we understand and practice justice. In this exclusive for Truthout, I interview her in an effort to learn more about how “we’ve exported a bereft system to the world” and clarify the distinctions between prison reform and abolition.

Claudia Garcia-Rojas: Why did you feel it was important to explore prisons in other countries? What initiated that pursuit?

Baz Dreisinger: I had been working in an education context in prisons in the US for almost a decade. I felt like — watching the shift of the conversation, as it became more mainstream — there were a couple of things missing, and one of them was the global context.

One of your stated goals is to show how the US has exported its prison system. How is this reflected in the countries that you visited?

America in the 19th century built the first two modern prisons and then, via colonialism, that model became imitated around the globe. [In] Kingston, Jamaica, the prison is literally a model of Eastern State Penitentiary [the US’s first penitentiary]. You see this model superimposed in different parts of the world, in all kinds of ways, historically speaking.

I also consider the ways even more contemporary versions of prisons and prison policy are imitative of American models. The Supermax [prison] is a particularly glaring example. The Supermax prison model was invented in America in the 1980s. [It has] now [been] exported to at least a dozen countries. Brazil [is] building five Supermaxes that look just like American Supermaxes. I went to Australia and looked at the private prison industry, which again, [is] something the US invented, and the rest of the world is doing, too. So there are different echoes of the American system globally.

Throughout your journey, you make references to witnessing the power of restorative justice. I’m interested in these parts, and your decision to not include an exploration of transformative justice, as a way to think about broader structural changes?

Restorative justice is at the heart of the future of justice for me. I’ve always been interested in restorative justice as a paradigm. From the first time I read about it, it changed my mind in terms of how I thought about crime.

I think that any justice system should be founded on the principles of restorative justice. How that gets enacted depends on the culture and the place and the system. But a big part of what I want to push for is making that paradigm mainstream, and a fundamental focus on the victim and reparations, restitution and reconciliation, above revenge and punishment.

As far as transformative justice, I am a believer of it. I think it was just out of the scope of this book. To get into that would take me away from the focus of the book. So my support is there implicitly rather than explicitly.

In Incarceration Nations you describe “justice as a journey” and explain that “justice is a movement.” Can you say more about how you understand justice?

Justice is never static; there’s always a process. The opposite of justice is not so much injustice as complacency.

To me, the worst thing about the prison system is its inherent laziness as an approach to crime. It’s not an acceptable approach to crime morally, socially, economically [or] philosophically. We’ve been using [the prison system] for a couple hundred years and we’ve fallen back on it as the only way to deal with crime. I think when we start being lazy about something as critical as justice, we’re embodying its antithesis.

Is it that we have become lazy or complacent, or is it that the system is working insofar as how it was designed to work?

I think it was intended to be a system of oppression, absolutely! I also think that there’s a lot of laziness that goes into play, even among those who are well meaning.

You have stated that you identify as a prison abolitionist, yet in your book you argue that your experience “is enough to make [you] hopeful that progress in prison reform might continue.” Do you believe that prisons should be eradicated or reformed?

I believe that prisons should be eradicated and what should be filled in [their] stead is a system founded on restorative justice. To me, being a prison abolitionist doesn’t preclude the existence of some kinds of institutions in which people might need to be held for short periods of times, and some people for longer periods of time. My argument is that these institutions would look so radically different from prisons as to make the word “prison” totally [inapplicable].

I don’t think abolition means you don’t find room for institutions that are designed to keep people that aren’t safe from the general public, and that there aren’t institutions that we should be designing that help people [and] that genuinely enact a thing that we call correction. In my book, I don’t even call them prisons; I call them interventions.

In your final chapter, you argue that “community policing and smart policing should replace repressive tactics.” Can you say more about how you’re understanding the terms “community policing” and “smart policing”?

I am an outspoken critique of the repressive tactics of policing that are being used. The racially targeted policing, the racist police forces — whether that’s individually, or the systemic way the police force has been built to oppress certain communities defined as other and generally [as] poor, Black and Brown.

There’s no debate around that issue. I’m really interested in kinds of community policing that are approaching things altogether differently, and that are coming at this from a restorative approach and that are working together with communities. I’m not a policing expert. It’s not what I do; it’s not what I write about.

I think there are radically different models of policing that don’t envision it as, “I am here to promote law and order in this community that I am a part of” but, rather, that come from the grassroots of the community. How can we protect ourselves and keep ourselves safe and ensure that people are living in productive ways?

In your travels to Australia, you make the connections between capitalism and prisons clear. You argue “not all capitalism is created equal.” You add that “private prisons are very convenient, very salient villain….” Then you offer the following statement: “Perhaps there’s such a thing as privatization with a conscience, implemented morally and progressively in the name of true corrections.” Are you arguing that privatization with a conscience is a desirable alternative?

I don’t believe in prisons. I think, when it comes to building what I call interventions — or systems helping deal with individuals who have caused harm in communities — yes, there can be role for privatization in that. A very different one from the one that exists today, and whereby companies have no say over legislation.

We already utilize — even in the state system — private companies. One of the big distinctions I am making is that we should not only be villainizing private prisons, when our state prisons are as much caught up in this whole mess as the private systems, which are just the more salient, obvious and grotesque examples. In some respects, it’s a temporary band-aid until we get it together and until we utilize them to promote innovation.

Why do you end with the Norwegian prison as a better carceral model and not with, say, Rwanda?

Starting in Rwanda is as important as ending in Norway. In some ways, the book ended in hopeful possibilities and the capacity [of] human beings to do incredible things to innovate, to be humane, to be forgiving, to do all of the things that justice is made of. I don’t see it as I build up to the great success of Norway. I find certain critiques in Norway. I also find tremendous inspiration, the same way I find there are underlying problems in Rwanda, and there are certainly grand beautiful examples to be found. I wanted to bookend the whole thing in these two really different places and different parts of the world with very different populations. And yet, these two places are representative of what’s possible if we innovate and we push the envelope.

To clarify, you’re not saying that there are good prisons?

No. I talk about that term as a paradox. If it were progressive, it wouldn’t be a prison.

Bastoy, one of the prisons that I went to in Norway, is barely a prison. It is a prison by name only and by lack of liberty. By all stretches of what we imagine prisons to be, it practically isn’t. I think the only progressive prison would be so radically different from a prison as we know it to be worthy of a different name.

You make the case that despite “radical social reform, there will still be people who cannot live in a free society because they pose a threat to it” and that they will need to be “corrected.” How are you understanding the term “correction” and the need for it?

A true [consciousness of] what you’ve done means that you have a desire to make amends for it in some capacity and you certainly have a desire to never do it again. Can that happen [for people who habitually commit extreme acts]?

Too often we talk about our criminal justice system as if that’s the bulk of people living in this system, when that’s hardly the case. I make a grand distinction between a person that’s committed murder and a murderer. A person who’s committed a crime and a criminal.

The John Jay College of Criminal Justice is referenced frequently in the book, in addition to the Prison-to-College Pipeline that you helped found. Is there an underlying motive to the book and/or an intended audience?

I wanted to write for a lot of different kinds of people: Some people who are invested in this cause but don’t know much about it internationally. Some who are invested in other aspects of justice work but don’t know that much about the prison system. I was also interested in reaching readers who might not otherwise pick up a book on the prison system. Part of my decision to make it first person, and make it a journey, and write it in the way that I did, was because I wanted to attract a mainstream readership that wouldn’t necessarily otherwise think about some of these moral and philosophical issues at stake when it comes to prison systems.

What is the most important lesson you learned in your journey to justice?

You have to cultivate optimism because change can happen, and you can’t do this work without believing that change can happen.

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