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, favored 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,” reports Baz Dreisinger. Can such uplift, she wonders, be enough?
A founder of the Prison-to-College Pipeline initiative at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Dreisinger is a gifted teacher. (Her icebreaker with inmates: “You listen to hip-hop?”) She is also an audacious one — deciding to “trek” through prisons in nine countries. Shrewdly, she uses her American credentials to open penal doors in Australia, Thailand, South Africa, Singapore, Rwanda, Norway, Jamaica, Brazil and Uganda.
“To minimize 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, including 2.3 million in the United States. 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 traveling to tough places to pose hard questions, even if her visits are essentially drive-bys. (Oh, for a copy of Amy Wilentz’s blistering critique of journalists and aid workers mucking about in Haitian sorrows, “Farewell, Fred Voodoo.”) 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 coordinates: “I am 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, 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 Fyodor 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 would 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 characterizing American justice as broken, but he is careful to stress that he hates crime. He acknowledges victims. Even as Dreisinger emphasizes 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.