Publication Date: Aug 01, 2017
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Baz Dreisinger goes behind bars in nine countries to investigate the current conditions in prisons worldwide
Beginning in Africa and ending in Europe, Incarceration Nations is a first-person odyssey through the prison systems of the world. Professor, journalist, and founder of the Prison-to-College-Pipeline, Dreisinger looks into the human stories of incarcerated men and women and those who imprison them, creating a jarring, poignant view of a world to which most are denied access, and a rethinking of one of America’s most far-reaching global exports: the modern prison complex.
From serving as a restorative justice facilitator in a notorious South African prison and working with genocide survivors in Rwanda, to launching a creative writing class in an overcrowded Ugandan prison and coordinating a drama workshop for women prisoners in Thailand, Dreisinger examines the world behind bars with equal parts empathy and intellect. She journeys to Jamaica to visit a prison music program, to Singapore to learn about approaches to prisoner reentry, to Australia to grapple with the bottom line of private prisons, to a federal supermax in Brazil to confront the horrors of solitary confinement, and finally to the so-called model prisons of Norway. Incarceration Nations concludes with climactic lessons about the past, present, and future of justice.
Excerpt from Incarceration Nations
“Mzungu!” The prison guard growls, beckoning me with the Swahili term for “white person.”
I’d been trying to blend in, though that’s an absurd aspiration for a white girl in a Kampala slum. I’m poised outside the side gate of Luzira Maximum Security Prison, a rambling complex built to accommodate six hundred but currently home to an estimated six thousand men, women, children, and death-row inmates. Strapping on my inner bulletproof vest, I approach the Uzi.
“What do you want here?” comes the growl again.
With a plastered-on smile, I string together a sentence involving the words “volunteer,” “please,” “sir,” and “thank you.” The growling guard flicks my words away with his wrist, shooing me off as if I’m a stubborn mosquito.
Five minutes later I am back, prostrated before him with my fellow volunteer. Having worked here for four months now, she, unlike me, actually saw her paperwork properly processed by the prison powers-that-be and was thus legal to enter Luzira. I’d been mostly slipping in on the sly, having been given unofficial permission to be here—in the form of a “you may enter and you may teach” from the head officer on duty last week—but granted no papers to prove it.
Two grovelers work better than one. With enough kowtowing and “please, sirs,” and “sorry, sirs,” we bow our way beyond the Uzis and into the prison complex, through the shantytownlike living quarters of the prison officers, past the military barracks and the central gate where the guards wave us inside, into the throngs of men milling about in sunshine-yellow uniforms, and through the concrete door of—a little library.
“Good afternoon, Professor Baz!”
It’s the best greeting I’ve gotten all day—no, all week.
“[Baz Dreisinger’s] maternal turmoil when her students are denied parole, rearrested, shot, deprived of opportunity or go missing, as well as her teacherly pride in their successes, is the genuine heart of [this] story…The hopeful note on which this book ends… seems in no small part due to the wish that even our harsh system of punishment can explore connections to the world in ways that can push us for the better.” —The New York Times Book Review
“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…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…The heart and soul of this book are the stories of the people [Dreisinger] encounters along the way.” —The Washington Post
“Baz Dreisinger 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…The work Dreisinger does is vital, occasionally lifesaving.” —Newsday
“Dreisinger’s commitment is admirable.” —The Financial Times
“Baz Dreisinger spent two years visiting prisons around the world—Incarceration Nations is the astounding culmination of her undertaking. Armed with compassion and a vast knowledge of incarceration history, Dreisinger explores facilities from Rwanda to Australia…[and her] zeal to change the penal system is contagious…Incarceration Nations is crucial reading for the world’s largest jailer (United States) and the rest of the global population.” —Shelf Awareness
“Incarceration Nations is a thoughtful, well-written and distressing look at the problems we face in our nation and in the world. Dreisinger does not claim to have the answers to our problems, but she has reminded us that doing nothing is an unacceptable alternative.” —Bookreporter
“Dreisinger’s refusal to offer sweeping generalizations or simple directives in the name of restorative justice is bold…[Incarceration Nations is] an eye-opening, damning indictment of the American prison system and the way its sins reverberate around the globe.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Powerful…Dreisinger carries out an incisive inquiry into the standards for a just society’s humane treatment of its prisoners.” —Publishers Weekly
“In a world where mass incarceration has reached levels of near insanity, Dreisinger’s stirring work offers new ideas in an area that seems to be starving for them. This book is a more than a cry for massive overhaul in prison reform, it gives voice to the silent millions of men and women who live behind prison walls on every continent, and whose suffering is a reflection of our own inhumanity and fear. Forgiveness, payback, restoration, these are the words peppered throughout this well-written work of redemption and identity. This book is living proof that mass incarceration is a virus that infects us all.” —James McBride, author of The Color of Water and The Good Lord Bird
“Incarceration Nations sheds important light on the ways that justice systems around the world are similar, as well as their unique aspects. It uncovers both their most horrifying and hopeful parts. Offering historical investigation and myriad facts, and complementing that research with personal experiences and stories of human beings, the book captures the reader into more inquiry about this vast and critical subject. This is a great read for both students of criminal justice, as well as citizens of the world.” —Debbie Mukamal, Executive Director, Stanford Criminal Justice Center, Stanford Law School
“Despite tacit awareness that the prison crisis is global and that the global prison’s modern form is US-generated, work on incarceration is almost always limited by national context. The work of gaining access and trust, of studying multiple intricate systems and national contexts, of traveling long distances and juggling multiple exchanges—while achieving depth of focus—is surely too great for one scholar. Or so it would seem. Dreisinger’s Incarceration Nations, which documents prisons on four continents, appears to do the impossible. It’s a vital work—part memoir, part scholarly excavation—that manages to inspire even as it chronicles some of the world’s most horrific places. Dreisinger’s long history of work with the currently and formerly incarcerated is the perfect background and material for weaving an account that asks all of the right questions, setting us on a path while acknowledging that answers are really just the ground for asking anew.” —Gina Dent, Associate Professor and Chair, Feminist Studies, UC Santa Cruz
“In Incarceration Nations, Baz Dreisinger makes a truly important contribution to the discussion of one of America’s most notorious exports—prisons. Observing the American penal landscape through the lens of prisons in nine diverse countries, Dreisinger is able to feel sympathy for both victims and prisoners while showing that nations from Uganda to South Africa to Australia expect more than just punishment and warehousing out of their corrections systems. As deplorable as the conditions in some of those prisons are, America can learn a lot from Incarceration Nations about how to tackle our own mass incarceration dilemma.” —Vincent Schiraldi, Senior Advisor, NYC Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice
“Incarceration Nations is required reading for anyone concerned about the severity of punishment in America, and that should be all of us. Baz Dreisinger traces our legacy of mass incarceration around the globe. She does it with honesty, courage, and humility over the size of the problem, and yet she finds magical possibilities everywhere she goes when the imprisoned are treated as real persons. There areanswers. This book says we can find them.” —Robert A. Ferguson, George Edward Woodberry Professor of Law, Literature, and Criticism, Columbia University