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Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World
By Baz Dreisinger
Reviewed by Nora Rawn
The time is ripe for a book examining alternatives to America's supermax and private prison complexes, though Dreisinger's approach to the topic of prison and punishment is more of a personal memoir than a policy investigation; Orange Is the New Black meets Eat, Pray, Love rather than The New Jim Crow. Nevertheless, it's clear from her world tour encompassing prisons in Africa, Southeast Asia, South America, and Australia that the current state of imprisonment in the U.S. does not have to be the sole model. A professor at John Jay University and advocate for prisoner education in the US, she rightly identifies fear of risk as being the driving force behind our punishment-focused justice. It's to our detriment, since it's obvious in the stories of criminals she meets behind bars clearly demonstrates that mercy, forgiveness, and rehabilitation will go much further in reducing crime than harsh sentencing laws and retributive treatment once jailed, not to mention being more humane. The key seems to be accepting that perpetrators of crimes have often been victims in their own personal life. Without absolving the incarcerated of responsibility for their actions, this should certainly change their status in society's eyes, since there is a larger complicity in some of their stories. Where are the services for these criminals before the enter the system, when they are on the outside and vulnerable due to their circumstances? For that matter, where are the services after they commission their crime?
Unfortunately Dreisinger's own bleeding heart and her liberal outrage with a heavy dose of white guilt to boot, while admirable, may put off readers who could benefit from opening themselves to her message of a kinder prison system. Readers who want additional perspective on the way forward for the carceral state will find the book interesting, as will anyone who believes in the power of arts education, but of course the treatment of prisoners is symptomatic of larger cultural issues in each country, and the solution must be system-wide. Invariably the poor and disadvantaged, particularly minorities, are those who are swept up into the net of criminal justice, and jail populations reflect the racial bias of their society. Dreisinger shows forcefully how high the cost of this is to the inmates themselves, and to their families.
That forcefulness can be a demerit as well, since her passion for the topic sometimes makes her naive and keeps her from being the best advocate for her own case. This is especially evident when Dreisinger reacts without a sense of the big picture, as in her excitement over Rwandan reforms, apparently unaware of the severity of the government's oppression of free speech, or in her offhand dismissal of private prisons, despite the fact that the picture is more complicated than a mere binary between private and public would suggest. Sometimes she addresses these shortcomings, but others are baked into her outlook. Her compassion and energy are admirable, however, as is her honesty about her own reactions, even if they keep the book from excelling as a top-level resource on the subject. Hopefully this book will contribute to the growing momentum of ban the box movements and the formal pardoning of non-violent offenders. While Dreisinger isn't always elegant in framing these issues, she is still correct that it is an area where our moral imperative is to move away from 'tough on crime' rhetoric considering the damage done to individuals and their communities by existing policy.
Out of 10: 7.5