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Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World, by Baz Dreisinger

Incarceration Nations by Baz Dreisinger (Other Press, 2016). 325 pages, $19.00 (hardcover).

When John Jay College of Criminal Justice Professor Baz Dreisinger began her two-year pilgrimage to prisons around the world, she probably told herself she was seeking the best practices in each penal system to help her understand what might be done to reform the mass-incarceration-driven justice system that prevails in the United States. It certainly seemed to come as a surprise when she concluded that reform may not be the answer at all – reform is too insufficient a concept, and wholesale replacement should be the goal.

That was not the only surprise Dreisinger confronted in her stirring hybrid of memoir and scholarly treatise, which never fails to portray the essential humanity of prisoners, victims and ordinary citizens in exquisite prose. Despite her expertise as a founder of John Jay’s Prison-to-College Pipeline program, which brings college classes into New York prisons and the formerly incarcerated into John Jay as students, Dreisinger was unprepared for the national philosophy of forgiveness and re-acceptance into the community practiced in Rwanda. A greater surprise: such compassion is even extended to the tens of thousands who took part in the 1994 Hutu genocide of nearly a million Tutsis. South Africa yielded another surprise with its emphasis on truth and reconciliation following the end of apartheid.

In Australia, she learned that private prisons don’t have to be run by evil corporations when she encountered a forward-thinking, highly-flexible prison operated by U.K.-based Serco. Singapore showed her that a PR campaign can help prisoners be fully accepted back into society upon their release. Norway yielded its own surprises with the psychological training provided to prison guards, with an emphasis on building relationships with prisoners.

Intermixed with those experiences were less savory versions of the mass incarceration approach exported to the rest of the world by the United States in the 1990s. From the American-style supermax in Brazil to the criminalization of minor offenses in Singapore, it’s clear that the world drank the tough-on-crime Kool-Aid that originated with politicians in the U.S. Equally clear is the fact that many nations are now seeking answers to the social and fiscal disaster of mass incarceration; they no longer want to emulate the United States.

Amid much introspection and an amazing amount of information about prison systems worldwide, Dreisinger comes to the conclusion that Norway has found a possible solution to the problem – making prisons very small, spreading them throughout the country and ensuring prisoners are an active part of the community in which they lived prior to incarceration via work release, frequent furloughs and, for example, using their family doctor. This concept of keeping prisoners close to and influenced by the people who are most likely to effect a change in their behavior is radically different from the American way of incarceration, and Norway has the low crime and recidivism rates to back up their approach to criminal justice.

This book soars where others might get bogged down in the sheer size of the problem that mass incarceration represents. The ease of readability, combined with its scholarly pedigree, makes it a worthy read, and its message resonates long after the last page is turned. In the words of one Norwegian prison official: “Treat people like dirt and they will act like dirt. Treat them like human beings and they will act like human beings.”

Incarceration Nations is available from and other booksellers.