From the restorative justice practices in Rwanda to the supermax prisons in Brazil, author and educator Baz Dreisinger offers a glimpse of prison systems abroad through the prism of the mass incarceration system in the U.S.
Dreisinger visited prisons in nine countries and found that while some modeled their prisons on America’s “doing time for the crime” punishment system, others aimed to find healing and reconciliation for both victims and offenders.
Dreisinger wrote about her experiences in her new book “Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World” (excerpt below).
She talks with Here & Now’s Robin Young about her experiences and the possibilities of rehabilitation for the incarcerated.
Interview Highlights: Baz Dreisinger
Take us first to Rwanda where the prison program features reconciliation.
“I started in Rwanda because I wanted to start any conversation about justice with the victims and not only focusing on the offenders as we tend to do in our punishment-obsessed system. I went to Rwanda and worked with young genocide survivors who were interested in visiting prisons as a gesture of peace and a gesture of reconciliation. While I was there, I grappled with this legacy of the enormity of this crime and how Rwanda came back from it, and the system that it erected to deal with this that transcended just a punishment-obsessed one.”
What happened when the survivors interacted with the ones who committed the genocide?
“It’s a miraculous thing to witness. They found an incredible healing in the time that they spent in prison. They were excited about being part of a reconciliation effort and, while no system is perfect, what I definitely saw was what can happen when healing is the focus of a justice system as opposed to punishment and revenge and anger.”
On her own experiences and the ‘it will never happen again’ view verses healing through forgiveness
“I felt that I grew up around a lot of bitterness and pain and hurt and all of that is understandable, these are atrocities we are talking about, human atrocities. But what I encountered in Rwanda from the students that I worked with, from the people that I met randomly and talked to about their experiences was that there was such a focus on thinking past this, and you can’t mandate forgiveness, forgiveness is a very complex thing, so I actually prefer the words healing and reparations and restoration around wrongs, but I found it incredibly inspiring and I thought, well, it would have been a beautiful thing to grow up with that culture and with those mantras as opposed to some of the bitterness and rage, which again are understandable but not so productive and certainly not conducive to healing traumas.”
How do you address the view that ‘they need to be put away forever, I am not interested in rehabilitation them, I am not interested in forgiving them’?
“Well I would say a couple of things. For one, we need to rethink our assumptions around what victims want and what benefits victims. I think our axiomatic response is ‘victims want revenge and victims benefit from revenge and benefit from the prison system.’ In fact, there are lots of studies that show that that’s not actually the case. The other thing I would say is that restorative justice already exists in our system. We’re already using this model, we’re just using it on a very minimal scale and so what I would say is ‘why don’t we think about doing this more front and center as opposed to on the fringes and every now and then.’”
On her experience with the princess of Thailand and the prison in Thailand
“She’s very invested in creating what she calls these ‘model women’s prisons.’ Women are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population globally and she recognized this and she also recognized that so many women are in prison because of codependents who are usually men, and that they have special needs as women, as incarcerated women, and they’re facing certain particular struggles, so she’s trying to create an environment that is conducive to healing, that is conducive to creating a kind of quasi-family. She created nurseries, there’s yoga classes, and it’s certainly quite different from the extremes of what some of the other prisons look like in Thailand.”
On private prisons in Australia
“For the record, private prisons as they stand now are evil, in the sense that it’s all about bottom lines and keeping beds filled and we give these companies enormous power and that all is very frightening. But what I saw in Australia was the way that, in many ways, private companies can innovate in a way the public companies cannot, and can get through bureaucratic red tape much more quickly and therefore create some pretty progressive structures.
“Wandoo is a prison for young adult men in Australia. They’re between 18 and 31 and so they’re young enough to be very vulnerable as a population and impacted by older fellow incarcerated people, but at the same time they are technically old enough to be in adult prisons, but this is an open prison facility, which means that the incarcerated young men can go and come. They have work release, they are involved in community relation efforts. It’s run on entirely restorative principles. I came back there thinking, wow, so many of my students in this country could potentially have been eligible to go to a place like Wandoo if we had such a thing in this country. But instead, they were placed in maximum security adult prisons where they were traumatized and then further traumatized by the re-entry that comes after that.”
On solitary confinement
“I went to a federal supermax in Brazil where the men there are all held in solitary for 23 hours a day, and it was absolutely terrifying. I saw people flagrantly going mad before my eyes. It was traumatizing to witness. I had the opportunity to be in a classroom with some of them and talk to them about their experiences in life and what led them to prison, and in many ways the most frightening piece of that is that it’s a supermax very much modeled after the U.S. model of supermaxes, and that model is proliferating all over the world.”
The original idea behind supermaxes was to stop the growth of gangs. Do these prisons accomplish that goal?
“No, I mean prisons don’t stop the growth of gangs. I think we know this and there are so many studies that show that in fact they promote gang activity.”
And some officials like that, because you let the gang run the prison.
“It’s less work for us, and also the politicians like it because it makes them look good. I mean, tough on crime is a popular stance, not just here but around the world. The problem is that prisons don’t make us safer, and until we unhinge that notion, they’re going to keep doing this.”
On Norway’s prison system
“What’s so incredible about what I encountered in Norway is that there is, and no society is perfect, there are no utopias, but there is certainly a communitarian spirit in which people recognize, it’s not an ‘us’ and ‘them’ thing. It’s not ‘those people in prison’ and ‘those evil criminals’ but rather ‘we’re in this together and we all need to deal with this together.’ So the way they’re treated in prison, not all of them, again, but there is a tradition in Scandinavia of these open prisons where people can go and come and still be engaged in the community, a part of the community and work. Then all of that communitarian spirit extends to what happens when people go home.
What is the one thing you would like to see adapted by American prisons?
“I’d like us to rethink our compulsive, and I would say obsessive commitment to punishment over and above repair and reparations. I think we need to start thinking about not just alternatives to incarceration, but an altogether different paradigm for thinking about crime, thinking about safety, thinking about what justice looks like. I just would like for it not to be a knee jerk reaction that crime means doing the time.”
Book Excerpt: ‘Incarceration Nations’
By Baz Dreisinger