‘Incarceration Nations’ Suggests Americans Reconsider Their Prisons

What good does a conviction do the victim if the perpetrator feels no remorse?

“A world where forgiveness becomes almighty is inhuman.”

— Emmanuel Levinas

“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Given the current national attention surrounding mass incarceration, from the wide popularity of Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, to Kendrick Lamar’s explosive political performance at the Grammys, there’s perhaps no better time for Americans to reflect on their contemporary prison system and its origins. Stepping into the conversation with her new book, Incarceration Nations, author and activist Baz Dreisenger takes the debate the a step further, analyzing the philosophies and legislation behind the various prison and judicial systems across the world.

From Uganda and Jamaica to Singapore and Norway, Dreisinger uncovers and deconstructs both national and popular views on criminal justice and incarceration. While her progressive views may be a hard pill to swallow for some Dreisinger nevertheless effectively puts the popular zeitgeist of criminal justice under the microscope, guiding the reader through a deep analysis of the prison system’s history and motives, as well as through popular conceptions of punishment. In doing so, she makes the case for why it may be beneficial to both prisoners and victims to reexamine the way we view criminal justice.

The book opens with an overview of the origins of the current prison system, particularly the philosophy behind the modern structures that have led to modern mass incarceration. Explaining the transition from the old-age dungeons and holding pens to the modern structural behemoths we know and seemingly love, Dreisenger explains the current design as a product of an increasing industrialized and capitalized society:

This thing we now call prison was very much a product of its era. Like capitalism’s temple, the industrial factory, it demanded a distinct architectural look… the prison system hinged on regulation of the body and the strict ordering of time, which came in monetary like increments, meted out to fit the crime.

Dreisenger highlights the many ways in which prisons have played a part in economic exploitation: from providing free labor to serving as a source of income for private prison companies. Ultimately, she argues, prisoners come across like any product of an industrialized system: mass-produced. As a mass product, they are treated as such: systematically, and with little personal attention. At present, the system comes across as more perfunctory and convenient than truly reformative to the prisoner or society at large.

Ultimately, the book’s indictment of the carceral system revolves around one sobering idea: that prisons, as most imagine them, do not work. Dreisinger looks not only to reevaluate the prison system on a systemic, structural level, but on a philosophical one.

Incarceration Nations focuses largely around the concept of “restorative justice”, an alternative method of criminal justice more heavily focused on discursive, reformative measures than cold punishment. Dreisinger’s philosophy is admittedly based around an idea fairly foreign to the western world: sympathy for the criminal. Surprisingly, the countries showing the most forward steps in this direction are ones with the greatest histories of violence, such as Rwanda and Uganda. The first chapter puts a spotlight on the Never Again Rwanda campaign, a movement dedicated to the seemingly impossible: forgiveness for the Rwandan genocides of 1994, in which over a million Tutsis were murdered by Hutus over the course of 100 days.

Instead of mass retribution for these atrocities, Rwanda has since promoted a wide campaign of mass reconciliation. This has included banning anti-ethnic propaganda, such as hate speech against the Tutsis, and requiring citizens to attend national solidarity meetings. Additionally, meetings and discourse between victims and perpetrators are encouraged via prison visits and “peace villages”, where formerly decimated villages become centers for harmony between former enemies.

“Ultimately, revenge cannot undo,” writes Dreisinger. “It merely does again. It arises from a feeling of helplessness, the desire to recreate a painful situation with the roles reversed.”

Arguably the most shocking chapter in the book doesn’t surround the prison system at its cruelest, but at its kindest. Describing the criminal justice system in Norway, Dreisinger sounds more like she’s painting a picture of a bizarre utopian future: Norwegian prisoners’ transition from life to prison and vice versa is made as seamless as possible by making both lifestyles as similar as conscionable, following a “Principle of Normality”. Individual prisons house fewer than 50 people, and are designed commodiously. Prisoners retain healthcare, education, and other social services. Most shockingly, sentences average eight months, compared to the American three years.

Even with such accommodations, however, there still remains the core punitive philosophy of the prison system: the loss of liberty and life.

“It is prison. Trust me,” says one inmate she encounters. “We have our life stopped. Frozen.”

Both the Rwandan and Norwegian systems Dreisinger describes highlight her progressive philosophy regarding criminal justice: less focus on abuse and punishment, and greater focus on remorse and reform. In both countries, the incarcerated are meant to feel the guilt of their actions, as well as feel the true misery of prison: not abuse, but a loss of liberty. At the same time, the offenders are encouraged to seek forgiveness and rehabilitation, a goal so frequently overlooked within the typical western goal to “lock ’em up and throw away the key”. However, as she argues, aren’t such goals what really lie at the heart of criminal justice? How much has the prison system strayed from what it was intended to be?

Dreisinger asks insightful questions into the inherent flaws of the prison system. For example, if people truly believed in prisons as reformative, why is there such stigma for ex-cons? Why do Americans spend $54 billion annually on prisons instead of infrastructure reform and job creation in poor neighborhoods? What is the use of taking a violent criminal and throwing him into a system that famously encourages violence and hardness for survival? Ultimately, these realities highlight a common criticism of western prisons: their design is less a vehicle of reform, and more a catharsis for vengeance.

Derringer admittedly toes a shaky emotional line between punishment and reform, i.e., how does one punish and sympathize and the same time? How can one so easily forgive someone responsible for their pain, or forgive historical atrocities such as genocide? How dangerously close is forgiveness to forgetting?

Oftentimes, her suggestions come across as more easily said than done. Certain passages come off as presumptuous, such as Dreisinger’s analysis of the victim-offender dynamic, and the supposedly equal pain felt by both parties.

I ask my students an awful and ultimately unanswerable question: whom would you rather be in that scene, the victim or the offender? The offender, of course, they say. Who would choose to be a victim? I press them. Are you sure? You’d rather walk around for the rest of your life carrying that cross, knowing you committed a wholly revolting deed?

To recognize one’s sin and thus forever bear the burden of that horrific deed-that is natural justice, a prison truer than any man-made. Being a victim is a nightmare, but there is at least honor in that nightmare.

To say it’s “better” to be a victim than a perpetrator is a hard argument to sell, especially to anyone who has lost friends or family to violent crime, or claiming there’s any “honor” in being a victim of a violent offense, both from a personal and communal standpoint. Nevertheless, Dreisinger’s statement is a reminder of the founding philosophy behind prison and criminal justice: remorse. What good does a conviction do the victim if the perpetrator feels no remorse? Even if kept in prison for as long as 40 years, can victims find peace with a unrepentant offender? What good is a prison system that doesn’t emphasize repentance and self-improvement but instead creates prisoners who feel victimized in cruel, dangerous conditions, and thus are simply made angrier?

Incarceration Nations ultimately does what any good manifesto should do: ask its readers to look outside the comfort zone of their long-held beliefs. While some readers may be more swayed by Dreisinger’s calls for prison reform than her views on forgiveness, such views are worthwhile ideals to consider as the people of the world seek to reevaluate the state of their prisons and prisoners, a population that, as John Oliver has put it, “is so easy not to care about”.

RATING 8 / 10