Lessons From Prisons Around The World

In a newly published book, “Incarceration Nations“, Baz Dreisinger of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice goes on a global tour of prisons to discover and compare various approach to criminal justice and rehabilitation. As a professor and activist, rather than a criminal justice expert, her book offers less in the way of data and policy analysis and more in terms of insightful, first-person accounts of the various prison systems she visited, including those in countries as diverse as Australia, Brazil, Jamaica, Rwanda, Singapore, South Africa, and Uganda.

As a review in The Washington Post points out, this narrative style is at once the book’s greatest strength and greatest weakness. On the one hand, it can be engaging to the war, personal, and often emotional interactions and observations she makes inside these often invisible spaces; her experiences often include personal conversations with prisoners, who give their own stories and perspectives about crime and punishment. On the other hand, there is an obvious lack of solid empirical evidence with which to parse the best and most translatable solutions to America’s criminal justice system; by virtue of its style, the book is far from comprehensive, and it offers little in the way of policy prescriptions.

Nevertheless, it does offer a unique and necessary exploration of what other societies, rich and poor, corrupt and well governed, culturally similar and highly distinct, offer as solutions to this universal problem. At the very least it should make leaders think and reflect on the way our state and federal governments — not to mention the growing number of private prisons — do things.

Take for example the famous case of Norway:

Norway might as well be another galaxy, considering the description offered in s intriguing new book … They are spread throughout the country to keep prisoners close to their families and communities. Sentences are short, generally just several months, and almost no one serves all of his or her time. On a tour of Bastoy, Norway’s famous prison located on an island that is also a nature reserve, Dreisinger buoyantly describes the lovely grounds, absence of prison uniforms and bars, beautiful housing units, windows “designed to admit optimum sunlight”, colorful murals, friendly prison choir, poetry hung on walls, incredible health unit and well-stocked library. She marvels at “the gorgeous, private visiting rooms, stocked with condoms and lubricants”.

Compare that with the harsher approach of Brazil and Singapore, each of which are on opposite ends in terms of crime rate, or with the progressive restorative justice model of Rwanda, which seeks to recover from the retributive mentality that contributed to its genocide, but which still struggles with a high rate of incarceration and recidivism.

Ultimately, the Post’s reviewer seems to find the book informative and worth reading, if a bit lacking in rigorous analysis and structure. I for one have “Incarceration Nations” on my reading queue, if only to get some sort of idea of how other nations approach criminal justice, and to read some interesting stories along the way.


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