[Book Review] Incarceration Nations

dreisinger_incarcerationnationsI don’t know how much time the average person spends thinking about prisons. It usually crosses my mind when I have a patient who is brought from prison – which happens a lot less now that I’m working only with kids. Every once in a while there will be a report of a jail break, and in high school we had a few debate topics around prisons (This House Supports The Right To Vote For Prisoners, etc). Every year at the anniversary of my aunt’s murder I think about prison, and wonder whether her murderer is still incarcerated.

Besides that, prison doesn’t cross my mind too often, and I’d wager it’s the same for those who don’t work with inmates, or don’t have a close relative currently imprisoned.

Baz Dreisinger’s Incarceration Nations dares to coax us from this comfort in a multi-national exposé of prisons around the world, and the justice/punitive systems within which they function.

I do enjoy books like these, that delve into a single concept/entity and then deconstruct it, in a manner of speaking. Think Sex in the Sea, The Big Necessity, Stiff, and The Lion in the Living Room. No surprises that I would be intrigued by this book.

In the end, I have mixed feelings about it. I certainly got a better overall understanding of justice and prisons around the world, although I can’t say I learned enough to enrich a dinner-time conversation.

There were some valuable points of view that gave me something to consider. One of my favourites,

Attention to the wrongdoer should never eclipse attention to the wronged.

This, I thought, was really valuable. Example: my family lost a loved family member, two girls lost their mother, and what does it mean to them now that the murderer is incarcerated? (One could argue that no recourse could ever matter in light of this tragedy.)

I contemplate the word victim – so misleading, so minimizing. It implies that crimes have a singular impact, when in fact their damage radiates outward, poisoning individuals, families, communities, a whole network of those wounded in myriad ways by the trickle-down effects of trauma.

Dreisinger’s experiences in many  of the countries are shockingly brief, and not at all representative (something that is conceded throughout).

Certainly, the biggest problem for me was that her biases shone brightly. One would expect her to have biases – she works for a Prison to College “Pipeline”, which she was instrumental in starting, and has formed close bonds with many of her inmate-students. But it hardly seemed as though she tried to soften her biases by considering contrary points of view.

Dreisinger is pretty staunchly AGAINST prison, but hardly seems to acquiesce their place in society. She makes a good argument that it is not the anti-prison movement’s burden of proof to find something better, and that anyone can see by now that the current system is flawed – but one would think that someone so staunchly against it would suggestions to offer.

The entire premise for the failure of prisons as addressed in this book, is that the majority of inmates are incarcerated on drug-related  charges, especially women who are found guilty as accomplices when their partners are really at the helm of an operation, and this is accompanied by the drug-legalisation debate – but she fails to really address capital crimes.

She does also address corruption in prison systems (she focuses a lot on this in her chapter on Nigeria) and the fact that the poor and non-white are much more likely to find themselves incarcerated on charges that are merely fined for the rich and white. I thought her discussion on this phenomenon was very clear, and I appreciated the depth of it.

Her smaller biases are quite prevalent as well – anti-establishment and anti-religion views that are pretty forceful and don’t really contribute to the theme of the book. And while we’re on things that don’t really contribute to the book, I felt that her soliloquies about her lack of belonging also did not really contribute in any way.

Actually, I felt like the book unraveled as it progressed. The chapters on Rwanda and South Africa were very big picture-ish, very in depth, and I hung onto every word. As the book progressed, I felt like the views were becoming more narrow, focusing rather on small things like teaching writing or poetry in prisons. Which certainly has a place, but as she writes,

Prison arts programs are certainly well-meaning efforts but they’re also crumbs tossed at a system starved for radical overhaul.

TL;DR: Dreisinger’s Incarceration Nations is possibly one of a kind in its global view of prison and its successes and failures, but the book unravels as it progresses and is weighed down by her emotions and biases. I am glad I read it, and it is a worthy read, but the book unravels as it progresses and is weighed down by her emotions and biases. I am glad I read it, and it is a worthy read, but it has many issues worth discussing.

Disclaimer: I received a free eARC via Netgalley and Other Press in exchange for an honest review. 

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