Ever wondered what a world without prisons would look like? The way we deal with crime is at the very core of how we organize our societies, academics say. Now, there’s a growing chorus of people questioning the effectiveness today of a model of justice developed in the 19th century – and proposing a new approach. Baz Dreisinger, journalist and author of Incarceration Nations, is one of them.

Words: Josefina Salomon / Editing: Madeleine Penman / Illustration: Sergio Ortiz Borbolla

Her job is not always popular, but that doesn’t stop Baz Dreisinger. Her organization, which started as an education project in prisons in the United States, took her on a journey visiting prisons across the world from Norway to Rwanda and Australia, exploring what works, and what doesn’t. Today, Dreisinger is part of a global movement that promotes alternative forms of justice that include reparations and strategies of social reinsertion. 

She spoke to In.Visibles about justice, prisons and what the future could have in store. 

In.Visibles (IV): Society’s understanding of prisons and their impact seems to have been growing over the last few years, yet the use of prisons is expanding across the world. Why do you think that is?

Baz Dreisinger (BD): I think the key when we talk about “we know these things” is really who is the “we”? Unfortunately, it may be academics, those of us in the space of journalism who are pushing the envelope on these issues and really asking questions, but that is not trickling down enough to the broader community. I generally feel that because of that, politicians have to play the “tough on crime” card and the “build more prisons because that will make a safer society?” card. It´s easy for them to dupe the masses because the masses are not aware of the things that perhaps people who work in this space are aware of. And so I think a lot of the work that has to be done is educating the broader public about why prisons are far from the answer and why punitive justice is not the answer. Once that happens, politicians will have to sell a different agenda. And I can tell you of many experiences of engaging with governments in different parts of the world where you can lay out for them very clearly what a better approach to safety and community building looks like than prisons and jails. And they will hear you and they will say: “yes, this makes sense, it even makes fiscal sense”. But at the end of the day, people don’t want this. People want more “tough on crime” approaches. And until we really reach the masses with this message, I think we’re going to continue to be in the unfortunate place that we are in.

IV: Why do you think people want “tough on crime” approaches? 

BD: Well, I think it’s two things: there’s certainly a vengeful impulse, in some places more than others, particularly in places where people are more bitter and angry as a result of higher crime rates, which is legitimate. We are partly based in South Africa, so I spend a lot of time there. There’s a lot of bitterness about high crime rates and government corruption. Brazil is another country that comes to mind in that regard. And so prisons and punishment becomes a way to enact that, even if it’s not actually making us safer or getting them to the place that they want to live in, the society that they want to live in. There are a lot of misconceptions about safety and about healing. There’s this notion that we’re tough on crime, if we just lock up all those criminals, come down hard on all those people committing crimes, then we’ll be safer.

And there’s also the notion that somehow prison is going to create healing, justice and restitution for the person who´s been harmed, when in fact we know that´s not the case. So, it’s this horrible combination of bitterness, anger and misinformation and harbouring of illusions that leads to the proliferation of the “tough on crime” approach, the punitive approach and the building of more prisons.

"If we were to treat people in hospitals and they looked the way they did in the 19th century, it would just be ridiculous. And yet we´re still operating on a justice system that goes back to that era and sometimes even further back."

IV: The “tough on crime” approach is largely a U.S. approach to crime… 

BD: Yes, very much so. I mean, the premise of my book and now of Incarceration Nations network is that the U.S. is largely responsible for this, both historically and currently. In my book I get into the history of that and the building of the first modern prisons in the U.S. And the ways that via colonialism these were replicated all over the world. More than 350 prisons modelled after Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, which I´ve seen many versions of, especially in Latin America, but then also in the contemporary context, the ways in which the U.S. is funding the tough on crime approach and the war on drugs. Our investment in the world has been very much in building prisons and police forces, which is obviously a tremendous shame and tragedy, but also an irony as the U.S. tries to move away from mass incarceration now so much that’s on the forefront of the (activism) movement here. And I´m proud of the progress that´s been made in the United States, even though we have lots more work to do in terms of incarceration and moving toward opportunities for people in prison and coming home from prison. And yet we´re not seeing the same in our export policies, we´re not exporting those practices to the same degree that we´re exporting the old school tough on crime, build more prisons approach.

IV: You spent many years working from within the prison system in the U.S. and then embarked on a journey across many countries, looking at different models of justice. What did you find and what surprised you the most? 

BD: One of those things was the extent to which the U.S. system has been copied and pasted all over the world. I think that you might know some of that intellectually but when you see it again and again, whether I’m in Kigali or Santiago de Chile, and I see literally a version of the same prison with its outdated castle-like facade simply plopped from one country to the next, I think it really hits home that justice and innovation is not happening around the world. It certainly points fingers at the U.S, but it’s also pointing to the fact of how outdated this approach is. I mean, if we were to treat people in hospitals and they looked the way they did in  the 19th century, it would just be ridiculous. And yet we´re still operating on a justice system that goes back to that era and sometimes even further back, that has no relevance to so many countries that it exists in, that is only there because of legacies of colonialism. 

The other thing that´s striking is how similar the crisis looks like from one place to the next. Despite all the different cultural contexts, so many of the prison crises look exactly the same. On the flip side of that, so much of the genius that exists behind bars also looks the same.

IV: Much of your book is about examples of countries that are trying to do things differently. I was very interested in the example of Norway, but also Australia despite all the challenges facing the country in many ways. 

BD: Yeah, Norway is sort of the usual suspect. Everyone tends to point to Norway and Scandinavia. But I think one of the messages of the book given Australia, which is not overall in a good place with mass incarceration and huge racial disparities in terms of Aboriginal incarcerated people, is that there are progressive pockets in places where you might least expect it. Everyone tends to ask: “what´s the perfect country in regard to justice systems?” There is none. Yes, I think overwhelmingly Norway, Finland, Germany, they have some very, very progressive practices. But even in countries where overwhelmingly there´s a lot of not so good stuff happening ther’re pockets of progressive work. And hence some of the things I saw in Australia, even some of the things I saw in Singapore, which is not a place you think of when you think about progressive justice per se, but yet some of the work that they do in reintegration is enormously innovative.

I look at Colombia right now as a place I didn´t write about in my book, but I see it as a leader in innovative practices. And yet, overwhelmingly, there´s still a lot of work to do when it comes to prisons and the issue of mass incarceration there. But I see incredible innovation in the space of restorative justice, of reintegration. The key is to not write a country with a single pen, but rather recognize that there’s a lot of strands.

IV: How much do new approaches rely on the availability of resources? 

BD: Resources matter, but I don’t think that they are everything. Far from it. I point to Colombia as a perfect example of doing some of the most progressive work in restorative justice anywhere in the world right now and they are not doing it on a big budget. Costa Rica´s establishment of restorative justice, its national restorative justice program, is not run on a big budget either. I think that sometimes we don´t recognize that a lot of money can make a space corrupt, but the right amount of support with the right amounts of genius and motivation is, I think, everything. 

IV: In your book you say: “punishment is backward looking, forgiveness is forward looking”. Can you tell us more about that?

BD: The first two chapters of the book are set in Rwanda and South Africa. Both countries that have a legacy of restorative justice and one of grand tragedy and crisis sitting at their national cores. It’s really about getting people to rethink this idea that you should respond to harm with harm, which is what a prison system is. If you really get down to it, it´s saying: you´ve committed harm on somebody, so we’re going to respond to you by committing harm to you. We use the term correction, but that’s not what it is. It´s a “department of punishment”, not a “department of correction”. Whereas if we think about how to restore if we centre the person who´s been harmed or the people who’ve been harmed in a justice system and ask: “how do we restore what was lost?” And we make it not about punishment but about accountability so that the person who survived the harm is at the centre of the process and the individual who caused the harm must take accountability and create a system whereby they can enact that accountability.

That is what justice looks like for those of us who do this work and envision a world without prisons and call ourselves abolitionists as we see restorative justice as being central to that. It´s also about creating opportunities where people are less likely to commit crime because they have resources, they have support, they have opportunities. But when harm does happen, responding to it not by furthering the harm because we know that hurts people. 

IV: The current system seems to particularly focus on those most marginalized in society…
BD: Absolutely. Everywhere in the world, there is that “other”: The person who has been designated as disposable and whether that’s racialized or genderized, certainly class, whatever it is, sexual orientation, these are disposable people and they´re almost the sort of scapegoats of the society where they can enact all of the rituals of throwing away the group that we just don´t want anymore. And it is very ritualistic. Prison is full of rituals. It is itself a ritual. And rituals often don´t make sense, just as prisons don´t make sense.

IV: How does prison and the criminal justice system affect women? 

BD: I think in many countries women matter less and so, quite simply, they are more disposable and therefore can be incarcerated more easily. But I also think, as we´re talking about countries that are deeply impacted by the war on drugs, women are overwhelmingly victims of that as sort of often helpless foot soldiers. You see it, especially throughout Latin America and Southeast Asia, where this combination of misogyny and disempowered women and a very strong drug trade and bad relationships leads to women being incarcerated, often for a very small amount of substances or a low level of involvement in the drug trade, which is itself tragic and unjust. The overwhelming majority of women in prison are mothers and often primary caregivers, so you´re talking about a whole generation passing this generational trauma on to the next generation. It´s a very significant issue.

IV: What happens when people who had been incarcerated leave prison? 

BD: Of all the issues that cut across borders with relation to prison, the crisis of reintegration is probably the greatest of them. It really is the same crisis from one country to the next, whereby people are just dumped onto the street, without jobs, without housing, carrying an enormous amount of trauma and being discriminated against, stigmatized at every turn. And it´s one of the most obvious reasons why the prison system is absurd. It doesn´t work. You simply warehouse people, further traumatizing an already traumatized community, dumping them out on the street into a world which is not accepting of them, and then expecting them not to commit crimes and just go about their lives. It´s just an utterly ridiculous thing. That´s why, in so many respects, prison furthers crime and further damages communities because it retraumatizes people and creates a whole group of third-class citizens. They were already second-class by virtue of being “others” in whatever respect, and now they´re otherized and it’s legal to discriminate against them in every respect.

IV: Organizations in many countries are leading programs to support those who leave prison, you founded one in the U.S…

BD: Yes, the Prison to College Pipeline Program in the U.S. is a university program in prison that also guarantees students a place in university when they come home from prison. And it´s been enormously successful over the last 13 years. We have lots of graduates and it´s not the only one of its kind. In the years since I founded it, there have been many others that have flourished around the U.S., which has been wonderful. The return of federal support for these kinds of programmes in the last few years and the role that universities can play in building safer communities all over the world is tremendous.

I should say it´s not about cut and paste. I have been involved in the founding of prison to college pipeline type programs in other countries, namely South Africa, Jamaica, Trinidad, but they don´t look identical to the one in the U.S. That´s not the point. The idea is that creative prison university partnerships offer real opportunities to people who are in prison to come home and build the lives that they deserve. 

IV: What would a world without prisons look like

BD: A world without prisons would look like a place of opportunity, a place of true equity, I think. It would not be a capitalist place. It would be a place where everyone´s needs are able to be met, where no one goes without and is marginalized and stigmatized. And there is genuine opportunity for all. There is health care for all. There´s access to education for all. There isn’t a massive divide between the haves and the have-nots. And overall, there is a community of care that is grounded in love for each other and for the collective over and above the individual. And that´s the world that I´m working towards.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.