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Rethinking How Prison Works


The United States is the world’s biggest jailer, with 2.3 million people locked up here.

And we invented the modern prison system back in the 19th century. So you might think that with those kinds of numbers, this country should have the most efficient prison system on the planet.

Not so, says Baz Dreisinger, associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

“Our 60-something percent recidivism rate says it’s not working,” she says. “If any corporation was running with a 60 percent failure rate, you’d rethink it immediately. Yet that’s what we do with our prison system.”

She visited correctional facilities in nine countries to see how they’re run, how they differ from U.S. prisons and what we can learn. She wrote about her findings in her book “Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World.”

Dreisinger spoke with Krys Boyd on Monday’s episode of "Think." Listen to the full conversation here.

Interview Highlights

On labeling people by their actions

“People ask me about murderers. ‘Do you have murderers in your classroom?’ or ‘How do we deal with murderers?’ I say there’s a vast difference between a murderer and someone who has committed murder. Murderers are habitually going around murdering people. They exist in the world, but they exist in very small numbers. There aren’t that many Charles Mansons out there. The same is true about criminals and people who have committed crimes. What I’ve found in America and globally is this idea that these are criminals, and we have to create this system to thrust them into. There isn’t enough recognition that these are actually people who have committed criminal acts or committed a vile deed such as murder. There is a humanity behind bars that needs to be addressed. We need to think of them as people first.”

On us versus them

“People in prison, the bulk of them, are going to come home. They’re coming home to our communities, to our world. Instead of fostering this us-versus-them approach, what we need to do is think, ‘We’re all in this society together, so how can we make this work?’ They are us.”

On the value of the arts in prisons

“It’s enormously valuable. We’re supposed to be correcting people right? We talk about a ‘department of corrections.’ Theoretically, we’re not supposed to be punishing; we’re supposed to be correcting. Surely the arts are incredibly therapeutic, healing and capable of producing bursts of self-awareness, consciousness about the world and the self … These are both tremendously powerful programs. It’s all incredibly powerful. Can it solve the problem? Of course not. I call it a Band-Aid on an amputated limb, because when you have an incredibly broken system —as you do in Uganda and Jamaica particularly — having a little writing or music program isn’t going to solve that. But it is definitely a part of the healing process that we all want to see in our prisons. We want people to come home better than they were, we want to produce better citizens, support opportunities. The arts is very powerful in that.”

On humanity and normality

“Norway is getting a lot of attention these days because of its progressive approach to criminal justice. There’s a model throughout Scandinavia of what’s called an open prison. The people incarcerated there can come and go, sometimes for the weekend to visit family, work jobs out of the prison and come back at night and are very much incorporated into their communities. In Norway they think of it as a ‘principle of normality’ -- trying to keep people connected to their communities even while they’re serving time. I visited the most famous of these in Norway; it’s called Bastøy. It’s a pretty incredible place. What the governor of the prison kept saying is, ‘If you treat people like dirt, they will be dirt. But if you treat them like human beings, they will be human beings.’ It sounds simplistic, but I actually saw it enacted … what you’re seeing is a system that’s really trying to be about rehabilitation and corrections.”

Think airs at noon and 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday on KERA 90.1, or you can stream the show live.