MAY 14, 2016
AS SOMEONE who has taught in a prison, I can understand Baz Dreisinger’s perspective. It’s difficult not to be saddened and amazed the minute you walk into a classroom and are surrounded by students who are infinitely more eager than any student you have had on the outside. These are students who will be more engaged and more insightful than most. They have life experiences they can apply to great works of literature. They aren’t blindly reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment; they are living it. There’s value in education in and of itself — but for these inmates every word is also a drop of freedom. All progress in understanding, every movement forward, means more to these students who have limited options.
But at the end of the day, as a teacher, you are a tourist, visiting the prison for a short time and bringing a breath of freedom, only to snatch it away as you leave.
Baz Dreisinger is an English professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York as well as the academic director and founder of the Prison-to-College Pipeline, a program that provides college-level classes to incarcerated students in Otisville Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Her program and others like it (such as the Campus Within Walls program run by Reed College) are undeniably noble in their mission even as they rely on an excess population of educated people who are willing to devote their time to wrangling prison administrations. While these college programs can’t change the system overall — they can’t shut down Rikers, for example — they can reach those students who are to some extent reachable — the “best of the worst,” so to speak.
Dreisinger’s new book Incarceration Nations is essentially a mash-up: part memoir and part travelogue of Dreisinger’s tour through the world’s prisons, from Africa to Thailand to Australia. There’s a smattering of historical and sociological perspective, but that’s not really Dreisinger’s point. She wants the reader to focus on the shared humanity of the people she meets. The fact that the book is somewhat of a potpourri of forms reflects Dreisinger’s intentions and the deep personal conflict at the center of the book. It comes across as honest and genuine, if not entirely satisfying as a pointed argument.
The most moving scenes are those where she teaches inmates literature. Yet, even these are fraught with contradictions. For example, in Uganda, her students see pain and struggle as almost expected. In an Australian prison, though, Dreisinger teaches her almost entirely white class about the writings of Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass and realizes the irony in the situation when the students — all inmates in a private prison — seem to “get” it more than her Ugandan students do. Her class in Australia “teaches itself.” Dreisinger has the good sense both to note that these students have been preselected as “college-ready” and to question and affirm her own skeptical attitude toward privatized prisons where convicts become capital. Nonetheless, the students pay “attention to nuance, racial sensitivities,” and other details, and engage in “total immersion in the material and scrupulous note taking.”
As this example of classroom glory suggests, the prison teacher story is almost a genre of its own. Dreisinger is self-aware enough to know this — for me, this is the redeeming part of her book. She knows that there’s a greater problem at play. When she leaves the country, the class ends. The programs she admires are not available to everyone. The systems and laws that unfairly incarcerate people are still in place. Any change is small and ephemeral in the grand scheme of things, even as it is momentous in the eyes of the students who are affected.
Dreisinger takes pains to point this out. In the chapter on Thailand, for example, she explains that some of the laws are notoriously strict, particularly for drug offenders, while others are more lenient compared to the United States — life sentences are rarely served. At the same time, the women she meets there seem oddly at peace; there are nurseries and street clothes and kind prison officials. The women wear makeup to bed, a guard explains, so that they dream they are beautiful. The class Dreisinger teaches centers around drama — the women act out scenarios that teach Dreisinger about gender roles and expectations. By the end of the chapter, the author wonders about the emphasis on rehabilitation and therapy. “[I]t grates,” she writes. “Do these women need healing and therapy or does the law that governs them?”
But inevitably, a book about the prison system will be about the triumphs, the small glimmers of humanity, rather than the pessimism inherent in trying to fix an entire system. The goal must always be to show that those on the inside have just as much humanity as those on the outside. Her Thai prison experience, which ends with the appearance of the princess and a show in her honor, is all theater, she realizes, but Dreisinger decides that “performance has power,” a generous way to give the women their humanity while acknowledging her own discomfort and unknowingness. She can observe the women, but she cannot know how they feel.
And Dreisinger is smart enough to understand the contradictions inherent in her posture. She points out several times that those she meets in prison are there because of economic, racial, or social factors. One thing every country has in common is that their least-liked citizens end up in prisons far away from the public eye, the hidden blemish on an otherwise perfect sociopolitical-economic system.
Despite these similarities, by organizing her book by country, Dreisinger forces the reader to understand incarceration in an essentially national context. For example, in Rwanda, Dreisinger observes a prison steeped in the rhetoric of reconciliation and forgiveness, which she connects to the country’s political and social need to heal after years of genocide. “The line between education and indoctrination can be thin,” she writes, acknowledging that the sort of “brainwashing” that occurs in most prisons — think 12-step programs, restorative justice, and peace circles — might have a productive place in a society still trying to reconstruct itself.
This desire for cultural continuity in prison (which contradicts the notion that prisoners should be separated from the rest of us) to some degree explains the prominent role of reading and teaching in prisons, especially American prisons, as a way of reform. Whereas the main reading material was once the Bible (and still is in most prisons), the godly has been slowly replaced by the societal ideal of human understanding, Shakespeare. There’s a near-mania for teaching Shakespeare in prison — Shakespeare, the pinnacle of English literature and ability, the marker by which people decide who is educated and who is not. There are numerous shows, movies, and articles about teaching Shakespeare to inmates; there’s even a whole conference on the topic. Dreisinger’s goals are both more humble and more personal. She revels in the moments where she is able to call her students, hug them. To her, it’s about the people and their struggles. She acknowledges that her work, as vital as it is, can only be a small lifeline to individuals and their families who struggle immensely.
I also appreciated that the book is about the small ways that Dreisinger must compromise in order to achieve her objective, the ways in which she must pander to administrators who decide which people are allowed to enter the realm. (It is oddly harder to enter a prison for a certain segment of people than it is to leave.)
And so at the end of the book, I wondered if Incarceration Nations was more about the inmates or about us, the readers. It’s a book with a certain audience in mind, the kind who cares about educating inmates, who wants to find redemption.
The final chapter is on Norway (titled “Justice?” in a way that maintains its truth to Dreisinger’s intentions). The Norwegian prison is the pinnacle of fairness and equality, a place where inmates and the people that work there sit together to share meals. Not only does Norway have an exceptionally low crime rate and near-zero recidivism, but the culture of prisons also echoes the national ethos of “Janteloven,” which she describes as an aversion to individuality and personal success. While Dreisinger sees this as a positive trait, the woman she speaks with criticizes it as something that keeps people down. Again, this scene serves as a reminder that no system is perfect: there will always be concerns and critiques when individual lives are at stake. Dreisinger cannot buy any theory wholesale, and, as an English professor rather than a lawyer or an activist, she brings an academic perspective to the table, a literary one, if I might say so — which I think makes most sense.
As a result, I can understand why Dreisinger framed the book the way she does, a sort of Eat, Pray, Love for the prison sector. The form allows her to acknowledge all of the contradictions in her posture — the way she represents both whiteness (Dreisinger is Jewish) and blackness (she has studied African-American literature and hip-hop); the way she is both inside the system and outside the system; the way she both believes in the goodness of human nature and resists any formal religious view; the way she must compromise with the system in order to gain access to the people she seeks to help and must resist at the same time. She is self-aware and humble enough to recognize both her complicity in a system that ruins lives and her privilege to resist in a way her incarcerated students cannot.
When I taught writing inside San Quentin, I often forgot where I was. My class became a class like anywhere else, full of individual tics and concerns to manage. Everyone was an individual; there was no unified “incarceration experience.” Dreisinger’s book seems unable to decide where it stands on this divide. Is it ultimately more productive to seek to find light in the darkness, or is it better to burn the whole system down to the ground?