Baz Dreisinger is a name synonymous with efforts for change in the justice and prison system, not only in America but globally. Dreisinger, an educator and journalist, created Prison To College Pipeline to educate prisoners while incarcerated and offer after release assistance in earning degrees. She traveled worldwide to explore the different issues in prisons from Africa to Thailand. In 2016, she released Incarceration Nations: A Journey To Justice In Prisons Around The World documenting these discoveries and earning her Washington Post's title of 'Most Notable Notification.' She has devoted her life to exposing the issues and offers alternatives in what is commonly known as Restorative Justice (R.J.).
In an interview with Ivy Magazine, Dreisinger explains the process of shifting Justice to 'Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.' She says, "Someone is not singularly defined by the worst act they have ever done. We as a society have been long addicted to punitiveness...instead of asking, 'Who did this and what do we do to them?' (R.J.) asks who was harmed, and how do you repair that harm?"
We were lucky to grab some of Baz's time to discuss Global Prison Systems on the What We Don't Know podcast. We are highlighting her along with other thought-leaders focused on prison reform each week throughout the month of August. But first, let's hear from Baz Dreisinger and dive in a bit more about the history of our global prison systems.
What don't we know about prisons?
What is Restorative Justice?
Restorative Justive (R.J.) is an alternative approach to settling matters through discussion and agreement of terms between the parties involved. It's not just kumbaya and forgiving; it's more economical as well. Traditional Justice plays out not at the cost of the accused nor the victim; it falls on people like me and you, the taxpayers. The U.S. spends $80 million yearly on correctional facilities and has the highest cases of recidivism.
Everywhere, prisons are accepted as “mandator” or “essential” in maintaining order and peace. It's the final word on Justice, giving restitution to the victim and punishment for the offender. For those of you who continued reading and didnt't listen to the podcast link above (no judgement), Dreisinger further explains the phases of RJ in her interview and clarifies for the nay-sayers that may find this too liberal.
"This is not about forgiveness, this is about accountability...this is about reconciliation, restoration, and reparations... stuff that is the mandate of the state."
Reconciliation is the meeting where empathy meets agreement. Terms are met and followed through on. Lasting restoration comes from the harmed person to become whole again and the person who caused the harm now learns and rehabilitates. Finally, reparations asks the person who caused harm to; apologize, pay them back, volunteer, go back to school, or fix the damage done as they see fit. You can also watch the explainer video below created by Brave New Films to get better understanding of what RJ is.
Looking for some science to support this theory?
We get it. The idea is cool but you want to know that there is some evidence or science based theory to support it before jumping "all in." Neuroscientist and researcher, Dan Riesel, perfectly explains what we know about how and why RJ works in his TED Talk video below.
What is the primary function of a prison system?
Prison are in place to achieve three primary functions:
The various problems with prisons isn’t necessarily their proposed or outline function, the problems stem from a lack of check and balances. The questions we as a society should be asking have more to do with accountability, metrics for success, and areas for improvement.
Check out this argument below that discusses specifically where prison systems fall short globally.
When and why did we start using long-term prisons?
Putting a person behind bars dates back to the Middle Ages into 17th century Europe as temporary holding cells. People found themselves in these jails for all sorts of reasons, from debt to murder. There they awaited trial for their actual true fate. In rare conditions, sentencing was banishment, public humiliation (we’ve all seen that Game of Thrones episode right?), or physical injury, but typically, the punishment was most certainly capital punishment; death by stoning, hanging, or the guillotine. There was a little grey area in this justicial system; therefore, shorter jail times. These jails were built for short-term confinement, unlike the prison system which has become a long-term home to many worldwide.
By the end of the 17th Century into the 18th, also known as The Age of Enlightenment, reformers like the philosopher, Jeremy Bentham and others, spoke against the death penalty. There was a new found sentiment and empathy for people who had committed crimes. People wanted criminals behind bars, sure, but they also wanted fair treatment, sanitary conditions, and rehabilitation. That’s right, the primary functions of our prison systems in the year 2020 were written hundreds of years ago.
Who is Jeremy Bentham and why is he important?
We really can't talk about or fully understand how we got where we are today with our prison systems without talking about Jeremy Bentham.
Jeremy Bentham was a philosopher who helped usher in the idea of a space that holds offenders long-term as the punishment; with this, he essentially designed the first concept, a correctional facility, to rehabilitate and restore the prisoner before reentering society. His design would be called Panopticon.
A panopticon (as seen in the image above) is an institutional building designed as a system of control. The idea being, if there is a central authority, prisoners could self-regulate and live in civil conditions within these prisons, thus reducing the need for capital punishment. Its good intentions saw humanitarianism in opposition to capital punishment, and capital punishment did decline after Bentham and others like him pushed for reform, but imprisonment inclined.
Soon the size of facilities grew, and the concept morphed into prisons by its 19th Century arrival in the U.S. See the video below from Robert H. Smith School of Business desctribe what a Panopticon prison is like.
When did the prison system become prevalent in America?
New York opened Newgate Prison in 1797 and Auburn Prison in 1816. Pennsylvania's most notorious first prison, the Eastern State Penitentiary, or ESP, known as one of the worst prisons for keeping prisoners in isolation, driving many to mental and physical illness, was built in 1829. Despite the records of disease, riots, and insanity, prisons became the hottest U.S. commodity, and over 300 countries, from China, Russia, and Japan, built their prisons from the ESP (separation incarceration) model. The experimental phase of prisons' usefulness became overshadowed with efforts to fix issues in favor of growing the establishment.
Correctional facilities and prisons remained with incarceration holding steady, activists somewhat quieted, and the Eastern State Penitentiary shut down in 1970. Still, just a few years later, the nation would shift its policies for the worst. The last Panopticon prison in America was in Illinois and was closed as recently as 2016. That ended the nearly quarter of a century of separation incarceration from Panopticon buildings in America. Just kidding, the decrepit Statesville prison was partially reopened in May 2020 to house inmates with COVID-19.
For reference, the image below is of Statesville’s F-House.
“WTF,” is right.
How have modern societies viewed prisons?
Politicians leaned in on socialists reports, like Robert Martinson famous, "What Works?" study in 1974, which claimed the ineffectiveness of rehabilitation. Many also blamed the rise of crime on lenient sentencing. America's focus was now on punitive retribution going hard through the 80s ‘Tough On Crime’ decade. Imprisonment spiked from 1972-2000 from 300,000 to 2 million. Reformers and activists reawakened with questions regarding the proof of prison's usefulness nearly 230 years later.
People believe that justice means locking up the "bad guys" to teach them a lesson and justification for the person subjected to the harm. Globally, governments spend billions yearly to maintain and staff supermax prisons playing out this 'justice,' from petty theft and drug to the more egregious act of rape and murder but If prison's intention number 1 (you remember the 3 core functions we discussed earlier, right?) is to deter one from crime, but if incarceration continues to grow, should society take a closer look at the effectiveness of the laws and processes that are in place?
For instance, in states where marijuana is currently legal, many are detained for possession. Often crime occurs due to poverty, lack of education, and mental illness. If these triggers to breaking the law exist or the laws themselves are flawed (laws should exist to improve communities, not entrap them) then prison will most likely not deter them.
As for intention 2, to punish; While going back to propping a person up in the pillory is not the way to go, studies have shown that prisons' harsh conditions are not creating a safer community, which leads to the number 3 intent; rehabilitate. Unfortunately, many prisons aren't or can’t prioritize classes, work, or reentry assistance. Life in prison is hard; mixing offenders of all types only teaches criminals how to become better criminals to survive, or separates people so well that the incarcerated are faced with the psychological challenges and damage that comes from prolonged isolation (see next week’s podcast interview for more on this topic).
In many cases and what many studies have shown us, many victims of crimes are unsatisfied and feel incomplete with the justice they receive. The harm is done and never healed, but there was a time when justice looked different, yielding positive results. Indigenous cultures in Canada, America, New Zealand, and some African communities have always practiced Restorative Justice Circles (R.J) until European colonialism. This process brings together those harmed, those who inflicted the harm, facilitators, and supporters to find suitable redemption. The offender becomes accountable for their actions while empowering the victim to express their needs, suffer less from post-traumatic stress, and move on more quickly. Talking circles may sound too "hippie liberal" for some, but it has proven to work and is already being applied on a small scale globally.
See the video below of what RJ looks like in action.
Has anyone experimented with RJ?
In 2001, The Ministry of Justice in the U.K. gathered research throughout seven years, which showed that restorative Justice reduces reoffending by 14%.
Through the decades, Restorative Justice has appeared in some form, especially in terms of handling juveniles. In 1989, New Zealand passed the Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act which called for restorative circles. In 2006 Oakland, CA school districts replaced its zero-tolerance policies with Restorative Justice services.
In 2016, Baltimore Councilwoman Rikki Spector was carjacked by two teenagers. A restorative circle of coaches, mentors, and nonprofit workers got her involved and Spector was able to confront the boys, allowing both sides to understand what led them there. They felt remorse and she felt empathy and motivation to help. The juvenile house arrest program included classes and mentoring, all resulting in the boys' improved grades and confidence. Spector spoke about R.J. to the Boston Sun, "I am thrilled with the progress that we have made in this community." She goes on to talk about one of the boys' progress: "I think he has come a long way...I hope that now with the program here, the mentoring and the rehabilitation will make a marked improvement on how he acts, what he does, and give him a future."
R.J. has a proven track record, and many advocates like Dreisinger, are working globally to reintroduce this. Baz Dreisinger started Incarceration Nations Network, INN, to bring awareness to the cause. Other notable advocates include Sujatha Baliga, who works through Impact Justice to teach R.J. nationwide. Howard Zehr, a writer, theorist, and International Prize Recipient, has been fighting for R.J. since the 1970s known as the 'godfather of restorative justice' and is currently the director of the Center of Justice and Peacebuilding.
To learn more about some of the many programs that the above advocates are involved with go to;
For more information and to make donations please see
Connect with Baz
We can’t act if we don’t know. If we want to make a difference, we have to keep pursuing the answers to what we don’t know.
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