The United States leads the world in rates of imprisonment. The nation represents approximately 5 percent of the world’s population, yet holds a staggering 25 percent of the world’s inmates. There are currently over 2 million incarcerated people, a 500% increase since the 1980s that has brought the term “mass incarceration” into everyday parlance.
To counteract the skyrocketing rates of U.S. incarceration, prison reform activists are fighting to enact systems of restorative justice. Restorative justice encourages rehabilitation by means of reconciliation (versus purely punitive measures), emphasizing a recognition of harm done between offenders, victims, and their larger communities.
Baz Dreisinger has been at the forefront of the movement towards restorative justice, dedicating her career to ending mass incarceration in the United States. In her effort to educate the public and improve the lives of people in prisons, Baz created the Prison-to-College Pipeline (P2CP), a unique program that provides incarcerated people with education both behind bars and after they have reentered society, reducing rates of recidivism and ultimately enabling them to earn a college degree.
Baz sat down with IVY Magazine to share her thoughts on the gravity of the situation, opportunities for reform, and the need for restorative justice in today’s prison system.
The U.S. Prison System Has Some Really Unique (and Fixable) Errors.
Baz Dreisinger: Firstly, the length of our sentences is pretty much inimitable around the world. We give outrageously long sentences that defy logic, defy economic sense, defy morality. I think that’s a big one — certainly, the very existence of the death penalty in our system. It’s a rarity around the world. We are one of only nine nations to use both the death penalty and life sentences, and we use life sentences remarkably freely.
We give outrageously long sentences that defy logic, defy economic sense, defy morality.
Secondly — this is not unique, but we do it quite well — we have real racial disparities in our system. As it stands now, our system has targeted black and brown communities by way of the war on drugs in a very deliberate fashion. I don’t actually think that’s unique to the US. I’ve seen that in many systems around the world, but we do it quite intensely and methodically as well.
Finally, the sheer web of our justice system, how broadly and widely it reaches into people’s lives. Once you’re caught in the web of that, it’s almost impossible to escape.
The For-Profit Prison Industry Is Definitely a No-No.
BD: The private prison industry is appalling just even in theory — the idea of making money off incarceration. Most appalling about it is the fact that we allow these companies, these massive billion-dollar corporations, to have control over our legislature and thus over our morality. It’s completely vile.
These corporations have enormous lobbying power over sentencing laws or over exactly the kind of reforms that I’m talking about. They have branches that lobby against these reforms to make sure that basically their beds are filled. It’s a recipe for disaster.
We need to think more broadly about how we are conflating justice and capitalism.
But one thing that’s important to remember is that it’s not only the private prison industry that’s guilty of this merging of morality and capitalism. The state system is also caught up in capitalism and the ugly webs of capitalism and justice, in terms of the court fees that people are required to pay, phone calls from prison, bail, and the amount of industries that are being produced in state prisons. The private industry is a target, but we need to think more broadly about how we are conflating justice and capitalism.
“Prison Reform” Is Too Weak for My Taste.
BD: I want radical overhaul. The entire paradigm needs to shift; we need to think about punishment differently. We need to think about reparations and restitution instead of revenge. It’s a really exciting time for justice work.
Suddenly it’s a much more mainstream conversation to even have. I remember when I first started doing this work, saying to people: “I teach people in prison, and I care about prison.” People would look at me as if I were insane. That doesn’t happen anymore. Now, people really understand that this is an issue. I’m struck by how many people share stories about how they’ve been personally impacted by the justice system. The media also plays a role in putting this on the forefront.
Get Hip to What’s Really Happening in Prisons.
BD: It’s hard to get involved. Prisons aren’t accessible. One thing that people can do that’s really easy is get educated and change minds. If the tide of public opinion is going to turn — which it already is — then it relies on people getting hip to what’s really happening here and spreading the word.
That’s one thing. I think another thing is to work with formerly incarcerated people coming home. There are people coming home constantly, and they need things. They need advice, they need connections, they need jobs and housing. There are possibilities for people to get involved with reentry groups and be mentors and hire formerly incarcerated people and encourage others to do the same.
Also activism — in terms of pushing for policy change — is another big thing all of us can do. There are lots of organizations that are pushing for policy change with regards to some of the stuff that I already mentioned. For example, the Close Rikers movement is a big one here in New York. Donating money to these organizations is really important.
Sometimes to be involved means knowing what your place is. If you don’t have something particular to be able to give other than your support, then give your support to those that do have something to give. We take checks at the Prison-to-College Pipeline! For more information email me or come to any of my events.
The Prison-to-College Pipeline Is a Program that Really Works.
BD: There are so many amazing stories of my students’ successes. Certainly our first graduation coming up next week is a huge one. We have our first student graduating with an Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice, receiving all kinds of honors. He also took some classes at Columbia, and is continuing now for his Bachelor’s Degree. I had a conversation recently with two students about pursuing PhDs — they’re currently both undergrads, and I think it’s likely to happen for both of them. We’ve had students every year being honored as John Jay’s Finest, which is an enormously competitive school-wide thing. This year we have three students represented. All of that indicates the quality of the students we are working with — how hard they work, how smart they are, and how committed they are.
For further learning, refer to Baz’s recent publication, Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World.