BOOK REVIEW: US academic Baz Dreisinger sees forgiveness in action in SA prison

baz review blog


IN ARGUABLY one of the most depressing places in SA, Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town, American academic Baz Dreisinger witnessed and wrote about one of the most uplifting human interventions: forgiveness. During an eight day workshop on restorative justice she saw “prisoners coming to grips with themselves and recognising that they were also victims of a system as well as offenders … it made them confront the bad choices that they made and the wrong things that they had done,” she said recently during an interview with the Wits Justice Project about her new book Incarceration Nations.

In the book, the literature and cultural studies scholar takes the reader on a whirlwind tour. She explores forgiveness in prisons in Rwanda and SA, art in Jamaica and Uganda’s correctional facilities, women in prison in Thailand, re-entry programmes in Singapore, private prisons in Australia, “supermax” prisons in Brazil, and in Norway she visited institutions lauded as Utopian prisons.

She scoured the dark, damp prison cells across the globe looking for an answer to the “big question” she first formulated in her home country. Should the purpose of prison be correction or punishment?

America’s staggering prison statistics indeed beg that question. “America is the world’s largest jailer,” Dreisinger writes. There are 2.3-million people behind bars in the US, roughly 25% of the world’s prison population, while the US only accounts for 5% of the world population. One fourth of prisoners suffer from mental health issues, thousands of Americans are serving life sentences for a non-violent offences and children as young as eight are tried as adults in some states. The racial bias of the system further boggles the mind. “More African Americans are under criminal supervision today than were enslaved in 1850,” she writes. One in six black men end up in jail.

While there is a high recidivism rate in the US, which should signal the system’s inherent failure, the American prison model — much like its malls and fast food joints — is a popular export product. Life sentences, supermaxes, the war on drugs, all these quintessential American criminal justice phenomena have spread over the globe.

SA, with the highest incarceration rate in Africa, drank the Kool Aid too. Take for example, the “centre of excellence” Kokstad supermax prison in KwaZulu-Natal. Supermaxes are inherently American — Alcatraz is considered its first. In Kokstad all inmates are housed in single cells, often for years or even decades. SA also introduced mandatory minimum sentences for drug related charges and has seen a thirtyfold increase in life sentences since 1995.

In Pollsmoor, Dreisinger saw another typical American phenomenon. “I knew about the racial disparities in South African prisons, but when I actually saw nothing but black and brown faces, I had a moment of absolute shock. I think I saw two white people in prison during my entire stay,” she relates of her 2012 visit to Pollsmoor prison. That year might have been one of Pollsmoor’s worst. Former inmate Dudley Lee successfully sued the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) before the Constitutional Court for its negligence in curbing the spread of SA’s number one killer disease Tuberculosis among inmates.

While that case shone a spotlight on the prison’s abominable conditions, the racial makeup of the inmate population, Dreisinger noticed, was barely discussed. “It was mentioned very little in the public discourse. In the states we have gotten to the point whereby alongside the discussion about mass incarceration is the conversation about race. You can’t separate the two.”

This wasn’t always the case though. “But the attitude has changed in the past five years, thanks to publications, like the New Jim Crow.”

That book, by legal scholar Michelle Alexander, thoughtfully and thoroughly dissects the American criminal justice system, to expose the racial bias that undergirds many laws and practices that ultimately led to a disproportionate number of African Americans behind bars. Since this ground-breaking best seller hit the stores in 2010, the idea that the criminal justice system is racially skewed has slowly become broadly accepted, leading to a bipartisan effort to reform the criminal justice system and even mainstream pop icons such as Beyonce and Kendric Lamar embracing these issues.

In SA, class — often aligning with race — is a decisive factor in determining who ends up behind bars. A 2014 National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders (Nicro) report detailed that only 2% of the inmate population is white and 18% is coloured, yet both groups make up 9% of the South African population. The African (black) inmate population is proportionate to the general demographics. But in a report released two months ago, the Institute for Race Relations wrote that over 7,000 people are in prison because they couldn’t afford the bail.

Many of these “poverty prisoners” can be found in Pollsmoor. During the restorative justice sessions, led by Jonathan Clayton, a pastor with the Hope Prison Ministries, Dreisinger heard him say to the eight or so inmates attending the sessions: “You are not an offender. A prisoner. A criminal. You are a person, loved by God.” The sessions offered the inmates a chance to reconnect with and apologise to their family members, making the first steps towards healing and rebuilding family structures. The sessions hinged on the idea of “owning choices and working to change them.”

But, Dreisinger asks as she closes the chapter on SA, “What is choice in the context of slavery, prison, labour, apartheid, segregation, townships?” In her office at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, overlooking the clean-cut mirror-like sky scrapers in midtown Manhattan, Dreisinger reflects: “I am most interested in restorative justice as an alternative to incarceration, which was definitely not the case in Pollsmoor. Given the much larger systemic change that has to happen for justice to emerge, restorative justice can really only be a kind of temporary Band-Aid. But I saw positive effects, these men opened up and lessons were learned. If even one life is impacted, that’s valuable. Working in a world of hellish prisons, that has to be a mantra — the idea that a single life matters.”

Published on Business Day Live on 16 May 2016.


About witsjusticeproject
The Wits Justice Project combines journalism, advocacy, law and education to make the criminal justice system work better for all.

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