“Same s**t, different country.”
That’s the answer I usually give—as someone who’s written a book about prisons around the world, and now runs a global prison-reimagining network—to the question I’m most often asked:
Which country has the “best” and “worst” prisons?
It’s an exaggeration of an answer, yes—some places are closer to systems that resemble justice than others—but it’s also more or less true, for a reason that my book “Incarceration Nations” tried to hammer home.
Prison as a method of justice, as the exclusive response to crime, was an institution invented in the United States some 200 years ago and then, via colonialism and globalization, foisted on the world.
I call it cut-and-paste justice. The perfect synecdoche for it is the image of an African judge in a country like Ghana wearing a formal gown and old British white wig in a sweltering courtroom worlds away from England. And right now, in the face of a pandemic that is ravaging prison populations around the world, cut-and-paste justice is a concept worth pausing to consider.
Globally speaking, the justice community’s response to the pandemic—a mass MRI that has exposed the cancerous inequity of our global systems and structures, including our criminal justice system—has generally been cut from the same cloth.
There have been mass releases of people from prison, as countries are finally forced to acknowledge what many of us have been screaming for years: Prisons—warehouses for human beings—are a public health disaster and the people inside them, especially in Global South countries, where TB and HIV have historically devastated at-risk communities, are particularly vulnerable to illness.
An estimated 300,000 people have been released worldwide.
The numbers vary dramatically from country to country, and some releases are being called temporary, but the U.S.—the world’s biggest jailer, the globe’s most passionate punisher—unsurprisingly falls toward the bottom of the list.
Some states have released no one at all, despite tens of thousands of cases behind bars nationwide.
Also low on release rates are the United Kingdom, which by late April had released a mere 33 people, and El Salvador, which hasn’t released anyone. On the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, sit countries like Portugal and Cyprus (released 17 and 15 percent of their prison populations, respectively), as well as Iran and Turkey, which in mid-April enabled the early release of 100,000 people (honing in on those who are minimum security, older than 65, pregnant, and mothers with young children).
Ironically, though, even as some countries are decarcerating, some have found a way to re-carcerate. In Kenya and El Salvador, for instance, quarantine has become the new mode of detention, with those violating stay-at-home or social distancing orders subject to fines, arrest or detention in controversial government-run quarantine centers.
Globally, too, there have been moves to suspend short-stay prison sentences altogether—in France and Finland, for instance—and there have been efforts from Brooklyn to Malawi to stop prosecuting people for the sort of crimes that usually merit such short sentences: misdemeanors, fine default and, throughout Africa, petty offenses that should have been taken off the books long ago—things like foul language and loitering.
Given the worldwide suspension of prison visits, global justice systems have had to, technology-wise, catapult themselves into the 21st century almost overnight, shifting everything from visits and classes to court and parole board appearances to the virtual realm. There have been mass fundraisers, and donations of PPE and laptops.
And there have also been nefarious lockdowns, despite the fact that by United Nations standards, any longer than 22 hours per day in a cell constitutes solitary confinement.
In the UK, many are being confined to their cells for 23 hours and more. In Guyana, prison officers are totally confined to prison grounds; in Hungary, attorneys can be denied access to clients on the spot.
Language of the Unheard
In Italy, Colombia, Peru and Sierra Leone, such dramatic severing of connection to the free world has merged with panic in the face of the pandemic to produce large-scale prison riots—riots that in this moment are the epitome of, to cite Martin Luther King Jr., the language of the unheard.
We can’t let those voices behind the wall go unheard.
This month, the Incarceration Nations Network (INN) debuted The Writing on the Wall, an art installation in partnership with Hank Willis Thomas, made from writings by people in prison around the world. The installation was projected onto the walls of iconic New York buildings in the midst of a pandemic that is ravaging prison populations globally.
The writings projected were poems, drawing and reflections from incarcerated individuals in countries ranging from the U.S. and the United Kingdom, to Bolivia and Uganda.
It was an effort to insist that people in detention not be forgotten, especially in this moment.
INN will be taking The Writing on the Wall, accompanied by virtual conversations about radically reimagining radical justice, on a global tour. You can link to the video here.
A Time for Vigilance
This is a moment to remain vigilant. On the other side of this pandemic, progressive measures taken could rapidly revert back to where they were—or worse.
Departments of corrections might decide, for instance, that it’s much easier to deliver rehabilitative services and education by correspondence, so why go back to letting college, arts or other programs exist outside the virtual?
If countries stay on course with their releases, they are likely to continue slapping ankle-monitoring devices on the people being released, thereby hastening an already intense trend toward e-incarceration, by which we essentially incarcerate whole communities—while putting money in the pockets of the private companies who make such devices.
Most vitally, though—and this takes us back to the problematics of cut-and-paste justice—the health crisis provides a moment to not simply be reactive, but proactive.
To not simply demand that our world end mass incarceration, but insist that we begin a new chapter in global justice, a chapter that finally does away with a mechanism that belongs in the history books alongside the stocks and the guillotine as an archaic form of torture—one that research has shown not only does not make us safer, but actually makes us all less safe.
This is a moment for radical imagination and culture-specific responses to community harm, a chance especially for Global South nations to finally take off those colonial wigs, wrest themselves free of the justice system that was foisted on them and build one anew that is actually a right fit.
As global justice workers, we need to push not only for release of people in prison, but for critical support for them once they have come home, particularly in the areas of employment, housing and trauma-informed care grounded in strong communities.
Finding Culture-Specific Alternatives to Prison
We need not just pretrial and bail reform, but investment in community alternatives that are unique and culture-specific: broad-reaching diversion, mediation and restorative justice programs that keep people out of prisons and jails in the first place.
We need governments to reconsider the criminalization of poverty: not only petty offenses dating back to the colonial era, but also a drug policy that senselessly treats a public health issue as a criminal justice one, thus landing close to half a million people worldwide behind bars for mere possession (not to mention an additional 1.7 million for other drug offenses).
We need to think about what “corrections” truly looks like—and recognize that all too often it’s not people who need to be corrected but the systems and structures that produced them, and the punitive, cycle-of-harm response to their wrongdoing personified by the institution that is prison.
The Writing on the Wall installation should serve as a reminder that while we need to address the immediate harms suffered by those held behind bars with whatever band-aids we can provide, we should be prepared to rip those band-aids off as soon as we can to expose the gashing wounds at the heart of our justice system—and to use our radical imagination in this unprecedented era not to destroy or abolish, but to build anew.
Baz Dreisinger, Ph.D., a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is the founder of the Prison-to-College Pipeline and the Executive Director of the Incarceration Nations Network.