author of Incarceration Nations

Incarceration Nations is the story of my journey to prisons around the world, beginning in Africa and ending in Europe. The idea for this global journey was born behind bars in America, where I launched the Prison-to-College Pipeline program, which offers college classes and reentry planning to incarcerated students in New York State. I had started the program hoping to make some small dent in the American mass incarceration crisis. The world’s largest jailer—with some 2.3 million people incarcerated—the U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of its prison population. More African Americans are under criminal supervision today than were enslaved in 1850.

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But I was troubled by the fact that the public conversation rarely turned from America’s incarceration calamity to the global prison problem—a system the U.S built and then foisted on the world. Between 2008 and 2011, the prison population grew in 78 percent of all countries. Some 10.3 million people worldwide are behind bars, many convicted of nothing, waiting years to be tried and lacking access to adequate legal assistance.

I began to envision a global journey, one that would offer a chance to rethink one of America’s most devastating exports. On a basic level, I felt an urge to be a witness, to expose the hidden places and forgotten people that exist in every country. Such a journey seemed, for me and for my readers, a moral imperative. After all, justice should be loud and proud, a transparent system endorsed by all citizens. Yet prisons are invisible spaces, places most people never see, yet dimly accept as real and right. How can we endorse what cannot be seen?

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The final inspiration for my journey was a terrible realization: I was so routinely inside prisons, so often immersed in analyzing prison issues, that I was beginning to lose perspective. I needed a shock to the system, to ask myself anew what I used to get asked all the time: Why care so passionately about the so-called wrongdoers of the world? I would find fresh answers to this question, seeing prison anew by seeing it around the world. Nelson Mandela famously said, “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

In recent years, there have been plenty of calls for prison reform, many of them driven by arguments about economics and public safety. But what about fundamental moral arguments about prison, as an ethical concept? I decided that it was time to go back to the theoretical drawing board. I chose nine countries—Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, Jamaica, Thailand, Brazil, Australia, Singapore, and Norway—that would defamiliarize foundational concepts about justice and prison, concepts we too often take for granted. I would re-ask the big questions about punishment, redemption, forgiveness, second chances, racism, and capitalism that had made me a prison activist to begin with. And perhaps I might convince others—as voting, thinking citizens of a democracy—to become agents of change, too.