I began my research into criminal justice reform about ten years ago, when I wrote an article about a corrections officer who was doing innovative things with the local jail inmates under her care. She had this crazy idea that if you care about the inmates, listen to their problems, give them the support and tools to succeed, then they might not make return visits. She would lead them on guided meditation. Playing soothing New Age music, she would have them close their eyes and think of themselves as having the slate wiped clean and have a plan for when they left.
“This uniform confuses people,” she told me in an interview. And by “people,” she means the people who wear the uniforms. “It confuses your ego.” Civilians, she said, “outrank” police officers. “We’re here to provide a service.”
When I spoke to other officers about her on the phone, I could practically see their eyes roll to the backs of their heads. She was considered a little bit crazy. And maybe she was. The idea of trying to make life comfortable for those who have broken the law does seem crazy in the context of a criminal justice system in the United States that is mad in itself. The convicted—mostly the poor and African Americans, the mentally ill and the drug addicted—are forced into a system of perpetual abuse that make us no safer. In fact, the system is self-perpetuating, traumatizing its captives and causing collateral damage in devastated families and communities.
So, for years, I’ve made it a side project of mine to interview as many authors as possible who have studied the problem and possible solutions to our barbaric criminal justice system. I recorded this interview a couple of years ago when I was executive editor of a book-review publication. But all the information here is just as relevant today as ever. I was ambitious in scope when I first started podcasting, so my shows featured many, many guests, including the talented authors below:
After Exoneration: Alison Flowers first caught my attention a year ago, when I reviewed her book, Exoneree Diaries: The Fight for Innocence, Independence, and Identity, published by Haymarket Books. What struck me about the book was its matter-of-fact style as it described the daily lives of those who have been released from prison after having been wrongly convicted.
European Justice: In his book, Unusually Cruel: Prisons, Punishment, and the Real American Exceptionalism, from Oxford University Press, Marc Howard compares and contrasts prison conditions in other industrialized democracies—France, Germany, and the UK—with that of the United States. Marc is professor of government and law and director of the Prisons and Justice Initiative at Georgetown University. He spoke with me about the idea of paying your debt to society and second chances, concepts that are absent in America’s justice system.
College in Prison: We recently reviewed a book called Liberating Minds: The Case for College in Prison, published by The New Press. What first struck me about the book was the subtitle, The Case for College in Prison, as if a case needs to be made. To me, it seems like a no-brainer. Of course there should be educational opportunities in prison. It’s the perfect place for education—that is, if the idea of prison truly is “corrections.” But if anybody can effectively make that case it’s Ellen Condliffe Lagemann. She is is the Levy Institute Research Professor at Bard College, where she is also the Distinguished Fellow in the Bard Prison Initiative.
Books to Prisoners: For prisoners, whether in your local jail or in state or federal prison, a book may be the only thing that keeps them sane. The ability to learn a new language, about history, or just to travel to other worlds, can help engage a mind and prevent it from spiraling into depression and despair. Seattle-based nonprofit Books to Prisoners has been donating books to inmates since 1973. Board member Joan Lehmiller Ross talked to me about the books prisoners prefer, and those that prison wardens ban. Some are more than a little surprising.
Listen to my Podcast on Criminal Justice Reform
Here are a few other authors I’ve interviewed on criminal justice reform.
Maya Schenwar always suspected, in theory, that something was wrong with the US prison-industrial complex, knew that our policy of mass incarceration wasn’t working. At least, she knew all the progressive talking points. But it wasn’t until Schenwar’s own sister became caught in the gears of the prison machine that she realized that the US criminal justice system didn’t need to be fixed; it is wrong on so many levels, it needs to be torn down and rebuilt from the ground up.
By now, many Americans are aware that our brutal system of mass incarceration is out of control and ineffective. But acknowledging the problem is only the first step. Many reasonable people can recognize that the current prison system is barbaric, but wonder what the alternatives are. Turns out, there are plenty. And new indie authors like Baz Dreisinger are shining a light not only on the problem, but on possible solutions. Dreisinger’s Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World will be released in February, and it’s an incredible journey of a book that shows possible paths out of the mess and the mockery the United States has made of criminal justice.
There is a misconception that to apologize is to show weakness. Yet, the true test of a just society is not only how it treats those on the margins, but also how it atones for its mistakes. On both these counts, the United States has, more often than not, failed the test of an enlightened civilization. But, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” As proof of that, sift through the rhetoric of this nasty 2016 political season, and you’ll see a willingness to move forward on fixing our nation’s corrupt, morally bankrupt criminal justice system.