Dr Baz Dreisinger: Promoting prison education, Madiba-style, to attack world’s broken system of incarceration

LONDON — Dr Baz Dreisinger’s Prison to College Pipeline is a secondary beneficiary of the CEO SleepOut project. It is based on her view that the current system of incarceration is broken and requires urgent reform. Her charity helps inmates change their lives through education – following in the footsteps of South Africa’s most famous prisoner who regarded education as the gateway to freedom. – Alec Hogg

In this episode of CEO SleepOut™ update we talk with Dr Baz Dreisinger. Baz, it’s really good to link up with you in Rwanda. It’s not often I get to people who are in Kigali. What are you doing there?

Yes, it’s a pleasure to be in Kigali. I am here on the last leg of the Global Fulbright Fellowship, which is focussed on looking at prisons around the world and specifically at restorative justice in the international context. That actually began in SA and it took me to Chile, Brazil, and now has landed me in Kigali, Rwanda.

You’re a very integral part of the Nelson Mandela CEO SleepOut™ in SA. How did you get involved in that?

Well, I have been working in SA, in the context of justice, justice reform, and prisons for 6–7 years. I first came to Cape Town, and SA altogether in order to volunteer in Pollsmoor Prison with a very powerful restorative justice agency called Hope Prison Ministry, and I subsequently ended up writing my book chapter about that experience, which was one of the most moving experiences of my life. I also, at that time, fell in love with SA, despite the fact that I was going into Pollsmoor every single day that I was there. I fell in love with the country. I fell in love with the people. I fell in love with the energy of the place, with the possibilities, with the beauty, with the complexity, with the history, with the legacy and so much more. So, I’ve been steadily coming back ever since for longer and longer periods of time. I in fact, I bought a flat there a couple of years ago and I’ve really started to invest in doing work there and partnering with communities and with justice reformers in CT, specifically, but also, countrywide.

And the CEO SleepOut™?

I have, in those years, come to know a whole wide range of people. One of them being the wonderful actor, speaker, activist, entrepreneur Maps Maponyane, who is a dear friend of mine. It was his manager actually, who reached out to me and said, ‘here’s this event happening by the way, and our one is happening on Robben Island and that, of course, just blew me away, given the work that I do in prisons and the Mandela legacy of Education Behind Bars. So, I asked immediately to be put in touch with the organisers and one thing led to another. Now, incredibly, we are a secondary beneficiary and get to be involved in this landmark event.

Dr. Baz Dreisinger, Professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and Founder and Academic Director of the Prison-to-College Pipeline.

Baz, your doctorate was actually in English and nothing to do with prisons. What drew you to the whole subject of incarceration?

Well, it’s a bit of a long story but in a nutshell – yes, my doctorate is in English, with the focus on African and American studies. I’ve also worked as a journalist and critic, in radio and film, in written word and I was doing a lot of writing. My first book was a very interdisciplinary study of race in America so, there was a lot of music in there and pop culture. Between that and the articles that I was related to hip-hop, music, pop culture, and justice spaces. I started getting a lot of letters from people in prison and they invited me inside, this was over 15 years ago. When I started going inside in that capacity, I had been in as a visitor from knowing people who are incarcerated. But going in there as a volunteer and just leading the volunteer educational workshops changed my life, and it turned into an obsession with a system of justice that doesn’t work, which is this idea of responding to crime with prisons. So, that led to my starting the Prison to College Pipeline Program, at John G College of Criminal Justice where I teach. That led to my writing a book and going internationally. So, it’s a one thing leads to another, and another but ultimately, it’s about just following what my heart and mind knew to be correct.

How does the Prison to College Pipeline work? One can assume that it will help former prisoners to get themselves better educated but where did the steps begin?

Absolutely so, our motto, and it’s one of #tags for our launch, which is happening at Pollsmoor Prison on Mandela Day, July 18th, is education and not incarceration. That is because the idea is that education… Most people will not be in prison if they were offered chances at education in the first place, if they were given access to opportunities, and especially educational opportunities. If they are in prison, education is, and to quote Nelson Mandela, ‘the most powerful weapon, which you could use to change the world.’ And I would say, ‘to change yourself.’ What we do in the Prison to College Pipeline is to offer university classes in person, not by correspondence, inside. These will be led by professors and their faculty at Stellenbosch University, who’s our partner on this – we’re very excited about that. Also, the focus is on this word ‘pipeline’ so, we pipeline people from prison to university and allow their re-entry, when people come home from prison to really centre their re-entry on higher education so that they are moving out radically from the world that they may have been in when they went to prison in the first place. It’s a little bit of re-entry, a little bit of education, a lot of learning, a touch of social work and support – all of those things coming together. I should say that that’s the fundamental basis of what it is. But as the Prison to College Pipeline takes shape in other countries, it will adapt to that country – it’s not a cut and paste model. So, SA – it’s not my program any more. It’s South Africa’s and they do with it what they want – I act as an advisor, in-guidance and support.

Do the candidates select themselves?

No, again this is a country by country answer really. But currently in SA the students are already enrolled in a correspondence course in UNISA so, we are beginning with them as our first cohorts so, they’ll be taking their UNISA courses but we’re adding an in-person component and a re-entry component, which are so critical. Going down the road, as the program grows, evolves, and develops then Stellenbosch will determine its application process. Maybe it will look like the one that we use in New York, or maybe it will look different.

That’s interesting. Are there many inmates in SA, who are enrolled in UNISA? In other words, the universe, from which you can select the SA participants in the program. Is it significant?

It is fairly significant and there would be more, if there was more capacity and funds as well. Essentially, UNISA has, which is really wonderful, and Mandela took UNISA courses when he was on Robben Island so, UNISA’s legacy is tremendous. There are actually, UNISA hubs all over SA, which I was thrilled about. I don’t know the exact number, overall. But I know in Braamvlei there’s about 30 of them and certainly far more potential students as well. By no means are all the potential and capable students being serviced by UNISA.

What about Pollsmoor – you said that you fell in love with it? Nelson Mandela spent the last few years of his incarceration at Pollsmoor Prison. What was it about the place that grabbed you?

I think it was the opposite of falling in love with it. I fell in love with SA despite Pollsmoor but it gripped me and it haunted me because what I saw there it felt so familiar to me, having worked in US prisons for years. But as I write in my book, it seemed like a grotesquely version of what I saw in 3 years, in US prisons, and especially in Rikers Island Jail. It was the same circumstances. When I heard peoples’ stories of institutional racism, institutional poverty, lack of opportunity, drugs, addiction, violence but it all seems so familiar and yet, almost like a repeat version, and it just pains me. That many thousands of people – I understand it was about almost 8,000 and these kinds of narratives that are clearly about people who are conditioned for prison because of systemic inequality, because of apartheid, because of racism and lack of opportunity and criminalisation of poverty and so much more. I still have dreams about Pollsmoor. It’s just a place that should not be. There should be another way of creating safer communities, and Pollsmoor is not it. Nor do I believe prisons do that altogether.

I’m sure you’re aware that the Australian Government has taken a very strong stance against SA prisons by not allowing SA criminals to be extradited – on human rights grounds. Do you think that that helps reform?

Well, not quite because I’m not a fan. Australia has one of the fastest rising incarceration rates in the world so, it’s not only about the conditions. It’s about using this as a device of social control and particularly the criminalisation of minorities. Australia and New Zealand have the highest indigenous incarceration rates in the world as well so, I’m not a fan of one country pointing a finger at another, and saying, ‘the problem is you.’ When that country is not looking at itself as well and saying, ‘how do I address this in my own backyard as well?’ Yes, there are issues, globally speaking. But Australia’s approach is to sort of copycat the American mass incarceration approach, which is not working in the US and I don’t think it will work elsewhere.

That really is the point. Are there parallels between what you see in SA and the USA, given that the African-American population in the US is more likely to end up in prison than other groups?

Yes, I find that there’s a version of that in almost every country I go to, of a group that has been targeted to be criminalised through a legacy of inequality and racism. Then is targeted to be mass incarcerated so, in the US that’s African-Americans, and some Latinos. In Australia it’s Aboriginal folks and we see it in other countries with poor people for instance. It need not be a racialised group and often it’s the criminalisation of poverty. One of the projects that I’m working on is creating a series of short documentaries that connects the dots between these kinds of issues globally so that people can see how many overlaps there are in the crisis when we talk about it as a whole and in a worldwide context.

It’s a worldwide problem, as you say, some countries have it worse than others. If you look at the legacy of Nelson Mandela though, clearly, he was not a criminal in the obvious sense. He was a political activist, who was sent to jail for 27 years. Can the average incarcerated person relate to him?

You, see, I really don’t make a great distinction between a political prisoner and just a regular prisoner or a current prisoner. I think that line is so hard and fast and I say this because so many in prison around the world that we have been mentioning are products of a society that is vastly unequal, and steeped in racism, and inequality. They are products of a political system too. Does that mean we can pretend they didn’t commit a crime? No, but we have to recognise the context in which that crime arose and that context is deeply political so, it’s impossible to separate political context, social context, and racial context from people in prison. So, I think that’s a very important saying that I say to people when they try to make that distinction. Then as for the question of relating to Mandela it’s interesting that you ask that because as part of our event at Braamvlei, our launch, I’ve been collecting writing by people in prison, who are studying around the world and I’m asking them all to the respond to the famous Madiba quote, ‘education is the most powerful weapon, which you can use to change the world.’ The kinds of writings that are flooding my mailbox now, and my phone, are so powerful because they reflect how deeply the people in prison do see him as inspiration. Then, as he said, in my country we go to prison first, and then we become presidents.

What about sociopaths or psychopaths, people who’ve got mental issues. Is there much you can do for them?

I don’t think there are such people. I have not met many of them in the system, not the rule. I think it’s important to build systems based on the rule, more so than the exception. I do think there is a lot of mental illness behind bars. And I think generally speaking, we need to do a much better job of that. Prison only intensifies mental illness – it certainly doesn’t treat it. There’s a severe shortage of social workers and counsellors all over the world, and Pollsmoor most notably. I think we have to ultimately look at how we heal instead of harm? How do we engage, and repair – and not revenge? Those are some of the mottos that I live by.

Dr Baz Dreisinger, who is disrupting, one hopes, the criminal system in the long term. She’s very involved in the CEO SleepOut™and her charity, Prison to College Pipeline is one of the secondary beneficiaries of the CEO SleepOut™, which occurs at Liliesleaf on the 11th July 2018. Until the next time, cheerio.