Incarceration Nations: An Exploration of Freedom, Barred and Unbarred

Baz Dreisinger has spent the last decade of her life in prison. A few of them.

In New York, Australia, Thailand, Brazil, and a few other countries. But she has never been arrested, nor convicted of a crime.

Baz Dreisinger is a professor at the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She founded the Prison to College Pipeline Program where she trains incarcerated individuals in English and creative writing. When her students complete her program, and are released from prison, they are guaranteed a seat at CUNY. Baz is also the author of 'Incarceration Nations,' which is a book about hope, inspiration, and new beginnings. She examines criminal justice systems around the globe. But the book is so much more than that. It represents the creative power one individual has to make change. It examines curiosity as a vehicle for reform. It shows what other countries are doing to empower and disempower their incarcerated populations. Then she shares that knowledge with others. Baz has a lot to offer all of us, and here are some of the gems I pulled from our conversation.


Curiosity trumps fortune telling. When Baz started her work, she was intensely curious. About prisons, about human rights, about education, about re-entry. She threw herself into every aspect, and learned as much as she could. Baz told me, 'If I would have tried to predict the future, if I had over-strategized and worried about how it would all work out, I probably never would have even started. Find something that interests you, and learn all you can. It will eventually become clear about how that fits into a bigger plan.'

Focus on the yes's. As Baz was writing the book, she had to reach out to hundreds of people to make the multi-country prison visit and education tour happen. If she focused on the hundreds of no's before getting one yes, she would have given up long before she finished. This is true in many industries. You will hear no all the time. It is part of the process. Focus on the yes. Celebrate the yes. Build momentum on top the yes.

Keep your head in the clouds, and your hands in the dirt. I forget where I heard this, but I loved it, and Baz reminded me of its truth. I asked Baz how she went about choosing the countries she selected for the book. She said it was important to grasp the big picture, while also spending time on the practical. She went to Rwanda to examine how genocide survivors met with the genocide offenders who killed their families. She observed reconciliation processes, she explored the philosophical aspects of retribution and peaceful cohabitation in the face of gruesome atrocities. In South Africa, she dug her hands into the dirt to lead courses, hear from the incarcerated people directly, and see what change agents were in place. A combination of big picture thinking and hands on application seems to be an equation that works for most high performers I meet.

Stop assuming you have answers. This is one of the most tactical pieces of advice I give entrepreneurs from around the world when I speak to them. You don't know what people will pay for until you ask them for money. Just because you think your idea or product is the coolest, one you are certain they need, does not mean your customer agrees with you. I have seen business after business fail because they assumed they knew what the customer wanted. Wrong!

Baz reiterated this. She would make it her default practice to ask questions when she arrived in a new place. She stayed flexible and open. 'I never walked into a prison in a new country saying here is what we are going to do. That would never work. I told them I wanted to be a part of their agenda, rather than pushing mine.'

Baz provided an example. Despite was others believed, Baz understood the people in Rwanda wanted reconciliation, and forgiving the offenders brought them more peace than wishing harm or revenge. I would note have guessed that to be true. Good thing Baz taught me to listen to those on the ground that do know.

Show off your credentials. Especially in a 'cold' pitch. Baz has an illustrious career that she worked hard to create. To be a professor, have a PHD, be a published author, the creator of a project at one of America's top schools in criminal justice, these all took time and energy. This background makes it easier to be taken seriously when she reaches out. Put together a list of your credentials, and lead with them. When you are doing work you care about, there is no time to be shy. Credentials matter. Show them off.

Bring your expertise as fresh ideas. Yes, this sounds like it contradicts the previous point of not assuming you have answers, but remember this. People get complacent, and stuck in their ways after years of doing the same work. While they understand the issues their communities face, there is also a need for the interjection of fresh ideas, new blood, restlessness that pushes the status quo. Baz brought that to the communities she served through securing funding, education opportunities, and new exercises they hadn't previously been exposed to. Experience is important, but hunger and new ideas are equally as important.

Don't try and reconcile privilege. I asked Baz how she reconciled her privilege as a white, educated American woman working with populations typically of minority backgrounds and lower socioeconomic status. Baz said, 'I don't try and reconcile my privilege. I recognize it, I never hide it, and I use it to benefit others whenever possible.' The first word of the book is, 'Mzungu,' the Swahili term for white person. This was intentional, as she wanted the world to know she was a white woman writing about these issues.

Write everyday. Stephen King, one of the most prolific writers in history writes every day. If he stops writing for even a few days, he commented that he feels it, and it takes him a week to build up his writing muscle again. Baz shared this sentiment. 'Some days, I wrote 3 words. Others I edited a chapter, or a page. It did not matter if I was jet lagged, sick, tired, whatever. I write every day, and that makes a big difference.' Even if you are not a writer, dedicate time every day to your craft. Something, anything. It compounds fast.

Bring humanity to your work. I asked Baz if she found a lot of 'victim mentality' among the incarcerated people. She told me that she found a lot of the opposite. She found most of the incarcerated people identified themselves as bad people, and accepted this label. They accepted that they screwed up and deserve punishment. But once Baz shows them they deserve a second chance, that their ideas have merit, that they can contribute to the world in new ways, brilliance in unleashed. 'There is a level of brilliance behind bars, a knowledge and commitment to learning and self-improvement that exudes,' Baz told me.

When I asked Baz the biggest lesson she has ever learned doing this work, she replied quickly. 'This is the most self-aware group of people I have ever met. They are grappling with having been involved with some very serious stuff. They are contemplating their own actions, their own mistakes, and what that means for their life.'

I have never been incarcerated, but feel we all have a lot to learn from Baz's commitment to humanity, second chances, restlessness, curiosity, and an open mind.

How many times have we done something that was not right, and have never been reprimanded? How many imperfections or skeletons live in our own closet? Maybe we are not behind bars, but it's possible we are not free, either.

Perhaps we have never been asked to address our own crimes. Maybe today is a good day to do so, even if our trial happens in the bathroom.

And our judge is the reflection we see in the mirror.