Trendspotting: Promising Linkages


A season is a designated span of time that generally has a beginning and an end — the football season, flu season or holiday season. Typically, definable activities occur during a season, although the outcomes of these activities are usually less predictable. But because there is a beginning and an end, we can endure a plethora of beer commercials, body aches, and/or overeating. The idea of a season of something engenders a form of anticipation.

I confess to being a seasonal person and the time between Thanksgiving and the new year usually finds me anticipating both the prospect of old and new connections through conventional methods of meeting and greeting, as well as the exchange of holiday cards. Even the unimaginative exchange of pre-selected “e-greetings” becomes slightly more tolerable.

This particular season, more than any, stresses the importance of connections — not the kind that get you into the sold-out game, but the kind that endure long after the season passes. Contrary to a greeting, connections require an effort on the part of both parties to find a shared purpose. I witnessed this in the world of international corrections just recently at the annual conference of the International Correctional and Prisons Association in Bangkok .

Having reviewed the registration list before arriving, I knew that at least 50 nations would be represented. Some of the nations were sworn enemies; some sworn allies; and some were uncertain of where they stood in relation to the United States . Still I could not help but think that a season of hope existed — at least for a week — as two Iranian doctors exchanged correctional concerns with a lawyer and a former correctional director-general from Israel at the opening reception.

Since the ICPA formed nine years ago, I have participated in so many discussions between nations that do not officially share similar values regarding human rights. However, in a forum that focuses on common challenges rather than documented differences, the opportunities to expand horizons are limitless. The same infectious diseases that trouble doctors in Iranian prisons are present in Israeli prisons and, not surprisingly, the treatment regimens cross political and cultural boundaries.

So what does this have to do with American corrections? Is there any trend in cross-cultural corrections that would benefit California or Kansas ? Just a little context might help:

  • The world’s population is 6.5 billion. The prison population (best estimate) is 8.6 million, making the average incarceration rate 132 per 100,000.
  • The third-most populous nation, the United States , has an incarceration rate of 740 inmates per 100,000 residents. The most populous nation, China , reports a rate of 119 per 100,000, while the second-most populous nation, India , reports 29 per 100,000.
  • If the incarceration rate remains unchanged, by 2050, the nations of the world will incarcerate more than 17 million people.
  • By 2050, the United States is predicted to remain the third-most populated nation, with 420 million people. At our current incarceration rate, we would need bed spaces for at least 3.2 million prisoners, or 18 percent of the world’s projected incarcerated population.
  • The ethnic profile of the American prisoner is becoming increasingly multi-cultural, especially in the Sun Belt states. Islam is the fastest growing religious denomination within prisons in the last decade.

As a nation that has traditionally welcomed other cultures to our shores, we are one of the most advanced nations in ethnic assimilation. I would also argue that, with the possible exception of Canada and the United Kingdom , our prison systems have accommodated diversity fairly, while promoting human rights.

Flash bulbs and confetti abound at the opening of the 2007 International Correctional and Prisons Association conference in Bangkok, Thailand.

But here is the rub. The intense international attention given to the misdeeds of a few at Abu Graib and our definition of the rule of law for prisoners held in Guantanamo has eliminated the moral high ground that we once felt we owned. Add to this to the well-publicized levels of crowding that we tolerate, along with a marked reduction of programs to reduce re-offending, and Americans at international conferences find themselves in the uncomfortable and uncharted waters of defending rather than inspiring.

Until you have received a lecture (albeit polite) on the fallibility of the American approach to rehabilitation from a third world nation with a gross domestic product less than Missouri, you have not experienced humility. In my 33 years of involvement with justice planning, I have enthusiastically accompanied correctional representatives of numerous countries on tours of our houses of correction. Now, I am told there is little to nothing from our system that they wish to adapt into their system.

Our host country, Thailand, whose recent interpretation of democracy regularly made our evening news until college football season started, opened the eyes of many with the range and variety of rehabilitation programs it has implemented to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse population. How many systems actually have a vocational training program that teaches transvestites how to dance so they can get and maintain a job upon release? No joke.

Evidently, some tourists (and the economy depends on tourism) pay substantial amounts of money to attend well-choreographed transvestite galas. The point is, Thai officials have learned to link prisoner rehabilitation to a real world condition and invested resources to make the transition occur.

Delegates from across the globe meet Thai inmates at an ICPA workshop held at Thonburi prison, near Bangkok.

The importance of international information-sharing on matters of corrections goes hand-in-glove with an emerging global community that influences the value of our currency and the future of our economy. Correctly or not, the Internet has quickly exposed our methods for the care and custody of criminals to a newly suspicious world with a simple click of the mouse. If, as the five points noted above indicate, the United States is trending towards housing 18 percent of the world’s incarcerated population, then we should be willing to learn from the triumphs and failures of other cultures.

As uncomfortable as we may find our role as the world’s jailer, I am confident that if our core values remain grounded in the rule of law, we can regain the lost turf in prison reform of the last decade. Certainly, we have to continue to share concerns and solutions among ourselves but, I suggest, we should also be willing to learn from other nations that, with GDP’s a fraction of ours, have achieved incarceration rates that are also a fraction of ours.

The ICPA exists to promote the importance of connecting with many ethnic, political, and religious cultures in a shared hope for more humane and responsive correctional systems. Even in the world of corrections, we are challenged to think globally and act locally.

Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia, S.C. and a Correctional News columnist.