Stories about Island Prisons

Stories about Island Prisons

Abuse continues on Rikers Island, the notorious prison sitting in the East River of New York City. Reading about the sordid record at Rikers prompts me to investigate other island prisons. Turns out, island prisons dot the waters all over the world in places like Venezuela, Italy, France and Panama. Alcatraz, America’s other infamous island, stands with its high imposing fortress rising up from San Fransisco Bay. Alcatraz was a maximum security federal prison from 1934-1963, It now functions as a tourist attraction as part of the U.S. National Park Service. Island prisons create a fitting metaphor for the way we regard and treat people who are incarcerated. Islands not only make it difficult to escape, but they create a natural barrier for the rest of us so that we are completely cut off and immune from the realties of lives inside. A prison on an island creates a more powerful sense of exile.


Not every nation exiles their prisoners or thinks that punishment and abuse are effective remedies, however. Rwanda sits like as an island of sanity and grace in the middle of Africa. Baz Dreisinger visited prisons all over the world and wrote about them in Incarceration Nations. I found her stories had a broad range: brutal, moving, fascinating and inspiring. In Rwanda, where the horrifying nightmare of genocide took place between the Hutus and the Tutsis in 1994, the nation has recovered economically with good health care and rising literacy rates. She says,

“Rwanda achieved this, goes the narrative, in part because it promoted reconciliation on a grand scale. I’d read about the country’s postgenocide gacaca courts, community gatherings in which neighbors sorted through the slaughters committed by neighbors and, instead of punishment, determined a system of compensations. I’d heard about the national approach to justice supposedly being returned to its roots, preaching not of punishment but forgiveness and reparations. Genocide compelled the country to rethink its fundamental pillars , its prison system—and justice itself.” 1

She asks, “Is revenge a triumph? To harm someone who has harmed you, is that not hypocrisy, perpetuating a wretched chain of wrongdoing?” 2 And, she says, citing the psychologist James Gilligan, “Punishment does not prevent or inhibit further violence, it only stimulates it.” 3


Norway creates an example for how prisons should be run and how their inhabitants need to be treated. Bastoy Island, nestled in a southern fiord, looks like a postcard, and inmates from other prisons want to get on a waiting list to go there. See this CNN report: Welcome to the World’s Nicest Prison. Norway does everything about prison differently, starting with the premise that people who have broken the law are good people who have made mistakes. Prison is set up to treat people well. The idea is that they will then be able to go out and treat people other people well. Bastoy Prison looks like this:


bastoy-prison lessons from island prisonssource of image: HERE

Norway puts people as close to their homes and families as possible and gives them the same social services like health care as the rest of its citizens, with the idea that people are going home and need all the support they can get. Prisoners on Bastoy Island work on the boat that carries people on and off the island, live in small wooden huts, cook their own food and work the land.

I saw many men leave the prison where I was teaching who were given a bus ticket and a small amount of cash. One man had been locked up for so long that his family had simply vanished. I wondered how he would even begin to put his life back together.

A simple human truism proved true in my 25 years as a prison teacher. If I treated people with respect, I got respect back. Sometimes people needed to be told what that looked like, but then they would become students who could function in a classroom with dignity and courtesy. Alternatively, if people are treated badly, they often react badly. Dreisinger has this:

We want them to be responsible,
So we take away all responsibilities.
We want them to be positive and constructive,
So we degrade them and make them useless.
We want them to be nonviolent,
So we put them where there is violence all around them.
We want them to quit being the tough guy,
So we put them where the tough guy’s respected.4

It occurs to me that Norway wants to keep people in prison connected to the rest of its citizens. Prison is basically a failure of community in the United States. When young American children grow up in poverty, have to go to failing, underfunded schools and have no employment opportunities, it is not surprising that they turn to the drug trade or other offenses. When black children are suspended as early as pre-school, and police roam the halls of elementary schools, they  already pick up the label of  “bad kid”. The school-to-prison pipeline is another example of a failure of community when white children are given more chances than children of color.


prison stories island prisons

source of image 2 HERE


Robben Island is another famous—or infamous place. While in South Africa as a volunteer, I visited Robben Island, a profound experience. The views from the boat were glorious as Table Mountain rose up behind Cape Town and the ocean sparkled in the sun. When the boat docked, we  were herded onto buses and driven around the island before being taken into the prison itself. We had to stay in a group and were not allowed to simply wander.

Robben Island is now a World Heritage Site after the imprisonment of political prisoners under Apartheid. Former prisoners serve as guides. Seeing Nelson Mandela’s tiny cell and the garden he tended gave me shivers. Guides told us stories about the rock quarry where he and many others worked. The hot, unrelenting sun damaged Mandela’s eyesight after so many years.

When the tour finished, the guides stood quietly for questions as we gathered in a courtyard. I asked  how they had managed to keep their spirits up while incarcerated. His answer surprised me. “You’re an American, right?” he asked, “I’m surprised at your question. We kept going because we knew all about your Civil Rights Movement, and it gave us courage. We also knew that even though your president was not behind us, the American people were divesting their money that supported Apartheid. Having Americans behind us meant so much.” My friend Moss taught high school in South Africa. I asked him if students knew about American efforts toward racial justice. “We talk about it all the time,” he said.

Many Americans do support freedom and justice, and I was heartened to hear those examples of solidarity. President Reagan could not prevent ordinary citizens from doing the right thing. Citizens have to do the right thing and demand it of their elected officials.. The right thing to do now is to close Rikers Island and drastically reduce the numbers of people caught up in the system. We need to begin the hard work of changing the culture of punishment in this country. It will take more than our political leaders to change the culture and make significant reforms. Our criminal justice system simply does not work. We can look to Norway. In the CNN report, it says that “the goal of prison is to change people.”

Many of my students said that their worst mistake was not the crime they committed, but dropping our of school. “If I hadn’t dropped out, I’d have a job and not be here,” they said. Students are not responsible for inferior schools. Our priorities need to be proactive, not reactive. Our focus needs to be on prevention instead of making a bad prison situation far worse. We need to focus on education and employment opportunities, not locking more people up.

We need to have as much faith in our goodness, our ability to do the right thing, as the South Africans expressed. We need to look at the institutional racism that creates the conditions for crime. The expense of locking up so many people affects us all. It damages our national identity and corrupts our core values. Mass incarceration has created havoc, loss and grief in communities across the nation. Not only are our prisons like islands that are difficult to reach and know, but the damaged communities are like faraway islands too. We need to start building bridges and mending the brokenness.

1. Baz Dreisinger, Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World, Other Press, New York., 2016. p. 25.

2. Ibid. p. 42

3.Ibid. p. 43.

4. Ibid. p.67

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