Doing Time: Culture Stress behind Bars

421070422_b297bf634a_nI don’t have cable or satellite TV, so I’d never seen National Geographic’s Locked Up Abroad until I stumbled across it on YouTube. It’s a series that combines interviews of people who have spent time in foreign prisons with dramatic re-enactments of their stories. I wouldn’t call it must-see TV, but the one episode I’ve watched so far grabbed my interest. Entitled “Tokyo” (see the trailer), it’s about Jackie Nichols, an American who traveled to Japan, met a drug smuggler from Israel, helped him transport hashish from Nepal to Tokyo, and, after several successful trips . . . got caught. In the end, Nichols says that her 18-month stay (shortened from a five-year sentence) in a Japanese prison turned her life around for the better. The conformity and rules of prison gave her the stability that she’d been missing in her life, and she ended up reconciling with her mother.

If you’ve ever been nervous in the ticket line because you were checking a bag that might be a couple pounds overweight, Nichol’s airport stories—as she carries hashish in her clothing and in her stomach—will put your fears in perspective. And you’ll see that culture shock takes on a whole new meaning when the “culture” is dictated by prison guards.

The International Centre for Prison Studies reports that of the world’s more than 10.1 million prisoners, nearly 12% are locked up in foreign prisons:

  • The country with the highest proportion of foreign inmates is the United Arab Emirates, at 92.2%—out of 11,000 prisoners. Next comes Monaco, at 91.7%, but it has only 12 prisoners in all.
  • The other countries with foreign-prisoner populations over 50% are (in order) Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Lichtenstein, Switzerland, Andorra, Luxembourg, Gambia, American Samoa (USA), French Guiana, Macau (China), Cyprus, Greece, and Israel.
  • The US has the highest number of prisoners in the world, at 2.2 million. Of that number, 5.9% are non-citizens.

Not that you would ever want to be jailed in any country, but four years ago Foreign Policy named five places you definitely want to avoid—the worst of the worst, the “most notorious prisons” in the world:

  • La Sant, in France
  • Black Beach, in Equatorial Guinea
  • Russia’s Vladimir Central Prison
  • Camp 1391, in Israel, and
  • The North Korean Gulag

(“World Prison Brief,” International Centre for Prison Studies; Greg Shtraks, “The List: The World’s Most Notorious Prisons,” Foreign Policy, January 21, 2009)

[photo: “TT,” by TTTT, used under a Creative Commons license][photo: “Prison Cells,” by Ambuj Saxena, used under a Creative Commons license]


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