Criminologist Keramet Reiter studies prisons, prisoners’ rights, and the impact of prison and punishment policy on individuals, communities, and legal systems at UC Irvine. She also has done a great deal of work on solitary confinement. Before participating in a panel on why so many Americans are in prison, she talked about where she goes to be alone, the biggest difference between the students she teaches in prisons and the students she teaches in college, and why swimming is second nature in the Zócalo green room.
Where do you go to be alone?
I spend a lot of time working alone, so I spend a lot of time in an office alone because I write. I like taking walks and reading. I do think a lot about isolation, and claustrophobia, and I appreciate having big spaces to work in where I can get up and move around and take walks and make my own food.
When and where did you learn to swim?
I don’t even remember because I grew up in Florida, and my mom was a competitive swimmer. I learned before I could remember it, I find. I find swimming really wonderful because it’s this quiet alone time: No one can talk to you when your head is underwater. I find it sort of second nature—it’s definitely something I do to relax.
French fries or onion rings?
French fries with cheese, like a good Southerner.
What question do you wish your students asked more often?
I try to make connections for them, but I wish they thought more about the relevance of something we’re studying, like this particular punishment or criminal law, and how it relates more directly to their lives. I wish they would ask, “Why are we studying this, how does this relate?”
What’s your Achilles heel?
I hate confrontation—begging the question why I went to law school. I really like making people comfortable, which works in my favor and against me sometimes, I think.
What country would you annex to be the 51st U.S. state?
Maybe Denmark, so we could import some of their progressive prison and punishment policies. Or any of the Scandinavian countries.
What’s the most surprising difference between teaching a class in a prison and a university?
The level of engagement of the students. Not that my college students aren’t wonderful, but the attention and devotion of students in prison is unprecedented to me. Most of them didn’t have great educations at any time in their lives, and they have an appreciation for being there that makes the classroom environment incredibly rewarding.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Drinking lots of espresso. And also bourbon. [Laughs.] Good food.
Who’s the one person, living or dead, you’d most like to have a beer with?
There are so many good options! [Laughs.] Maybe George Jackson. I’ve been writing a lot about him lately—he was a prisoner in California in the 1970s and died in San Quentin. Ask me next week, I’ll have a different answer.
What are you keeping in your closet that you should have thrown out already?
Brightly colored shoes.