Why Prison Doesn’t Work

By Miriam Zoila Pu00e9rez Dec 02, 2014

Maya Schenwar, a longtime journalist and editor-in-chief of the progressive website Truthout, recently released her first book, "Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better." It’s a quick-but-devastating read that reinforces what many of us already know: The criminal justice system is incredibly fraught and racially biased. Schenwar weaves her own research and reporting–collected over years of writing about prisons and policing–with a personal narrative about her sister’s repeat incarceration. The book also features the voices of other incarcerated people with whom Schenwar has corresponded over the years. I spoke with Schenwar via telephone to dive a bit deeper into some of the themes presented in the book.

How did you begin writing "Locked Down, Locked Out"?

Over the past 10 years I’d been covering policing and incarceration, both as a writer and an editor [who was] commissioning stories. At the same time the issue had been coming home to me through my own sister [who was] cycling through the system. [Then] in May 2012 when the NATO protests happened in Chicago there were these arrests of activists. They arrested these guys on trumped up terrorism charges and Truthout’s readership got very riled up about this. I wrote a column [in response], "35,948 Arrested Yesterday." My point was: We need to take a step back, and while it’s important to talk about these white political prisoners, it’s more important to talk about the fact that tens of thousands black and brown people get arrested every single day and it’s normal. The column went over well and I thought this might be the seed of an idea, to write about the ways we disconnect with the prison population.

Talk about how the prison industrial complex in the U.S. is gendered. How do the experiences of men and women differ with incarceration?

Even though women are the fastest increasing group in prison, most people in prison are men; more than 90 percent [of incarcerated people] are men. But when men are incarcerated it always impacts women. Beth Ritchie writes about this really well. The impact of men’s incarceration on women happens through families. It imposes these huge, huge burdens on women because when men go to prison, women are responsible for maintaining financially but also being responsible for supporting the man–paying for phone calls, commissary, transporting kids to visits.

Why are women the fastest growing prison population?

Because they are there for drug crimes and often they are there as accomplices. They are convicted of being present. Danielle, [who I write about in the book], has a life sentence for cocaine conspiracy and her partner is already out of prison, [even though] she’s been there for decades. A lot of trends have fueled [women’s incarceration]. Occasionally these types of feminism emerge that intersect with the criminal legal system in shitty ways. Carceral feminism a lot of times is advocating for the idea that the way to deal with domestic violence and violence against women is to arrest men. Marissa Alexander’s case is such an intersection of all of these issues tied together.

Can you say more about the distinction you draw in your book between so-called crimes and acts that cause harm? Why is this an important distinction?

I think that the word "crime" is tricky because it’s based on law. A crime is something that is against the law and it’s also just something that’s in the hands of the police and the criminal legal system to define. That’s not shaped by [the question of whether] this act hurt someone. Law is shaped by all sorts of factors–including racism, ableism, transphobia and anti-blackness. Certain actions are criminalized based on who is doing them. How do we unravel what prison is used for now? It’s being used as a mechanism of social control, and it’s also being used as a really dysfunctional tool for trying to address harm and violence against some people.

So much of your book focuses on alternatives to incarceration. Do you think that they, collectively, could represent a true alternative to the prison industrial complex?

A lot of the alternatives to the prison industrial complex [are] going to be about creativity and all of us thinking about how we keep ourselves safe and healthy and keep our communities strong. It’s very much got to be a collective thing if we’re not relying on violent systems of state power for safety. One of the things that I was really grappling with is [that] it’s hard to come up with a happy, clean definition of transformative justice because it means a different thing for every situation. How do [we] address problems where they are happening, in the actual community, with the actual people involved? So I tried to show that this is being done. I also think that it’s really important to not think that those examples are what needs to be reproduced everywhere.

Talk more about how what it would take for transformative justice. 

Mariame Kaba, a Chicago prison activist, always talks about how abolition and transformative justice have to be collective, that they have to be things we’re all going to invest in. A lot of it really does come from the fact that you’re reversing where accountability comes from. Accountability comes from community as opposed to being imposed upon communities. The word "safety," what it so often means is "protecting white people," or "protecting white people’s property."

Women who give birth while incarcerated, like your sister whose story you tell in the book, have gotten a lot more attention in recent years, particularly through campaigns to end shackling during labor and programs that offer doula support for prisoners. What do you think about these efforts and increased media attention?

I think they are really important. Women who are going through pregnancy and birth in prison are some of the most vulnerable. Even though I knew the facts, I was still shocked at every turn with my sister. I was shocked that she had to labor alone for 36 hours with a guard. They way it’s affected her would be so different if she’d had a doula there.

When my sister was pregnant in prison, I got a lot of people saying to me, "Why should she be in prison? What good is it doing anyone for her to be in prison?" She was this sympathetic character. Because she was pregnant, and because she is white, it had these characteristics of a perfect little story. Every time I get a letter [from someone in prison] I am reminded [to ask] "What good is it doing anyone for this person to be in prison?" It isn’t to say that shackling pregnant women shouldn’t be publicized, but we need to look at how we frame it because it can always turn into [a] good prisoner, bad prisoner [dichotomy].

I’ll admit that just a few pages into your book, I flipped to the end and read the last few paragraphs. It was like I needed to know there was some sort of happy ending to get through the hard realities that you focus on. What’s the "happy ending" or hope that keeps you moving forward and working on these issues?

The thing that kept me going in writing this book was the fact that as I was writing it, things were changing and things were getting better. I noticed people were having victories. Prisons in Illinois were closing. People in prisons were winning victories like [with] the hunger strike among California prisoners in solitary confinement. There were all these moments of triumph. It was really great when you could see how people inside were driving some of these movements. It’s not an ending, but it’s happy in many ways.