My guest today is May Schenwar, Editor-in-Chief of Truthout and author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn't Work and How We Can Do Better, which was released by Berrett-Koehler Publishers in November. Welcome to OpEdNews, Maya. Why did you write this book?
I'd been involved in prison-related journalism (writing, commissioning, editing) for about a decade. But with the book, I wanted to do something larger than documenting particular flaws in the system, or ways in which it was "failing," or specific injustices. I wanted to create a broad portrait of a system that does exactly the opposite of what many people think it does, and I wanted to do that by focusing not on money or theory or statistics--though all of those things are important--but on people. I wanted to weave together the stories of many different folks and their families, showing the ways that prison breaks apart bonds and destroys lives and communities, particularly black and brown communities. And I wanted to simultaneously demonstrate that there is another way, or many other ways--that prison is not a "necessary evil," and that there are ways of being and doing that bring us closer together rather than further apart. You can't do all that in an article-length piece, and so--book!
When you say, "incarceration isn't violence prevention, it's violence itself," that's a statement that a lot of people don't immediately accept. Confronting this topic head on meant I needed time and space to have long and sometimes uncomfortable (and ultimately, joyous) conversations with the reader, examining our assumptions and missteps and tragedies and thinking about what collective safety might look like.
The first half of your book deals with the on and off incarceration of your sister. That's pretty up close and personal. Was it a hard decision to break the boundary between the Maya journalist and Maya the sister and best friend of someone in and out of prison? Did your family and particularly your sister support this approach?
Yes, my family was fully supportive. If they weren't I couldn't have written the book. The first people who read my first draft were my parents and my sister. (I worked on that draft for a year and didn't really breathe out until my sister told me she liked it!)
And yeah, it was a hard decision to break the boundary between "journalist Maya" and "person Maya," but really, I think that more journalists should be acknowledging that they're people--so once I did it, I found I was able to write a whole lot more easily and naturally. The personal connection to the topic was why I'd gotten so invested in it, and bringing my family's experience to the table allowed me to do something unique with the book. Too often, you have people writing about prison or the criminal legal system pretending to be these "neutral," "ethnographic" observers, and I think that can be really dangerous.
However, the personal element did mean the writing process was even more emotionally hectic than it might have been otherwise. It was a raw, vulnerable process. Many times throughout the writing of the book, I wished I'd never proposed it. But now I am enormously glad that I made an effort to break down that often-illusory divide between "systemic" and "personal"; it seems to be one of the things people appreciate most about the book.
Yes. Many families of the incarcerated, particularly ones where addiction and/or violence is a factor, are deeply ambivalent about their loved one being locked up. Can you discuss that, please?
Well, I think most family members do not want their loved ones locked up! But there are a few situations where it does become more complicated, and addiction and domestic violence can sometimes fall into that category. There are serious social problems for which prison is presented as the default solution, and so that may be where our minds go when we think about what "safety" would mean for our families in a particular situation. In the case of violence--when one family member is perpetrating violence against another family member--the official outlet that is provided is "call the cops," so that's what a lot of people do. Then, incarceration is often presented as the only way that perpetrator can be separated from the person they're harming" So, sometimes people feel that incarceration is the only way they're going to get that person out of their lives.
With addiction, families also sometimes feel boxed into a corner. When a loved one appears to be suffering, and on the verge of death, yet persisting in an addiction, incarceration is what's given to us as the only way they can be truly separated from their drug of choice. In a society where so many addictive drugs are illegal, people put themselves in lots of unhealthy and sometimes life-threatening situations to avoid being "discovered," as opposed to being able to be open about their dependencies and attempt to live a healthy-as-possible life, even if they don't seek treatment. So--in that secret-keeping, punitive society--we'd sometimes rather see our loved ones behind bars (in a prison or a locked-down treatment facility or some other supposed alternative to prison) than see them living in so much visible danger. Those are the options that are presented to us.
Of course, prison isn't a lasting solution; it promotes violence and harm itself--in fact it is violence and harm. But we are living under the logic and the rules of a prison nation, so this is how our thought processes often operate.
Keeping close ties with the outside world is probably the single most important factor in preventing recidivism. Yet the BoP officially and unofficially seems hell-bent on making keeping those ties as difficult as possible. Why would that be?
I'm not sure the BoP and Departments of Corrections are specifically trying to make it is as difficult as possible, but the system itself fundamentally is averse to maintaining ties. Incarceration operates on the principles of isolation and confinement, so the strategies for "maintaining ties" are pretty meager, in comparison with actually living life with your loved ones on the outside.
Ties are expected to be maintained via often-exorbitantly-priced phone calls, long-distance visits that are often impossible for poor families, and postal mail. "Conjugal" visits (now usually called "extended family visits") aren't permitted in most states. Of course, all of these things are more complicated than keeping in touch with a long-distance relative. You can't call prison from the outside; you have to wait for your loved one to call you, and you never know when that can happen--if you miss the call, too bad. A long-distance visit means traveling hours (sometimes days, if you're driving to an out-of-state prison, which is common for federal prison placement) to spend a couple of hours seated at a table with your loved one" who can't usually get up. Sometimes, it means a visit behind a glass wall, shouting through a hole in the wall. Sometimes you can't even give the person a hug. This is no way to nurture a human relationship.