We Must Not Exchange One Cage for Another — Let’s Abolish All Forms of Prisons

As millions of people ponder a future without police and prisons, and as authorities try to dream up ways of derailing the momentum of popular insurrection, Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law’s new book, Prison By Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms, provides a guide to staying on the path to transformation. In the book, Schenwar (Truthout’s editor-in-chief) and Law (an investigative reporter who has been covering prison issues for Truthout and other outlets for years) balance two critical needs. First, they alert us to reformist policy tricks and rebranding that authorities will use to keep “reproducing oppression on a mass scale.” Second, they help us shape our imagining of a different society to “view abolition not like a monumental goal we have no hope of ever reaching, but something we practice every day.” In this interview, Schenwar and Law discuss how they came to write the book, why “reform” movements can often co-opt the push for abolition, and why working toward abolition is not simply a distant vision but something we must practice every day.

James Kilgore: How did you come to write this book and why do you think it is relevant at this moment?

Victoria Law: We started writing this book in 2015. We could never have predicted this moment of demands to defund the police, increasing calls for abolition and people wanting to know what a world without police (and prisons) might look like. But here we are — and our book examines the pitfalls of popularly proposed reforms that come up repeatedly as alternatives to mass incarceration. These alternatives fail to recognize that policing and imprisonment are built on bedrocks of white supremacy, colonialism and patriarchy. They also ignore the underlying causes of why people commit harm (or engage in acts that are criminalized). Instead, these alternatives pose seemingly more “humane” measures than locking people in physical buildings, called jails, prisons or immigrant detention centers. But they’re still forms of coercive control. One “wrong” step — like going to the store without permission — could mean incarceration. We challenge these reforms and highlight how people are creating new ways to address and prevent violence and harm. Like everyone, I have engaged in and been personally impacted by violence and harm. Punitive policies do nothing to prevent or address harm, nor help people heal from harm.

Maya Schenwar: Yes — Vikki and I were both wary of how sinister new forms of confinement and policing and surveillance were gaining traction in the name of reform.

Part of this wariness emerged from witnessing my sister go back and forth between jails, prisons and other forms of confinement for 15 years, mainly due to her addiction to heroin. When she wasn’t in jail or prison — when she was “free” — she wasn’t actually free. She was bound to an electronic monitor, under harsh probation restrictions, or confined in a mandated drug treatment facility she couldn’t leave. This took a toll on her. She would always say her main desire was to be entirely free from institutions, but it felt impossible. None of these “alternatives” did anything to help her move beyond addiction; study after study has shown us that in general, you cannot mandate people into lasting recovery.

Meanwhile, I’d been researching incarceration and editing stories about prisons for many years for Truthout. When I started writing about prisons in 2005, few people wanted to read about that issue. By 2015, there was so much energy fueling the prison reform train. And there was a massive and long-overdue national focus on police violence, anti-Blackness and racial injustice, in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement and related struggles.

Although there was momentum behind shrinking the system among grassroots activists and powerful organizing happening, politicians were putting energy into reforms that would not change the carceral system at all. We saw a need for a book that would address the limits of — and the harm caused by — many popular reforms that were being accepted as improvements.

What do you mean by your title: “Prison By Any Other Name?”

Schenwar: Our title shows how the common reforms we describe are often new forms of imprisonment. Electronic monitoring is a good example; it’s basically a form of house arrest, as you note in your work, James, terming it “e-carceration.” We also write a lot about the use of psychiatric hospitals and locked-down drug treatment centers as places to put people as “alternatives” to prison. These reforms are popular, including among many liberals, because they seem kinder and gentler but they still involve keeping people who’ve been criminalized out of the larger society. They don’t challenge the process of deeming people “criminal,” a label which is overwhelmingly applied to Black and Indigenous people and other people of color, trans people, disabled people, drug users and other marginalized groups.

These things are not the same as prison: Most people would rather be confined and surveilled in their home than behind bars. But the only options should not be a bad cage or a worse cage. We need to imagine a society with no cages at all.

Can you talk about one or two of the most memorable or surprising encounters you had with people you interviewed in researching this work?

Law: One of my early and most memorable interviews was with Elliott Fukui. Starting from the age of 12, Elliott had been placed in involuntary psychiatric confinement 20 times in seven years. He described how psychiatric confinement, which is often seen as something helpful or protective for those who are experiencing suicidal ideation or mental health crises, actually mimic the punitive structures of imprisonment — including solitary confinement, physical violence, lack of human contact, and failures to acknowledge the role of systemic racism and oppressions or underlying traumas leading to mental health issues.

By the time I interviewed Elliott, he was in his thirties, had built a strong support system and developed a safety plan among his friends and community to support him when he was verging on crisis. He’s now an organizer who gives trainings about disability justice — training which includes both examining the political history behind the ideas of “madness” and confinement and building a wellness and safety support system so that a person (and their loved ones) can avoid being entangled in a system that might end with involuntarily confinement, under medication or other controls. His experience challenges the idea that people who are most impacted must look to outside experts to determine what is best for them and instead can create their own paths to safety and wellness.

Schenwar: Patricia, a mother of five, wrote me about being confined to an electronic monitor. She’d been charged with “burglary” for entering the home of a friend, with whom she had an open-door policy, to retrieve her own medicine. When she got in touch, she had been on house arrest with a monitor for two years. She’d expected to be done in six months. Her sentence dragged on and on — largely because she could not pay the weekly fees of $115 to be on the monitor. She cut corners. Her family went a winter without heat, their car was repossessed, they stopped going to the doctor, but still fell behind. Meanwhile, the restrictions of house arrest meant she couldn’t even take her children to the park. Her case worker told her that her sentence would continue until she caught up on fees. Meanwhile, she was charged for every week that her sentence was extended.

Here she was, trapped in her home due to poverty. In our first conversation she had told me, “If I had just done time, I would’ve been done by now. My whole family is on house arrest and my kids can’t understand why.”

Stories like Patricia’s made us want to show how these “alternatives” that are assumed to be “better than prison” are still harsh, punitive, oppressive, harmful, and that if we support them, we’re supporting deep harm inflicted upon human beings, families and communities.

Many actors in these new forms of incarceration pose as guardians of social welfare and protectors of the poor. Can you talk a little about who these people are, how they function and why they pose a danger to an agenda of transformation?

Schenwar: So many people are being deputized as police. Teachers are enlisted to call in the police about a whole range of “discipline” problems, fueling the school-to-prison pipeline. Doctors, nurses, social workers, child care providers and many others are mandated reporters to Child Protective Services. In 18 states, everyone is a mandated reporter, meaning we’re all being called upon to police our neighbors’ parenting. Psychiatrists perpetuate institutions of coercive control in the name of “mental health.” Case workers serve as gatekeepers to social services and ultimately police their clients. Some policing practices involve recruiting community members to serve as the “eyes and ears” of the police, surveilling their neighbors and calling the police whenever they sense danger — a determination often grounded in racism, classism, transphobia and ableism.

People didn’t get into these professions to be police, but it’s what they’ve become. It’s not just people with badges and guns. What makes it so insidious is the way in which it’s supposed to be enforced by all of us. That’s why Vikki and I and other abolitionists are calling for an end to policing, not just the official police.

Obviously, you both think deeply about how racial oppression is intertwined both historically and in these processes of reform. Many people are familiar with the disproportionate incarceration of Black people, but have you found new dimensions to racial oppression in these reforms that you write about?

Law: Racism, colonialism and white supremacy show up in all the popularly proposed alternatives. For instance, we examine the child welfare system, which some have dubbed the “New Jane Crow” because of how it targets Black women and women of color. People often think this is designed to help parents and children. In reality, the system surveils, controls and punishes. Mariame Kaba calls it the “child kidnapping system.” A parent doesn’t have to be accused of abuse or violence to become entangled in the child welfare system; child welfare intervenes because a family is living in poverty and someone calls in a complaint — not having heat in their building or letting their children go to the nearby playground while they’re at work. Many of these types of complaints — and the system’s reaction — draw on cultural assumptions about Black women as mothers — vestiges from the times of slavery when slave owners justified breaking apart families and selling children by telling themselves that Black women did not love and care for their children. When we were writing this book, a series of events occurred where people called child welfare on Black mothers because their children were left asleep in a car. At the same time, white parents were writing about raising “free-range children,” where they allowed their 7-year-old children to roam the city, including taking the subway, without any parental or adult supervision. Public reaction to “free-range” parenting was mixed, but the child welfare system did not become involved. In the cases of Black mothers who could not afford daycare, children were taken away and placed in foster care.

Schenwar: By the time they’re 18, the majority of Black children have experienced a child “protective” services investigation. As the child “welfare” system increasingly targeted Black and Indigenous families in the 1960s and 1970s, it became more punitive. And punitive meant tearing children from their families.

Racial oppression is pervasive in the “helping” institutions we discuss in our book. Many people love the idea of mandating mental health treatment instead of prison, but these treatments are coercive and inherently oppressive if they’re mandated by a court. Black people are three to five times as likely as white people to be handed a schizophrenia diagnosis — one of the “serious” categories is most likely to result in court-mandated treatment. In the 1960s and ‘70s, some doctors called schizophrenia “protest psychosis” and insisted on strong sedatives to address it: trying to literally suppress people’s drive to participate in Black liberation movements. In the late 19th century, some Southern towns labeled Black residents “insane” by census-takers. Throughout history we’ve seen how these labels increase people’s vulnerability to measures like sterilization and institutionalization.

We can’t separate this country’s systems of “care” from its explicitly punitive institutions, pretending the former are free of racial oppression.

You obviously place a heavy emphasis on gender analysis. In what ways do you think the gender dynamics of “reform” are different than what happens when mass incarceration is done with steel and concrete cages?

Law: There are both similarities and differences. For instance, when a father goes to prison, he often has a female partner or family member to take care of his children. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to be primary or sole caregivers to their children. Incarceration removes a mother from that role, making it more likely that her children will land in foster care and be legally terminated from her custody. In 1997, Congress passed (and Clinton signed into law) the Adoption and Safe Families ACT (ASFA), which mandates that, if a child has been in foster care for 15 of the past 22 months, the state needs to begin proceedings to terminate parental rights.

Popular alternatives to incarceration, such as mandatory drug treatment or involuntary psychiatric confinement, might have the same effect. If a mother (or other caregiver) has no one to care for her children while she is confined Somewhere Else, she risks having her children placed in the foster care system. In response, in New York State, advocates, including formerly incarcerated women, fought for the ASFA Expanded Discretion Act to allow judges to pause ASFA’s timeline for parents in prison and those whose children are in foster care while they are in residential drug treatment.

Can you describe how you became abolitionists and why it is particularly useful today during the mass uprising?

Law: We live in a society [obsessed with] punishment and punitive policies. This hasn’t stopped violence and harm from happening. If it did, we should be living in one of the safest eras in human history.

We need to recognize that, everyone in this world (who is older than a baby or toddler) has both engaged in harm and been impacted by harm. Mass incarceration — and the popular alternatives to mass incarceration — do not address the underlying reasons behind why harm and violence happen. They don’t challenge or change structural conditions (such as racism, misogyny or poverty) or individual reasoning and behavior.

We’re in a momentous time when increasing numbers of people are recognizing police do not keep us safe and are often purveyors of violence. Locking up people (mostly Black, Brown and other marginalized people) has not kept us safe, either. We need to put more resources into structures that have proven to meet people’s basic needs and to keep us safe. These include affordable housing, access to medical and mental health care, food, living-waged employment (if not a universal basic income).

When we interviewed Ruth Wilson Gilmore, she encouraged us to think “about abolition not as an aspirational adventure but as already-accumulated encounters, awarenesses and activities.” She pointed out that organizing for workers’ rights is a step toward abolition; organizing for environmental justice is a step toward abolition; anything that gets us closer toward meeting people’s actual needs and transforming conditions that are likely to produce harm is a step toward abolition. This helps us view abolition not like a monumental goal we have no hope of ever reaching, but something we practice every day.

Schenwar: Getting to abolition was a journey. My first real, deep personal interactions with the system involved a friend who was incarcerated prior to his deportation, my sister’s incarceration in juvenile jail and friends who were incarcerated for acts of civil disobedience. In all of these cases, I could tell myself, “Ok, we could get rid of juvenile jail and stop incarcerating people for immigration and end the drug war and free political prisoners, but we’d still need prisons to address real problems.” Of course, incarceration doesn’t solve problems, it entrenches and deepens problems, but — this is the mindset that’s pervasive in our society, that we somehow need prisons.

Several things pushed me fully toward abolition. One was reading and re-reading Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Beth Richie’s work, as well as my mentor Kathy Kelly’s writings from prison. They encourage us to think beyond incarceration. My friend and pen pal, Lacino Hamilton, who remains in prison in Michigan after more than 20 years inside, has also been one of my primary mentors. Lacino has a deep analysis of how the system’s groundings in anti-Blackness and capitalism translate to how everyday life unfolds in prison — that you can’t just take those things away from prison; but must uproot those groundings. And witnessing the brutality of my sister’s repeated incarcerations, and how they never addressed any of her issues but made them worse, caused me to question the entire system more deeply.

It is very significant that calls to abolish police and prisons are now infusing mainstream public discourse. This call to uproot the entire system is being emphasized again and again. Even if some people do not immediately agree, the fact they are even hearing abolition is a thing, that policing is a manifestation of white supremacy and capitalism and should be vanquished — is significant. It plants a seed.

Police, prisons and the “alternative” prisons we describe in our book grew out of a foundation of oppression, and they continue to reproduce oppression on a mass scale. Once someone fully comprehends that, it’s hard to argue that these institutions have any place in the life-affirming and liberatory society we want to live in.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.