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“Locked Down, Locked Out”: What It Means to Be a Prison Abolitionist

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

Part of the Series

From Maya Schenwar, Truthout’s editor-in-chief, comes a hard-hitting and personal exploration of the enormous damage prison causes by severing millions of people from their families and communities – and the practical alternatives to incarceration that can create a safer, more just world. Get this new book before it is available elsewhere, only on Truthout! Click here to order.

“Prison is built on a logic of isolation and disconnection,” Maya Schenwar writes in her new book Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better. Deftly weaving her own personal experiences with her sister’s incarceration alongside the stories of prisoners who she has been writing to over the last eight years, Schenwar illustrates the devastating effects of prisons on those who are incarcerated, their families, and our communities. With her book, she not only offers a searing analysis of the prison industrial complex but also possibilities for creating alternatives to mass incarceration.

I asked the author about her own transformation as a journalist, activist and sister and what it means to be a prison abolitionist.

In the beginning of your book, you describe how you felt when your sister had been arrested for the seventh time in six years: “Sort of hoping she’ll stay there,” you wrote. You say that you questioned how you could reconcile your staunch opposition to the prison-industrial complex with your desire to see your own sister locked up, a desire that was born out of desperation. Can you talk more about this contradiction and how these tensions manifested in your activist work, your family, and your relationship with your sister?

One of the things I discovered when this all came up with my sister was that there’s a trap set for anyone who has an addiction and doesn’t necessarily want to get better right away.

There’s a system set up that you have to do illegal things in order to keep living your life as a person dependent on a drug in order to survive the way you know how and the way you don’t want to necessarily change. When you’re in that situation, you’re less likely to seek healthcare. You’re less likely to announce when you’re in danger. You’re less likely to try to have safe habits. You’re less likely to respect other people’s property. It funnels you into a lifestyle that makes prison the thing that puts you in a “better” situation.

The situation I describe in the introduction happened after I started writing the book, so I literally had my computer sitting there with the book on it when I got the call from my sister asking me to bail her out. I was like, “This chapter is supposed to have ended.” It felt like this pressing and excruciating contradiction, at the same time, indicative of what the system does to people and does to our minds.

Later in the book I quote Andrea Smith. She says something like prison abolition doesn’t mean getting rid of prison right now. It’s creating structures that we want to exist so that prison is not a solution that people are using. I think that’s really important. Drug addiction is just one of the many situations that would need to be addressed. In a case where people could openly talk about their drug problem and seek help in a legal, public, healthy manner, prison would never be a solution. It’s so violent and destructive and has done so much damage to my family and others.

Can you talk about the damage it’s done to your family?

My sister went to prison for the first time in 2005, which I don’t talk about in the book. But she was in juvenile detention. It was kind of a shock. At the time I was writing about activism on death row, and my understanding of prison was very informed by the things I had written about, like death row. And that was what I thought of when I thought of prison. So when my sister was sentenced to juvenile detention, I thought detention is very different from jail. But it’s a tale. When you go there, it hits you right when you walk in. I think there’s something we know in our bodies when you walk into a prison, a space that locks from the outside, a place where people can’t get out. I remember going in and getting that prison feeling and thinking, “Oh my God, she’s in this situation, and no one even told me.”

I quickly got informed after that. Even in a position like that where it was a short sentence and she was a kid, the effects on my family started manifesting when she got out. She got out and she had developed a whole different attitude about her life, and the attitude was one of feeling worthless, feeling like she had been marked as a bad kid, feeling like her destiny was to go to prison. She came out and developed worse addictions. Then it just started this cycle of getting arrested and being bound up in the system. She served two sentences in Cook County Jail and two sentences in the penitentiary since then.

The knowledge that violence is being steadily inflicted at every moment on a family member is deeply painful. There’s always this pain in the back of your head, then when the person gets out, immediately there’s a different kind of dependence and strain on the family. Chances are this person can’t go into the world on their own. In a lot of families, that’s a very direct and threatening financial strain.

If you’re in a position, like most families of prisoners are, where you have very little financial leeway, having someone in prison is a big strain, phone calls and commissary and all that, but having someone get out of prison is an even bigger financial strain. They may need to live with you. They may need psychiatric services. They may have patterns that cost you more money. I hate to say it’s a burden because it sounds like I’m whining, but it’s a whole set of responsibilities that comes with having someone come out of prison and needing to account for this person and try to get them back in the world.

One time when my sister was coming out of prison I had this whole plan: “This time, she’s going to get out and I’ll go over there”—she was staying at my parents house—and “I’ll make sure she doesn’t leave the house and go use heroin. We’ll have these deep heart to heart conversations. We’ll brainstorm jobs. And I’ll solve the re-entry situation.” But literally upon being released, she was going to score. She got out and that was where she went instead of coming home. It was this wake up call that even those of us who are good progressives and know that mass incarceration is bad still have this idea that if incarceration is used on the right people, it can have a corrective effect.

There’s this idea that prison can have some sort of healing affect. They go to prison, they’re away from their drug of choice, they can sit there and ponder their mistakes away from drugs, and they’ll come out reformed. I kind of bought into that – and it was really a jolt: “Oh you’re not sitting in prison planning how to reform your life in a meaningful way?” Instead, you might be spending that time feeling so bad about yourself. The environment in jail is counter to any type of real healing that could happen.

Some people do experience healing for sure. I like the wording of Richard Shelton who I cite in the book. He spent thirty years working with prisoners on writing poetry. He says there are definitely people who find their path while they’re in prison, but they’re the miracles. It doesn’t have to do with prison being a solution.

You write so honestly about your experience with your sister’s repeated incarceration. How has your personal experience changed your views of prisons and efforts to reform the criminal legal system?

Watching firsthand not only my sister but people who I developed close relationships with on a pen pal level, I started seeing the human manifestations of the books I was reading and the activism I was peripherally involved in.

If you talk to someone in prison, it’s so evident that they’re not just living somewhere closed off. And it’s not just that they’re experiencing physical violence and sexual violence, which happens at a high rate, it’s that being kept in a cage is a really violent and an innately destructive act.

It definitely transformed the way I dealt with the issue as an editor. I have this conversation with people constantly that I do not want you to submit an article to us [Truthout] called “Jail the Bankers” because I don’t think that’s the solution. You need to be creative to think of a system that is really going to help people and strive for economic and social justice. And that’s not jailing bankers. You’re stuck in that mindset.

A lot of the time when people submit stories around prison and policing, there’s a huge emphasis on innocence or drug related crime and trying to absolve people before you ask other people to sympathize with them. That can be a really insidious dynamic but it’s very embedded in liberal writing. The goal of a lot of writing on prison, especially journalism, is to find a sympathetic character and that person can’t be sympathetic if they’ve done something violent.

Previous to this, I had only written about this in the third person. But when I wrote an article about my sister giving birth while she was incarcerated, I got letters from readers saying it was dishonest of me not to say what my sister had done because they needed to know what she had done in order to sympathize with her. I was really taken aback by this. It was like, “If you don’t say what this person has done, I can’t decide if they’re human.”

Over the last eight years, you’ve had a couple dozen pen pals who are incarcerated. What compelled you to become a pen pal to people who are incarcerated?

When I first started writing seriously about prison in 2005, I had this story I was working on about activism on death row for Punk Planet, which is sadly now defunct. Working on this story, I wrote to a lot of people on death row. I didn’t think about this going in, because as a journalist you’re used to calling people on the phone and you might never talk to them again. But if you write to someone on death row, you’re writing to someone who might have very little other contact with the outside world and you’re writing to someone who’s vulnerable in terms of their connection with humanity. I was not thinking that through going in, but as soon as I started getting letters back, I realized, these people are now calling me their friend because I wrote them a letter. There were a couple people I stayed in touch with because they continued writing me letters, and I wrote back.

My first pen pal experience was something that I’ll never stop feeling terrible about because I gave up on it. It was a huge emotional weight. I hadn’t expected to be corresponding with someone who was going to die and didn’t seem to realize that. I think psychologically he couldn’t process it so he kept thinking he was getting out even though he didn’t really have a chance unless some miracle happened. This was Steven Michael Woods in Texas. It was like we were writing the same letter back and forth. Eventually I stopped writing. He ended up being executed. I had been corresponding with other prisoners, but that was a real wake up call.

I think that everyone should consider having a pen pal in prison. I think the more people who do that, the more people will realize the destructive power of this institution and how pervasive this is. You also need to be aware that you are committing to a person, and that if you take that on that’s a responsibility, and you need to treat it as such.

These pen pal relationships radically changed my idea of what journalism is. I started out this process thinking I’m a reporter, and I’m objective, and I can objectively write about an institution that is systematically destroying people’s lives and families, and I can give both sides, which is what they always tell you to do in journalism classes.

I can’t do that kind of journalism. I can’t write to my friend in prison, then turn around and call five parties that are going to contradict what my friend is saying so that I can achieve some kind of “balance.” My perspective on journalism changed and ultimately, it’s why I decided to openly tell people I don’t believe in objectivity and that Truthout is not about objectivity as a news source.

If you’re dealing with people on a human level, you can’t write in a balanced way. If you’re actually going to tell the truth you can’t make it balanced. There’s no such thing.

You wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times that calls for reducing gun penalties. You make the case that mandatory minimums for gun sentencing are problematic in similar ways as mandatory minimums in drug sentencing. Can you explain the consequences of these mandatory minimums?

A couple of people that I was corresponding with were incarcerated on gun charges. Possession of a firearm can get you 15 years in prison. It can get you more than 15 years. It depends on your previous charges. But if you have a gun, you’re dangerous and you deserve whatever you get. The effect mandatory minimums end up having is not preventing people from buying guns, but locking up lots of people who are from marginalized communities. Poor people, black people, other people of color.

There’s no prevention. I think this is talked about a lot with drug mandatory minimums, that people won’t use drugs if there’s a mandatory minimum in place because so much prison time will intimidate them. But most people don’t even know this law exists. No one’s not going to buy a gun because of this imaginary prison time they don’t know is down the line.

No matter your circumstances, no matter what threat you may or may not be posing, this whole philosophy is based on a really flawed idea about prevention. The effect it ends up having is solely locking more people up and the destructive effects that come from incarceration.

The first pen pal I had, Harvey Fair, I got in touch with right after he got out. He served 17 years for gun possession. He’s a black guy in Florida, from a real poor family, where several other members of the family had been incarcerated, not a person with a lot of resources to challenge a conviction like that. When he got out, he asked me to look at his records. I was pulling up his record from my databases, and what were there were seatbelt violations from 20 years ago! This guy was getting pulled over and arrested for everything.

Who’s going to get that 15-year gun penalty? It’s not the middle class white gun owner who has some obsessive collection and who might end up shooting himself in the foot. It’s not that white gun fanatic. No, it’s people who are black and brown, people who are getting arrested anyway. And if they have guns that they’re legally not supposed to have that becomes another massive charge in furthering their incarceration.

What does it mean for you to be a prison abolitionist?

I don’t think that prisons can be fixed and I don’t think the system surrounding prisons can be fixed. It also means putting prisons in the context of why they exist. It means recognizing that they’re grounded in racism and anti-blackness. It means understanding that they’re perpetuated by social, racial, economic injustice, not by a process of correction.

I know there’s a lot of controversy around imagining alternatives. But I think that’s part of being an abolitionist: having discussions about what do you do in particular situations if prisons didn’t exist. It drives me crazy when people ask, “[Without prisons] what would we do with people who commit violent acts?” At the same time I think it’s important to think about. Not because people who commit violent acts are so different from people who don’t, but because you need to have a framework for dealing with things that happen in ways that don’t involve confinement and further violence.

Mariame Kaba says when someone asks her what do we do instead of prisons she says, I don’t know, you tell me. This needs to be an ongoing conversation. No one can come up with a perfect solution for something we can’t even fully imagine given the system we live inside of.

Also, I think it means trying really hard not to wish people would go to jail. I see someone I love in an abusive situation, or I see something going on with financial corruption that’s really destructive for a lot of people’s lives, or even in a situation where people are murdered, and I have to challenge myself, if I’m an abolitionist, to think about what does this mean outside of an abstraction. How can I imagine dealing with this abuse that wouldn’t involve calling the police?

It’s so complicated and it’s so messy, and sometimes there are situations where you might need to call the police. I made a commitment not to do that [call the police], but also since I made that commitment a few years ago, I’ve broken it and I haven’t been in a situation where I’ve feared for my life.

So I think being an abolitionist is about making mistakes and trying to understand them and moving forward that way. It’s always going to be about contradictions until we’re living in a better place.

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