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“Prison Inflicts Mass Violence”: Bill Ayers Interviews Maya Schenwar

Maya Schenwar, Editor-in-Chief, (Photo: Jill Brazel)

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.

“The struggle to end the prison nation is not an isolated fight,” writes Maya Schenwar in her newly released Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better (Berrett-Koehler). In her hands – and in a more robust context – the battle to topple the vast gulag that cages huge numbers of our fellow human beings is a fight to rethink what a good society ought to look like, and what the good life might mean.

Schenwar illustrates how making a fundamental move away from isolation and toward connection has the potential to liberate our energies and to free our imaginations. It could well become, she argues, “a shift so deep that it will leave this country unrecognizable.” She’s drawn here an intimate and urgent portrait of waywardness and redemption, of justice arrested and deliverance detained. This is a brilliant and necessary book, and I found myself surprised, enlightened and moved on every page.

I asked the author about the roiling debate today about the meaning and impact of mass incarceration, and the question of what is to be done.

Bill Ayers: What do you hope to contribute to that dialogue with this book?

Maya Schenwar: One of the problems I’ve seen in the mainstream dialogue around this subject is that it often centers on statistics and budgetary arguments and corporations and ideologies – everything but people. At every turn, we hear that the US has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners. Or that private prisons (and the corporations and politicians pushing for them) are bad. Those things are true, and we should be talking about them! But I wanted to write a book about what prison does to people, not only those who are incarcerated but also their families and communities. When you start thinking about prison on that core human level, it becomes clear that prison isn’t just a money-waster or a punishment that’s used too often; it’s an inherently violent and destructive institution.

In the book, I focus in particular on the bonds between people and how incarceration severs those bonds. The book is grounded in conversations with people in prison, many of whom I’ve been corresponding with for years, and I also talk about the way that incarceration has affected my own family.

I also look at the way in which incarceration – through breaking down individual bonds between people and families – tears apart communities. This happens in black and brown communities in particular, because of course, at every step of the criminal legal process (arrest, conviction, sentencing, incarceration, parole), people of color and especially black people are the ones being most targeted. So this system is rupturing marginalized communities, constantly and systematically. Prison itself is inflicting mass violence. So are many of the other incarnations of prison that break people apart: policing, electronic monitoring, mandatory locked down drug treatment centers, the foster care system. And all these types of incarceration, which are really types of violence, are paving the way for other kinds of violence. Isolation and disconnection and trauma – those things don’t stop violence; they fuel violence.

In the book, I also center on people in another way: I look at a bunch of different types of action that people are taking to create a world beyond prison. This is the kind of activism that is happening on a community level, to not only shut down prisons and decrease prison budgets (which is really important work) but also to build new ways of living that don’t carry the assumption that prison is the way that our society should deal with problems. This means things like transformative justice, restorative justice, community-based accountability, nurturing communities and reprioritizing resources.

Some on the left call for “prison abolition” – a particularly urgent metaphor – others for “decarceration,” and still others call for an international investigation into the US justice system and massive human rights violations, and yet all these efforts seem to share some common edges. Where do you stand, and why?

I stand in all of those places – anything people are doing to shrink the extent of the prison nation, I think, is a positive thing. In particular, I think that prison abolition is a really important frame to use – even if it rattles some people when you first mention it – because it urges people to think outside of the currently acceptable mainstream liberal framework for talking about prison. That framework focuses on “mass incarceration”: this idea that too many people are incarcerated, primarily because of the war on drugs. It’s certainly important to talk about the war on drugs – and especially about that war’s groundings in racism and anti-blackness – and it’s also important to be aware of how astronomical the incarceration rate is in the US.

But when we simply call for a fight against “mass incarceration” or against the “drug war,” we do this thing where we divide people into “good prisoners” and “bad prisoners.” We talk about people who don’t deserve to experience the violence of incarceration and people who “do deserve it.” We allow ourselves to discard large numbers of people and deem them (or continue to deem them) less than human. That kind of thinking is not really landing us outside the framework of a prison nation. Plus, it creates the impression that if you end the drug war or mass incarceration or “fix” sentencing laws, you’ll get rid of the problems that are actually intrinsic to the institution.

For instance, prison is grounded in racism (as is policing). You can’t eradicate racism or anti-blackness from the US criminal legal system by changing sentencing laws or training police better; those things are built into the marrow of the system. You can’t eliminate classism or ableism or transphobia within the existing structure, either. So, in addition to working to mitigate harm and damage in the meantime, we need to always be thinking about how we can actually get outside this system.

Are there reasons people ought to read your book even if they are not directly involved in the justice system or not personally impacted by the prison system?

I think when it comes down to it, everyone is personally impacted by the prison system. I think the way that Beth Richie talks about it – as a prison nation – makes a lot of sense, in that our society is structured according to the logic of prison. Institutions like policing, surveillance, the child “welfare” system, the way public assistance is implemented, the policies we use to deal with mental health and drug addiction problems – these things affect us all. If you haven’t been arrested, you’ve probably been on the other end: You’ve probably called the police at some point. How did that affect you and how did it affect other people? And all of us have consumed media – probably a lot – that revolves around prison and the criminal legal system, both for news and entertainment. That plays a part in structuring our lives and how we think about the world, too.

All of us have a certain reaction when we hear about something having gone wrong in the world. For example, when we hear that bankers are destroying our economy, we (or lots of us) say, “Jail them!” When a murder happens (a murder that’s not part of a war, of course), lots of us say things like, “Let them rot behind bars!” It’s an automatic answer, because prison is always in our heads.

The way we deal with not only harm, but also fear (which everyone experiences) operates on these principles of separation and isolation, and in particular, isolating and separating people of color and poor people who are already marginalized. We all play a role, and prison, in one way or another, lives in all of us.

You dedicate the book to your sister, Kayla. Would you explain that dedication to readers?

I started reporting on prison about 10 years ago, when my sister first went to jail – youth jail, what people generally call “juvenile detention.” I remember being surprised to see that this “detention” was actually straight-up jail. The horror of this situation struck me so hard. (It’s sometimes easiest to see the inhumanity of this system of caging people when we see it inflicted on children.) My sister’s insights into what this institution was doing to kids – and how it was paving a path for them to get trapped in the system – were crucial to my initial motivation for writing on this topic.

My sister contributed to this book in a lot of ways: through sharing her thoughts and experiences, through vetting it after I wrote it. But beyond the book, she is constantly challenging me to re-conceptualize what justice means. When she first went to adult prison, even though I was thinking as an abolitionist “politically,” I somehow thought prison would be good for my sister! A wake-up call or whatever. Ugh. Well, that turned out to be very false, and she helped me understand why.

Then I think about how she helped me question my assumptions about violent versus nonviolent “offenders,” how I’d gotten into the mindset of there being this hard and fast distinction. My sister had friends in prison who were there for murder, and that wasn’t what she talked about when she mentioned them. She has taught me to understand at a core level – not just an outward-facing rhetorical level – that a person is not defined by the worst things they have done.

Locked Down, Locked Out is partly a vivid personal memoir and partly an investigative report from within the vast prison gulag, and yet the narrative is seamless and the writing straightforward and accessible. As a writer what – besides hard work, which I take as a given – assisted or allowed you to achieve that basic down-to-earth coherence?

One thing that I’ve noticed is that there’s a lot of writing on prison and related subjects that is hard to read unless you have a graduate degree. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself – it’s really important to have rigorous analysis happening! But I don’t have a graduate degree, and most people in prison don’t have graduate degrees, and I wanted this book to be able to be read by everyone who knows how to read. (And actually there’s going to be an audio edition as well, soon.) I bore that in mind throughout.

Another thing – and I hope this doesn’t sound floofy – was that I did my writing first thing in the morning, when my brain was still a little bit foggy and vulnerable, before all the world’s prohibitions and demands and pretensions and restrictions had fully taken hold of me. Then I stopped writing once all that stuff started creeping in and jerking me around. I can research in the afternoon, I can edit in the afternoon, but I can’t write. Sometimes I can write at night, when I’m kind of tired, especially if I’ve taken a sleeping pill and am a little bit loopy!

I think this is especially true because I come from a journalism background. The rules of traditional journalism are all based in objectivity. They tell you to deposit your humanity at the door before you enter the writing chamber. I’m bad at that, and also, it’s no fun. So – I try to have fun while I’m writing, to lose myself in it. That’s usually when the writing turns out to be good.

Writing a book is always a journey, and at the end of the road it can be difficult to reconstruct the twists and turns, the discoveries and surprises that you encountered along the way, but I wonder if you could share with us any things you learned that you did not anticipate.

Yeah – it was definitely a journey! At times, I definitely just wanted to go home and hide under my bed. (One thing I learned is that writing a book is hard.) But I also learned more than I could’ve possibly imagined. As a journalist writing a book – as opposed to someone who is primarily an activist or an academic or someone else who considers themselves an expert – writing is always about asking questions, even when you think you know the answers. What I found in writing Locked Down, Locked Out was that half the time, the answers were not things I’d anticipated at all.

One thing that’s so cool about the movements for decarceration and abolition is that there is not some overarching monolithic agenda – there are community-based projects trying new things, coming at the issue from all kinds of creative angles. When you ask Mariame Kaba, a Chicago activist who leads a million projects and has made a huge difference in the community, “What do we do instead of prison?” She says, “I don’t know – you tell me!” The idea isn’t that it’s hopeless, but the opposite: We have to create this world together, and we can all play a part.

Also – before I started writing this book, I’d had a lot of pen pals in prison, but we didn’t usually talk about our overarching thoughts on the system as a whole. When I started asking people for their larger analyses, I learned something from every letter. People were always connecting isolated issues (or, issues that get isolated in mainstream national debates) to systemic problems. For example, when I mentioned the sky-high cost of prison phone calls, lots of people talked about how these high costs don’t just affect individual loved ones of people in prison, but also have cumulative financial effects on poor communities of color. When I got into a conversation with a mother of three in Pennsylvania, who was having trouble getting visitations with her kids, it turned into a larger discussion of the sweeping effects of sex offender registries and how they harm people who don’t “threaten” society, and how they harm kids in particular. Every day was a surprise, writing this book.

And, of course a book must come to a stop in order to go to the printer, and a writer can experience a sense of joy and relief, but also perhaps a bit of a letdown – a form of postpartum depression. But life, of course, continues on – disorderly, forward-charging, absurd and unpredictable. What are some next steps for you – in life and in work?

First of all: Sleep. (Waking up early to write has its downsides.) Second of all: I always felt like, as a journalist and editor, writing and commissioning stories on this topic, that I couldn’t really straightforwardly get involved as an activist, even though I’d considered myself an activist in other realms. Writing this book made me realize that I don’t actually believe in this division between activists and documenters, and that I need to be part of the movement in a more immediate way, on an organizing level, as well. Maybe that makes me “not objective,” but really, in this instance and most instances, abandoning the fiction of objectivity is a good thing.

Another thing is that writing this book has really helped me grow and deepen my commitment to my work at Truthout. One of the main barriers to fundamentally transforming oppressive structures is the dominant media. The messages that are thrown at us are absorbed into our psyche as the “truth.” When it comes to the criminal legal system, Truthout is doing something different, and I’m trying to bring as much new insight and outside-the-box thinking as possible to that endeavor. I want to keep questioning, keep connecting with people doing creative work to change the world, keep telling new stories.

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