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Why Prisons Don’t Work and How We Can Do Better: A Conversation With Maya Schenwar

How do we address the harm violent offenders cause without relying on locking them in cages?

(Photo: Aapo Haapanen)

If prisons don’t work, how do we do better? With 2.3 million people behind bars in the United States, it’s a question that everyone should be asking.

As prisons continue to devastate communities — particularly low-income communities of color — and drain government budgets, there’s been a shift from the ferocious “tough on crime” mentality of the 1980s to questioning whether so many people need to be locked up. The continued popularity of Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” daily news stories about prison atrocities, and the rise in prison justice organizing both inside prisons and in outside communities demonstrate that more and more people — including those who formerly advocated for draconian prison sentences — are questioning the need for mass incarceration.

Conversations about ending mass incarceration often center on people imprisoned for non-violent drug offenses. But what about everyone else? How do we address the harm they’ve caused without relying on locking them in cages?

Maya Schenwar, editor-in-chief of the daily news site Truthout, starts to answer this question in her new book “Locked Down, Locked Out: How Prisons Don’t Work and How We Can Do Better.” It is part personal narrative, following her sister’s incarceration and its effects on her family. But Schenwar takes her investigation further, talking with other people locked in prisons, family members, social workers, counselors, prison justice organizers and abolitionists across the country to paint a clearer picture of the devastation that mass incarceration has had and the ways in which everyday people are fighting back.

Unlike other books about the devastation caused by prisons, Schenwar doesn’t simply describe the problems and then propose policy recommendations to decrease the number of people sent to jails and prisons. Instead, she devotes half of her book to examining existing programs that attempt to address violence and other forms of harm without relying on prisons or prison-like alternatives, weaving these alternatives in as she describes the harm and violence that prisons cause.

In between facilitating an abolition 101 workshop for book industry people and various book launch events, Maya Schenwar sat down to answer a few questions.

What originally pushed you to write this book? Did that motivation change over time?

My initial motivation for writing a bookwas pretty straightforward: Because something I was addressing as a journalist had also been coming home to me over the past nine years. The story I wanted to tell was about both individuals and systems, and it was both personal and much, much, much, much larger than my family. I couldn’t do that in one article. Something in my gut said I had to make it a book. Though my gut often says silly things, I decided to take it up on this particular project.

That core motivation is still around, but it broadened once I started writing: Throughout my interviews with people in prison, their families and friends, activists and organizers, everyone had a crucial story to tell that wasn’t getting enough ears. My motivation became amplifying their stories. The issue isn’t that people aren’t “given a voice”; many, many people in prison are actually speaking out very loudly. There just aren’t enough media — and certainly not enough books — interested in highlighting what they’re saying.

You also look critically at the ways in which the social control and surveillance built into prisons creep into so-called alternatives.

The thing is, many of these “alternatives” sound awesome on the surface. There’s something of a consensus in this country at this point that there are too many people in prison, and so the idea is, let’s give some of them help instead of punishment. But a lot of this “help” actually looks like prison: It’s still founded on the premises of isolation and separation. These so-called solutions still involve confining and manipulating and surveiling and controlling people, primarily people of color. They’re still grounded in racism, anti-blackness, ableism, transphobia, classism, heterosexism. And they’re still doing this thing where they’re determining what’s good or necessary for people and their bodies, even when that means cutting them off from their communities, families and the lives they want to live.

I think the mother-baby programs set up inside of prisons are a great example of this, because they are reforms that keep mothers in prison after they’ve given birth. They get to be with their babies, which avoids one of the terrible tragedies incarceration often inflicts, but no matter how much parenting support they get or how many toys their babies are given, they are still locked up. They can’t leave! Authorities and the state are still determining what happens to their bodies and their small children’s bodies. They are still disconnected from everyone else in their life on the outside. Their identity is still seen as a number more than it is a name. That’s still prison.

The realignment in California — moving people out of state prison to county supervision — has definitely also seen some of that. Sometimes people end up in county jails that are in many ways worse than prison. But also, they’re laying plans for so-called women’s facilities and mental health jails. Anytime you have the words “health” and “jail” next to each other, you’ve got to know something is fishy.

Locking people up in drug rehab, if they’re not making a choice to be there, is a similar mess. It reproduces the logic of prison: controlling bodies — usually black and brown bodies — in order to “address” social problems or supposed social problems. Many liberals are talking about how we should just put everyone arrested for drug offenses in treatment. The vast majority of those people don’t even have an addiction. Meanwhile, many people who dohave an addiction can’t get treatment if they wantit. Are they supposed to commit a crime to get themselves locked up in treatment?

Also, telling someone to “get better” and locking them up in the process doesn’t work; you can’t force that. But attempting to force changes, often violently, is just the nature of the prison nation.

Your book doesn’t just look at how and why prisons don’t work, but also asks how we can do better and examines programs that address harm without relying on police and prisons. To me, that was the most exciting part. Can you give an example?

I’m always hesitant to give an example of just one, because then people think, “Oh, that’s what we have to do instead of prison,” you know? I did a talk a while ago and focused on a restorative justice example that I loved and thought was really important, but afterwards everyone in the room was going around saying, “Cool, what we have to do instead of prison is restorative justice!” And I was like, “No, there are so many situations in which restorative justice isn’t the best thing to do and might even be bad.”

What I tried to do in my book was include a bunch of different examples of things people are trying in order to address harm without prison, and to promote healing. For instance, I look at a hair salon in Chicago where the barbers use restorative justice practices to work through instances of violence and potential violence with their clients. The idea is that barbers are already acting as confidantes, and barbershops and salons are already places conducive to deep conversation and a sense of safety, so they’re natural spots for this kind of interaction (as opposed to, for example, a police department). I look at a project called Safe OUTside the System in Brooklyn, which focuses on violence against queer and gender-nonconforming people of color. The project — which is part of the Audre Lorde Project — is working to create what they call “safe spaces” in different community establishments, and these places offer sanctuary to people fleeing violence, and also work to cultivate an atmosphere of safety and healing.

I also explore how schools are incorporating relationship-based justice practices as something they’re doing instead of automatically calling the police, or suspending kids and putting them at greater risk of getting arrested. Instead of activating the school-to-prison pipeline — suspending, expelling, arresting and incarcerating black and brown youth — they are addressing problems through talking deeply about the specific situations that are occurring, the specific circumstances of the people involved.

I look at a program in rural Montana that organizes peace circles — if all parties consent, that’s crucial — with victims and youth who’ve caused harm in the community. The circle process, which is carried out intensively over time, often results in close, meaningful relationships between youth and the people they stole from. In some cases, those people have become mentors to the youth.

I also highlight the Storytelling and Organizing Project in Oakland, Calif., which collects stories of people who have dealt with difficult and often violent situations in ways that didn’t involve police or incarceration.

In doing prison justice work, advocating for better conditions runs the risk of being co-opted into more money and more resources for prisons (such as building separate units for pregnant or aging people). At the same time, with over 2.3 million people behind bars, we can’t ignore their egregious and sometimes life-threatening conditions. What are some ways that advocates and groups have combined pushing for immediate change in prison while also working towards abolition?

Yeah, that’s such an important point. Calls for abolition and “chipping away” at the prison-industrial complex should never abandon the people behind bars, who are living their real lives there right now. One crucial tactic is taking cues from the actual people who are locked up, instead of saying, “This is what we need to make prison humane!” from the outside.

For example, the prison abolitionist group Black and Pink, which advocates for and supports LGBTQ people behind bars, maintains close pen-pal relationships with prisoners, and sometimes takes further action, beyond writing letters, which is crucial in and of itself. That action is based on what people are asking for. For instance, at one point, they were able to support a trans prisoner who was being denied her hormones — they did a big letter-writing campaigns and eventually she was granted access to hormones. And I think about how in Illinois, we were advocating for new mothers in prison to be able to breastfeed their babies during visits, and to use breast pumps, so they might be able to breastfeed when they got out. We weren’t calling for a snazzy new “breastfeeding wing” of the prison — we were asking them to allow donated pumps and grant these mothers a basic human right.

In California, when the hunger strikes have happened at Pelican Bay and across the state — as you’ve written about so powerfully — activist groups on the outside like Californians United for a Responsible Budget, California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement and Critical Resistance took their cues from people inside on what they needed to make their lives more livable. Whether that was better food, more contact with the outside world, more time outside, more interaction.

Anti-prison organizer Mariame Kaba writes that a test of whether we should support a reform or not is to assess whether it is “reinforcing the prison or if it is helping to ultimately dismantle it.” That’s the best test I’ve heard of. So if you’re building a new prison or setting up a new prison-like structure that goes by a different name, that’s probably a bad sign.

How can people incorporate some of these practices in their everyday lives?

There’s a wonderful political art project and blog called Everyday Abolition, and its creators, Chanelle Gallant and Lisa Marie Alatorre, say we need to “pull the cops out of our hearts and minds.” On one level, that means straightforwardly thinking about alternatives to calling the police. That’s not to say you shouldn’t call the police if you feel you’re in immediate danger and feel you have no other option. But part of abolition seems to be generally thinking creatively about how to address problems without calling in forces of the state. Because those forces so often exacerbate harm or cause harm, especially when directed at people of color.

Also, get involved in acting against the prison nation, in whatever way feels right to you, whether that’s organizing to close down a prison near you, working on a freedom campaign, spreading awareness about the size of prison budgets, getting involved in youth programs, acting in solidarity with people in solitary confinement, or supporting and advocating for victims of police violence.

Another thing: Reach out and correspond with a pen pal in prison. Just this simple act of connection-building is a little step toward breaking down walls.

And documenting — writing, photographing, making videos, making art — is also really important. My main form of acting against this system has been publishing and writing work that exposes the pain caused by prison and highlighting the work being done against it. There is wonderful work going on in this documentation department — but there is always a need for more.

Finally, advocating for health care, education, housing and other resources for all communities, especially the most marginalized, is a crucial part of abolition. Real safety and real justice are only possible if everyone has what they need to live and thrive.

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