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MARIAME KABA: Welcome, everyone, and thank you so much for joining us tonight from around the world. I’m Mariame Kaba. You’ll notice that I’m Mariame Kaba because I’m not actually appearing on-screen. I’m the founder and director of Project NIA, and I’m moderating today’s conversation, titled, “Abolish Policing, Not Just the Police.”
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So let’s get on with it. I’m really thrilled, this evening, to be in conversation with my friends Maya and Vikki, who have written an incredibly timely and valuable book titled, Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms.
I had a chance to read a draft of this book, and then was honored to be asked for a short blurb. And I was, of course, late in getting to the actual blurb, but I’m just going to read what I offered.
“Beware of New Coke: the same product offered with new packaging. Prison by Any Other Name sounds an alarm about the extension of the prison through, quote, ‘alternatives to incarceration projects.’ It demonstrates that these, quote, ‘alternatives’ continue the work of imprisonment in different ways. The book is an important addition to the new canon of work focused on mass criminalization in the U.S. It points us towards a way out of criminalization. Read this book.”
So that’s my huge endorsement of the book. I’m so thrilled that it’s — that it’s available soon. You can, I think, still pre-order it. I’m not sure what the date of release actually is, and so they’ll let you know more about that.
As more people now are focused on the question of the police, this book really helps us to understand (ph) need to address that what we need to address is actually the broader question of policing, not just the police.
Policing and law enforcement extend to family regulation through the child welfare system, the, quote, ‘soft policing’ of probation, parole — really, a hidden law enforcement army that surveils millions of people that we really barely actually pay attention to. Prison also is itself a police state. Police violence doesn’t just occur on the streets, it also happens behind bars. And there is a push now for electronic monitoring and broader surveillance, and there’ll be more of a conversation about the New Jim Code in the next — one of the next webinars that are going to be offered.
And so this book really does help us think through these questions of family regulation, of (inaudible) electronic monitoring and you know, sex worker rescue programs and a whole series of things that we don’t often think about within the realm of surveillance and soft policing or just policing. And Vikki and Maya will be talking about these things, and bringing those things to light in what they learned about through their research and their interviews and their, you know, thinking about these issues. So this is really, really timely. I’m excited.
So it’s my pleasure to bring in Maya and Vikki at this point. Maya’s going to kick us off for five minutes, and talk a little bit about why they decided to write this book, a little bit about who they are and a very short elevator speech kind of laying-out what the book is about. Then Vikki’s going to come in and do the same thing.
Then we’re going to move into really talking about four different areas of what we’re going to call, for now, soft policing: child welfare, electronic monitoring, privatized policing and neighborhood watch, and school policing.
Then we’re going to take a little moment, break, maybe get some water, and then come back and talk about, quote-unquote, “alternatives,” what the concept of alternatives to incarceration or, you know, how people kind of sell that as an attempt to, quote, “replace the PIC.” They’re going to talk about mental health and psychiatric confinement, probation, sex worker rescue programs and drug courts.
And then we’re going to take some time to answer questions as we have time to do.
So very excited to throw over to Maya. Maya, welcome, thanks for joining us.
MAYA SCHENWAR: Thanks so much, Mariame.
And thank you to everyone for coming to this. We really appreciate it, even though we can’t see your faces. And also, I apologize for my lackluster backdrop, the lack of a bookshelf behind me. This is the only place in my apartment where my toddler and cat won’t find me, so.
Anyway, I’m Maya Schenwar and I’m the editor-in-chief of Truthout. I’ve been writing and editing about the prison industrial complex for about 15 years. And I’m also involved in prison abolitionist organizing efforts. I organize with the collective Love and Protect in Chicago, and I’m on the board of the Chicago Community Bond Fund.
I’ll talk for a minute about how we came to write Prison by Any Other Name.
So for me, this was partly a result of talking with incarcerated friends and interviewing people for my last book, and realizing that even when people got out of prison, they were still engulfed in all kinds of systems of control and surveillance that were built on the same foundations of white supremacy and capitalism. So the problem was not incarceration alone or police alone, it was this vast system of racial and social control with many, many tentacles.
And some of those tentacles might look kind and gentle to an outside observer, but they still often manifest as brutal punishment for those who are experiencing them. And a lot of these practices — like electronic monitoring and drug courts and sex worker rescue programs — were put forth as improvements and reforms, when really they were just rebuilding the old systems with a softer image, and extending them to wider and wider groups of people.
So our book is about how popular reforms often take the shape of expansion, bringing the prison industrial complex into homes and schools and communities so that more and more people are brought into its clutches, particularly Black and Brown people, trans and nonbinary people, disabled people, sex workers, drug users and other marginalized groups.
In a recent talk that Angela Davis did, she said, “We’re trapped on a treadmill of reform.” And I think that Vikki and I wrote Prison by Any Other Name to provide a resource for people to understand that we must get off that treadmill.
And for me, there was also a personal motivation driving me towards this subject — and I know there also was for Vikki, and she’ll talk about that — but for me, for the past 15 y ears, my sister, Keeley, had been in and out of jail and prison and various alternatives that are products of reform, like electronic monitoring, mandated drug treatment and probation.
And she was addicted to heroin. And every time she went to jail or prison, she was deeply traumatized — as happens in jail and prison — and she sank deeper and deeper into her addiction when she got out.
And, meanwhile, she wasn’t ever really released when she got out. The courts swept her into all kinds of systems of surveillance and confinement, which were said to be for her own good, to help her with her addiction. But, really, they were harsh, abstinence-only punishments. And if she violated their strict conditions, then she got sent back to prison, so she kept being sent back.
And this is the main way that I came to be interested in this alternative thing, these reforms that look so much like incarceration. Along with jail and prison and addiction itself, they were helping to destroy my sister’s life. And, of course, deeply impacting my life as someone who loved her.
And Keeley actually died four months ago, four and a half months ago, of an overdose, while she was in mandated abstinence-only drug treatment program, and she was also on probation.
And her death happened after we finished writing Prison by Any Other Name. She’s in the book’s Acknowledgements section, and I was fully expecting her to read the book and then force every single person she knew to read the book — like she did with my first one.
So one of the main motivations in talking about these issues right now, for me, is because I know that Keeley would want me to be speaking out about the systems that led to her death. And I was hoping that when this book came out, she would be able to do some talks with us in Chicago. She wanted to speak out about these systems more fully herself, once she was finally released from them.
But since she was only released in death, I feel a responsibility to talk about these extensions of the prison industrial complex as part of her legacy. So that’s where I’m coming from right now.
MARIAME KABA: Thank you so much, Maya. Thank you for sharing, but also thank you for being vulnerable and sharing personally about how this has an impact on you.
I was lucky enough to know Keeley. And nobody who met her (inaudible). She was extraordinary, and this book is part of the legacy of her life. And so we’re just so grateful that you both wrote this, and we’re so grateful that her life continues. So thank you for sharing.
MAYA SHENWAR: Thank you.
MARIAME KABA: Vikki?
VICTORIA LAW: Thank you, Maya, and thank you, Mariame.
So I came to this book — well, first of all, my name is Vikki. I am a journalist that focuses on incarceration and criminalization, particularly around women’s criminalization and incarceration. I’m also the co-founder of Books Through Bars New York City. I co-founded that, actually, while I was on probation, come to think of it.
So I guess I’ll give a little bit of my back story that kind of grounds this, and also shows the ways in which these popularly proposed alternatives actually widen the carceral net, but also wreck lives.
So, going back to when I was in high school, I went to what was known — or what we now know as a school-to-prison pipeline school, which we’re going to talk about later. But at the time, we didn’t have any such terminology. All we knew is it was a school that was mostly Black, brown and immigrant, it was low-income families that didn’t have resources, didn’t have opportunities, and didn’t know that what you were supposed to do is borrow the address of somebody who lived in a better neighborhood so that you could send your kids to a school with more resources and more opportunities.
And this was the perfect recruiting ground for many of the gangs of New York City at the time, and my friends got recruited and they joined gangs, they dropped out of high school, and they eventually got arrested for gang-related activities. And at one point, I got swept up into this nonsense, and I got arrested for armed robbery.
Now, those of you who might see me in person might think that this is actually — you can’t tell — kind of amusing because I am five feet. And at the time I got arrested, I probably was maybe 80 pounds, soaking wet.
And I talk about this because when I went before the judge, the stereotypes around who is violent and dangerous and who is not, definitely came into play. So I was ultimately sentenced to probation. And it was a very different type of probation than Maya’s sister was sentenced to. There was no — the technology had not evolved to put people on electronic shackles, put people under monitoring. I was basically left to my own devices. I had to check in once a month, I was told I would be drug-tested — nobody ever bothered.
And so I bring this up to say that, like, I was under this alternative for a crime that is considered violent. Like: I had a gun, I stuck it in somebody’s face, I probably deeply traumatized somebody, if not somebodies, who were there. And, again, because of the stereotypes we have around who is dangerous, who is a threat to public safety and who is not — small Asian people, and small Asian women — I was given what we now think of as an alternative to incarceration.
And I say this to say that prison was not the answer for a crime involving violence. And we’ll talk about later, we’ll also see that some of these popularly proposed alternatives are not actually what we need to address what people need for safety, for survival and to be able to thrive in society.
MARIAME KABA: Thank you so much, Vikki.
So I just want to kick us off. We’re going to be talking about so-called soft policing in various ways, (inaudible) terminology, but I’m definitely interested in using the ideas behind it. Which asks us a question: Are cops the only people who do the work of policing? You know, is that — is that the case?
And people may be seeing an image on the screen from a short kind of Instagram story set of comics that we made at Project MIA about that concept of soft policing — thanks to Brendan (ph) McClade (ph) for a lot of ideas that came to bear for that. And also Flynn Nicholls for doing that comic. We’ll put that — I guess I’ll get a link to it so it can be in the chat, so other people can use it as well.
But let’s talk a little bit about that. Are cops the only people who do policing? Let’s kick off with Maya talking about the child welfare system, or family regulation system.
MAYA SCHENWAR: Great, thank you, Mariame.
So this is one very prominent realm of soft policing, the so-called child welfare system, family regulation system, more accurately. In a recent article for The Chronicle of Social Change, Dorothy Roberts points out that some calls for defunding the police have suggested diverting money to Health and Human Services departments. And she notes that these departments generally contain Child Protective Services and foster care, which themselves tend to be institutions of control and surveillance.
Child Protective Services holds what the Movement for Family Power called, in a recent report, “the greatest power a state can exercise over its people: The power to forcibly take children away from parents and permanently sever parent-child relationships.”
The violence of invasive home investigation and child removal is often overlooked because it primarily targets Black women, Native women, and women who are living in poverty. Twenty-three percent of foster youth in 2016 were Black, although Black children make up a little over 14 percent of the U.S.’ child population. And the majority of Black youth in the country have been subjected to a Child Protective Services investigation.
This system also intensively targets mothers who are drug users. The Movement for Family Power points out that the so-called child welfare system is another front in the war on drugs, operating based on medically disproven and racist myths about drug use. And it targets survivors of domestic violence.
In our book, we share the story of a mother of four who called a domestic violence hotline for help. And a few days later, her kids were taken and she was told to get safe. But she was given no support for doing that. So, now, she lives at a homeless shelter and sees her children for two hours per week, during supervised visits.
Most reports to Child Protective Services are not for abuse, they’re for neglect. And what quote-unquote “neglect” often looks like in practice is poverty. As Charity Tolliver and Erica Meiners write, “Poverty and assessments of neglect are intertwined.” So not having sufficient clothing or food for your kids is considered neglect. More than two kids sharing a bedroom can qualify as neglect.
But instead of providing people with material support to address these issues, Child Protective Services tends to just investigate families and remove children, which is a form of violent punishment.
And it’s not just punishment for parents, it’s also punishment for children. Study after study shows that on average, even children who are actually maltreated tend to fare better when left at home, as opposed to those who are placed in foster care. And I want to recommend taking a look at the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform for some of this research.
LGBTQ youth of color face particular dangers within the system. And, plus, there’s the foster care-to-prison pipeline, which Charity Tolliver and others have documented extensively.
Studies in some states have even shown that the majority of incarcerated youth have had some contact with Child Protective Services.
A tiny bit of history: The foster system has expanded as incarceration has expanded, what we talk about as mass incarceration, over the last several decades. And during that time, as it was expanding, it came to focus more and more on Black and Native families. As it did, it increasingly removed children from their homes. So in other words, it became more violent, more punitive.
And in many ways, the child welfare system replicates the patterns of slavery — I’d suggest reading basically all of Dorothy Roberts’ work on this topic. The system functions on an assumption that taking Black children away from their mothers and caregivers is justified. And the system is also a legacy of Indigenous genocide, which has always depended on the idea that Native children should be assimilated into white culture. We see states like Alaska right now, where the majority of foster children are Native, even though just 18 percent of children in the state are native.
When we talk about soft policing in the context of the child welfare system, we need to talk about who is doing that policing, how are people getting swept in and captured? And part of the answer lies in the practice of mandatory reporting. Doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers are now generally required by law to report parents or caregivers to Child Protective Services if they see any reason to suspect abuse or neglect. And of course, that’s a very subjective judgment that is tied up with race, class, gender, disability.
Over the past 50 years, mandatory reporting laws have sprung up in every state, and they’ve grown increasingly stringent to the point that now, in 18 states, everyone is a mandatory reporter, and more states are considering these laws. So in many places, you are a mandatory reporter, regardless of your job. You are tasked with policing, parenting of your neighbors and friends and family members.
As these systems grow, we’re now seeing 37 percent of children in the U.S. experiencing a Child Protective Services investigation by the time they’re 18. And for Black children, that’s 53 percent.
And, meanwhile, mandatory reporting makes child survivors of violence less likely to seek help because they’re scared that what they share will be reported — understandably. Mandated reporting also makes parents less likely to seek help with housing and other resources.
So, instead of supporting children and families in finding safety and well-being (inaudible) them, traumatizing them and inflicting the violence of separation. There’s no question this is a form of policing.
I want to quickly mention that a growing movement is taking these issues on. The movement has been particularly initiated by Black mothers who have been impacted by the system. And for more information, you can look to the Movement for Family Power, DHS: Give Us Back Our Children, Welfare Warriors, Black on Both Sides, and Families Organizing for Child Welfare Justice. And check out the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform for additional resources.
VICTORIA LAW: Thank you, Maya. I’m jumping in because our moderator has some technical difficulties.
Another form of softer policing and imprisonment is one that’s gained more attention in recent months, electronic monitoring. Which, if you think about the fact that many of us are emerging from shelter-at-home and staying at home all the time, you might think about the — you know, the ways in which you have felt confined to your house, you know, and not being able to leave and having restrictions on where you can go and when you can go.
So electronic monitoring is, first of all, a form of surveillance. It’s usually in the form of a box and a GPS device that is shackled to somebody’s ankle. It is large, it is very noticeable. But even if it was small and not that noticeable, its point is coercive control and surveillance, it is not a fashion accessory.
It is usually accompanied by house arrest, which tells you where you can go and what you can do and where you cannot go and what you cannot do. And it is not the same at shelter-at-home at all. It is — you have to get permission in advance — usually one week in advance, sometimes more — to be able to go someplace outside of your house.
So there have been people who — so usually it means that if you want to go grocery shopping, you have to apply in advance and give your probation officer or your electronic monitoring officer a list of places that you want to go for the coming week. It would be — say you wanted to go grocery shopping, you would have to say what stores you were going to go to, and at what time you were going to go to them.
So if you were going to go to the Kroger, you may — and they don’t have toilet paper because everybody has bought the toilet paper in the coronavirus pandemic, you are unable to go to the next store and see if you could get toilet paper at the store half a mile away, because that would be a violation of your electronic monitoring.
You need preapproval to go to medical care. So especially during a pandemic in which you are advised to go seek medical care if you are not feeling well, this could mean the difference between you saying, “I’m going to seek potentially life-saving medical care and risk being sent back to jail or to prison for violating the terms of my electronic monitoring,” or “I — you know — will just stay at home and hope that maybe this is just a cold or just the flu and not something more serious that I’ll spread to everybody in my family.”
For people who are parents and caregivers, they often have to ask for permission to pick their children up from school, which is usually allowed. But maybe going to see their child’s basketball game or school play would not be allowed.
And then there’s just the fact that you cannot leave your house, or you cannot leave past a certain distance from your house. We have talked to people who are able to walk their dog on the sidewalk right outside their house, but are unable to cross the street so — because that would be a violation of the amount of space that they are allowed to leave.
We have talked to people who live in apartment complexes that cannot go down the hallway to throw out the garbage because that hallway — that garbage chute is too far away from their front door to be allowed. They cannot do laundry downstairs in the building’s laundry room because that is too far away. So it also then puts the onus on everybody else in the family to — to come together and support that person. And they are unable to be a contributing member of their family or community in a way that they would be if they were not shackled to this electronic monitor.
But electronic monitoring is posited as a kinder, gentler form of coercive control than being in a brick-and-mortar jail or prison or immigrant detention center.
And that is true, most — most but not all people have said they would rather be at home, where you can go to your refrigerator and take whatever food you were able to buy out of your refrigerator at any given time. You don’t — you aren’t told when you need to get up, when you need to make your bed or told to sit up on your bed and recite your state ID number three times a day.
You are — you know, you have certain bodily autonomy that you do not have in prisons, but we have to remember that there’s still lots of restrictions and limitations, with the constant threat of being sent back to prison if you violate any of these rules.
There are approximately 200,000 people on electronic monitoring. And we say “approximately” because there is actually no organization or agency or government entity that keeps statistics on this, so it’s basically like pulling from, you know, this state has this many, this jurisdiction has this many. And these numbers are always changing.
What we also have to remember is that electronic monitoring, like many reforms, has actually widened the net. When we think about prisons, prisons themselves were a reform against the punishment of floggings and beatings and being hung for relatively minor actions. And electronic monitoring widens the net, so people who might not otherwise be jailed or imprisoned, or might be released from jail or prison — or might not be charged or have their charges dismissed, are now being released on electronic monitoring instead.
Before we wrote this book, before coronavirus hit — and one of the people that we interviewed was a woman in a small town in the Midwest whose crime was kind of an odd one. She and her friend had an open-door policy in their small town, they were able to go in or out of each other’s houses at will, even if the other person wasn’t home.
And one day, the woman left her medication at her friend’s house, and she needed her medication. So she went to her friend’s house, and the door was locked. So she climbed in through the bathroom. And the cops were called and she was arrested, and she was charged with burglary because she had broken into this locked house. And it didn’t matter that this was her best friend’s house, it didn’t matter they’d usually had an open-door policy. It — none of these things mattered.
And she was offered the choice of going to trial and possibly facing 10 years in prison, or going on electronic monitoring, which would enable her to stay home with her five children, and she would be able to — she would be able to, you know, be with her children, tuck her baby into bed. She was also pregnant at the time — and this comes into play later.
Because — so she agreed to electronic monitoring because she thought this was a much better scenario. And what she didn’t count on was the fact that there were fines and fees attached to the electronic monitor. So every month, she and her husband had to pay a set amount of money for her electronic monitor. And part of the condition of her sentence was that she had to have all of this paid in full before she was able to be released from electronic monitoring.
And they scrimped, they saved, they did what they could. She was not able to get work because of the fact that she had a big honking electronic monitor around her ankle. They had kids, and they had to save for them. So he was the sole person who was able to work.
They were not able to always pay the full amount, so they fell behind. And when it was time for her to be released from electronic monitoring, she was told that, no, she could not be released until the fines and fees had all been paid.
So her electronic monitoring extended indefinitely. And with each month that it extended, another month’s worth of fines and fees piled up. And so it became a — you know, a dogpile that she just couldn’t get out from under. And she finally did, but this was several years after her original sentence was supposed to have ended.
We’ve heard from other people who have been told that if they did not pay in full by the time their sentence was finished, they would be sent back to jail, or to prison. And then upon release, they would still be responsible for paying these fines and fees. So we see how people who otherwise might not be jailed or imprisoned are being saddled with electronic monitoring, being confined to their homes, being unable to be with their families and then also being saddled with fines and fees that basically sink their family.
In Chicago, during the coronavirus pandemic, we see that Chicago now has the largest pretrial population under electronic monitoring. It has over 3,100 people on electronic monitoring. Chicago’s Cook County Jail became one of the epicenters of coronavirus very early on, and judges began ordering people to be released from the jail so that they wouldn’t get coronavirus in these very packed, small jail cells where it was impossible to social distance, wash your hands, use hand sanitizer and all the things that the CDC recommends.
But instead of just saying, “Let them go,” the judges said, “OK, you can get out but we’re going to put you on an electronic monitor.” And what ended up happening was the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, ran out of monitors, which then meant people were just sitting in these coronavirus-filled jails, even after a judge said to let them go, because there were not devices to clamp onto their ankles so that they could go to their homes, where presumably they would be at least able to social distance, wash their hands and use hand sanitizer.
The same thing happened in Milwaukee, and we can, you know, assume that the same thing happened in various places around the country.
And then, in addition, we’re seeing that electronic monitoring has also been used for what’s used as civil confinement, or immigrant detention. With the advent of electronic monitoring, ICE has used electronic monitoring to release people from immigrant detention. And in the past, they used to release people under what was an alternatives program, where they were not shackled, they were not put on any sort of coercive control and confinement and supervision.
But now, because we have this technology, approximately 38,000 to 40,000 people who would have been released from detention without these stipulations earlier, would — are now under ICE custody on electronic monitoring. And it has not decreased the number of people in the physical immigration detention centers. Last year, ICE detained an average of over 50,000 people in its immigration detention centers, the — a record high. And at times, more than 56,000 people were in detention.
So as we can see, this has not actually done anything to reduce the number of people who are confined in some way. And instead, it has just widened the net so that you have 38,000 to 40,000 people in the community but under supervision, and then another 50,000-something inside these physical buildings.
So I’m going to stop here. If you want to know more, there’s a group called Challenging E-Carceration that has been doing phenomenal work, looking at electronic monitoring as this softer, kinder, gentler type of confinement and imprisonment, and challenging — and challenging these policies when they come up on the state and local level.
MARIAME KABA: Thanks, Vikki.
You all can hear me, right?
VICTORIA LAW: Yes.
MARIAME KABA: OK, great.
So just wanted to follow up on one thing that you mentioned about the fines and fees. You know, when we were working on trying to make sure that Marissa Alexander could be free, one of the aspects of when they finally released her was that she was released on an ankle monitor, or what — ankle bracelet or ankle shackle, more realistically.
And, you know, just the cost of that, every, you know, month, plus the cost of the probation — which I know you’re going to talk about later — every couple of weeks, was just exponentially, you know, burdensome. And for people who can’t work while they’re on ankle monitoring, this is another form of kind of debt peonage, a way where people start to become completely overwhelmed by the cost of their own incarceration in their own homes.
And I just — you know, I’m wondering, did you all find any numbers about the average cost that people are forced to pay to be on ankle shackles? Did you — because I don’t — I think I had seen a number somewhere before, which was something like an average of $400 a month for ankle shackles, and that’s obviously the average so there’s some that’s higher and some that’s lower.
But I just think, like, for people to think about the extra amount that you’re going to have to come up with when you don’t already have a job and you’re already criminalized, it’s just — it’s just a never-ending cycle of imprisonment, you know? But anyway.
I’m — Maya, you’re going to be talking next, a little bit about private policing.
MAYA SCHENWAR: Yeah.
MARIAME KABA: Neighborhood watch, also.
MAYA SCHENWAR: Yes! So, thank you, Vikki and Mariame.
I think one of the things that we’re seeing with reforms like electronic monitoring, is that there are conservatives and libertarians jumping on board and saying, “Yes, less public funding. Make people pay for their own confinement.” But, obviously, don’t get rid of confinement, right? Don’t get rid of policing. And now, we’re seeing some libertarian voices saying, “OK, instead of defunding the police, how about making them part of the marketplace?” So I’m going to say a few words about privatized policing and then neighborhood watch, as you mentioned.
So authorities and pundits are now lifting up this private police thing as the obvious alternative to public police amid these calls to defund departments. Reason Magazine recently featured the headline, “Professionalizing Police Hasn’t Worked. Try Privatizing Instead.”
Right now, there are actually already more private security guards in the United States than there are police. And after uprisings took off in Chicago, early last month, the city allocated over a million dollars to hire private security guards to patrol the South and West Sides, saying that they were preventing looting.
In New York, amid the uprisings, some communities hired private security firms as well. The University of Minnesota isn’t using police now, but instead, they’re using private security for things like football games.
Last month, Worth Magazine, which is a financial and wealth management magazine, published an article by the CEO of a company called Hawk, a security company, which was weirdly echoing calls to defund the police and ostensibly supporting protestors — and then proposing private security as the solution.
And, meanwhile, United Security, which is a private security firm that’s active in New York, told The Wall Street Journal last month that — this is a quote — “demand for armed and unarmed security guards across every market is as high as it’s ever been.”
So you might think, “Well, at least private security guards aren’t violent like the police because we don’t hear about that in the news.” But, as Candice Bernd reported for Truthout — and others have reported — when private armed guards commit acts of violence like shooting people, those acts are often not reported, let alone investigated. And these companies also often employ cops and prison guards after they’ve been fired for doing something violent.
There was a USA Today investigation that found that the massive private security company G4S was deploying a number of guards who had raped and assaulted and shot people, including on-duty. And in fact, it was a G4S guard who killed 49 people and wounded 53 more at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub. So private police are police, and we have to watch out for proposals to replace police with themselves.
Another possible area of expansion in the current climate is the concept of a neighborhood watch. Right now, neighborhood watch is a practice that’s often really closely associated with community policing that’s based in police departments. There are definitely abolitionist and mutual aid-based ways to cultivate vigilance and watch out for each other, whether you want to call it community watch or something else, and that’s obviously fantastic and is of course something that needs to be happening more.
But we also have to be cognizant of the fact that a lot of neighborhood watch programs around the country are facilitated by and collaborate with police departments. And they’re effectively acting as an extension of those departments, and they can sometimes be done cheaply because they rely on these vigilante volunteers.
So the way this works is that police and other authorities recruit community members to be their, quote-unquote, “eyes and ears.” And this often means seeking out older people, people with more money, property owners — people who authorities are less likely to be targeting — to watch their neighbors and call the cops whenever they’re suspicious of anything. And in a mixed-race neighborhood, this is about cops mobilizing white people to call the police on their Black and Brown neighbors.
Josmar Trujillo, an organizer in New York, says in our book, “In relation to New York’s so-called neighborhood policing meetings, they’re using the community to tell on the community.” And that’s kind of the heart of these programs. And of course, in this model, it’s the police or whatever state authority is in charge who decide who the community is and who is supposed to be harassed and targeted. So, for example, in police definition, gang members are always framed as not part of the community.
So this idea of mobilizing people to surveil their neighbors isn’t just about calling the police. It can also actually incite vigilante violence. George Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch volunteer when he murdered Trayvon Martin. We need to be wary of local officials looking to expand neighborhood watch programs that are grounded in policing principles. And I think we even need to be wary of our neighbors trying to expand these types of programs.
When we talk about the recruitment of volunteer civilians to be the eyes and ears of the police, that goes way back. It goes back to the origins of U.S. policing. Volunteers served on slave patrols to capture enslaved Black people who were perceived as fleeing. In the North, as early as the 17th century, there were formalized night watches in places like Boston, and there were volunteers who were enlisted to roam the street, looking for people involved in sex work or other practices that were seen as deviant. You can read Kristian Williams and Alex Vitale for more on that.
And these volunteer operations also played a role in Indigenous genocide in this country, including the Texas Rangers, who killed Native people and Mexican-Americans as part of a volunteer vigilante effort by white colonizers.
So this type of thing is older than the country itself. And I think sometimes, this idea of volunteers gets lifted up as kind of like a wholesome organic community-based mechanism that’s automatically safer, and I think we need to question that.
We need to look at how neighborhood watches gathered steam in the 1960s and ’70s because police were mobilizing white people and other community members to gain legitimacy amid the Black Power movement. So they were, you know, actually seeking out people to do their work and inciting people in this way that pushed back against uprisings, that pushed back against resistance.
So, nowadays, I think we have to look at how neighborhood associations and Facebook groups are actually intensifying this mentality of becoming the eyes and ears of the police. You see neighbors communicating all the time about alleged threats and dangers, cultivating this culture of fear. And often, they’re doing so according to their own racialized logic, in deciding who’s dangerous.
You see this all the time if you’re part of any neighborhood Facebook page, I think, and even in my neighborhood that’s supposedly, like, one of the most progressive and diverse, people are always saying, “Oh, was that a firework or a gunshot? I think I’m going to call the police,” you know.
So these are some of the so-called policing alternatives that we need to be conscious of as we continue this crucial demand to defund police departments.
MARIAME KABA: Thank you very much, Maya. I think people might be interested: A few years ago, we charged genocide, put out a report called the “Counter-CAPS,” community alternative policing systems report, which was to talk about the community engagement arm of the police state, a kind of counter-insurgency, almost, within our neighborhoods, where the cops were deputizing, quote, “these neighbors and volunteers” to do policing work that they either didn’t want to do, or that they actually felt like was feeding into the work that they actually wanted to do in the community.
And what we ended up finding in that report was that the people who were most mobilized to be those volunteers were the, quote, “property owners” within the community — again, protection of property, right? Something we know is integrally important to the rise of the police in the United States, along with the other kinds of roots (ph) of police in the formation of policing. So I think, you know — I think the point that you make in the book about this really will make people start to think differently.
And then there’s also a great — I just found a great resource that was made by folks in Minneapolis, that asked folks to think about those people who are doing neighborhood watch, to think about the ways in which the logics that they are employing replicate the police, and to think differently about their neighbors. So kind of an intervention around this idea of, you know, kind of community policing at its most violent, frankly, and trying to make that something different instead.
So thank you for bringing that up for sure.
Vikki, you want to talk a little bit about community — school-based policing, but maybe also answering the question about — well, that I had asked about the electronic monitoring costs.
VICTORIA LAW: So electronic monitoring costs vary from place to place. So there’s no uniform metric for, like, if you have the ankle monitor on for this amount of time or for this conviction or plea bargain, it costs this much.
But the woman in the Midwest that I told you about, the mother who climbed through her best friend’s bathroom window to get her medication, had to pay $115 per week. So you math people, $460 per month. Remember, they had children, she was unable to work because nobody would hire her in this small town, with a giant honking ankle monitor.
So they had one adult in the family working, and they scrimped and they saved and they did everything they could, right? Like you know, they bought their kids’ clothes a year in advance when it was on sale — you buy the winter clothes in the summer, the summer clothes in the winter. They didn’t get haircuts, they didn’t — you know, like, they really, really did everything they could, and it just wasn’t enough to get out from under this massive accruing debt.
So when we think about electronic monitoring as this sort of kinder, gentler form of confinement, we also have to remember that what we’re sentencing people to is, A, this kind of confinement. And then, B, like, where you cannot leave your house and you cannot fully participate in your family and community life, you cannot go, say, to like an uncle’s birthday party because your probation or electronic monitoring officer may say no. But you also are accruing, in a lot of places, these kinds of debts that further impact not only yourself, but your entire family and your extended family.
So moving on to policing and money. In New York City, we just saw that the New York City Council shifted money for school policing from the NYPD to the Department of Education in one of those shell games in which, you know, like, you shift money from one place to another. Because it shifted the money and it kept the same police in the schools. And instead of being paid by the NYPD, they would simply be paid by the Department of Education. And at the same time, they instituted a hiring freeze on teachers and reduced the number of counselors in the schools.
And in Chicago, we also saw that the Board of Education rejected efforts to end a $33 million contract with the Chicago Police Department.
So take a minute, and think about what resources in schools, particularly under-resourced schools that, say, have 40 kids to a classroom, don’t have art and music programs, most of the kids get our Title I or get free lunch because their families are under the poverty level, maybe don’t have a gym, don’t have a library, people don’t have books, the teachers are buying supplies out of their own pockets. Think about what $33 million could pay for in terms of resources and opportunities for students, rather than policing.
And what we’re seeing with school police is that they’re not stopping school shootings, as we have seen again and again and again. They’re not stopping violence from happening. And often, they are perpetrating violence against students. We’re also seeing that they are arresting students, often for minor — or minor actions that should not be arrested, and I phrased that awkwardly, but so let me rephrase.
So they’re arresting students, whereas if there were not police or if they were in schools that were not seen as schools that needed to be policed, students would perhaps go to the principal’s office and be told, like, “Don’t do that again.” Or, you know, go to some sort of, you know, meeting with the other person that you just got into a fight with.
And instead, what we’re seeing in many places — particularly schools in communities of color or schools where there are Black and Brown students — is that students often get arrested for some of these same things that would, you know, in the 1950s, get them sent to the principal’s office at most. In New York City, 90 percent of school arrests were of Black and Latinx students. In Chicago, Project NIA found that 75 percent of arrests in schools were of Black students.
So these are not somebody takes a gun to the school and shoots up the entire campus. It’s maybe somebody got into a fight at school, you know, a fistfight. And instead of just separating people and saying, like, “You go here, you go here, calm down,” people end up in handcuffs and then being brought to a precinct and then being charged.
Sometimes we see that people are arrested for things that are not things that anybody would say is necessarily a crime, like suspicion of stealing a calculator. We interviewed somebody who was one of the handful of Black students at his predominantly white school in Oregon. And he stood out like a sore thumb. And one day, in his high school, somebody’s calculator went missing, you know, one of the calculators you used for your SAT, went missing.
And he was (ph) one of the people that was blamed. So he — so this police came to his house on a weekend. He was making breakfast with his grandmother. And they came to his door and arrested him on suspicion of stealing this calculator.
So, again, is this something that is a giant threat to public safety? No, it’s a calculator. Yes, it sucks for the student that planned to use that calculator for their SAT, but it is not something to ruin somebody’s life about and to traumatize them again and again and again. But what we’re also seeing is that he was targeted because of his race. He was one of a handful of Black students and so therefore, he was automatically suspect.
What we’re also seeing is that when we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, is that Black girls are 20 percent of girls who are enrolled in preschool — so think about this — but they are 54 percent of girls who are suspended. So we can see that the criminalization of Black and Brown children happens at a very young age.
So no — so why would you suspend a four-year-old? Maya has an almost-two-year old and, you know, they act up, they want to do things. And then, you know, like, you talk to them, they calm down, they get distracted, they forget. You know, they don’t need to actually be physically removed.
And at the same time, we’re seeing teachers and school administrators also acting to surveil, discipline and punish students, even without the threat of arrest. So we see policing happening by the school police, and we also see policing happening on the level of people who are supposed to be helping students, who are supposed to be guiding students, who are supposed to be teaching students.
And so we see that oftentimes, when something happens, they — like, they often punish Black and Brown students more severely than they would their white counterparts, and this happens in schools that are populated — that are in communities of color, and it happens in white schools.
To give an example, I talked to one person whose partner was white, who grew up in a middle-class suburb of Boston, was caught with drugs. It was not marijuana, I forget what it was — it might have been meth. And instead of being — nobody called the cops, nobody suspended him. And instead, his parents were called in and the principal had a meeting with them and the kid was told, you know, like — you know, like, “What are the issues here,” da, da, da, da, da. And he was allowed to temporarily withdraw from school and go to rehab.
In a school that is — that is in a community of color, what happens is if you are caught with any type of illegal substance, you are brought to the principal’s office, you are arrested, you are brought out in handcuffs, you are taken to the precinct, you are charged. There is no — there is no, you know, like, “Give Johnny a second chance.”
So we can see, again, how this policing happens on a — you know, like, on both the policing level. So shifting school policing — shifting police out of school is not enough, we also need to shift the entire mindset that says certain bodies are criminalized even from ages of preschool-on.
MARIAME KABA: Thanks, Vikki.
So we have about half an hour left in our time together, and I know we have a few things that we want to address in terms of the question of alternatives. And we want to talk about psychiatric confinement and mental health, probation, sex worker rescue programs, drug courts. So I’m going to ask you to be short in covering what you’re covering around these (ph) so that we can get them in.
And I do want to also just have you maybe begin by talking about — I have a pet peeve around the concept of alternatives in part because when we’re talking about alternatives to incarceration, the thing that always remains constant is people’s thinking about incarceration. When we say “alternatives to criminalization,” what people think immediately about is criminalization.
And what that ends up doing is, it forecloses, right away, possibilities of doing nothing. Because what ends up happening is people start thinking about how is it that we can get to a certain point where we are replacing everything that we lock people up and criminalize people for currently, with some new thing. When we want to be doing is actually decriminalizing a hell of a lot of stuff that should not be criminalized in the first place, and attending to harms (ph) in different kinds of ways, which is the idea of, quote, “an alternative.”
And I think I — you know, and people also think of alternatives as what are we going to replace the PIC with. That’s not the right question. We should not be — that’s not the point at which we should begin.
So I know that you’re — you know, the book really tries to get out of that mindset of replacing the PIC with some new thing, and I would love to hear what you have to say about mental health, probation and all these other projects and programs. And maybe — I know there are some slides that you have, just let’s do them in short order.
So, Maya, you’re – I mean, Vikki, you’re up first with the mental health and psychiatric —
VICTORIA LAW: Oh, OK. All right. So one of the take-out-the-giant-box-that-is-prison-and-put-in-an-alternative is mental health and psychiatric confinement. We know that people with mental health issues and serious mental illnesses are disproportionately imprisoned. Policing and prisons have taken on — taken the place of actual help.
So one of the popularly proposed alternatives is putting people in some sort of mental health care or psychiatric confinement, which is a locked-down place.
And sometimes people need help. I don’t want to downplay that. Sometimes they go to the hospital, they go to the doctor, seeking support, and they end up locked in psychiatric confinement, either for a long period of time or a short period of time, but it’s a deeply, deeply traumatizing experience and it is very similar to prison.
Like in prison, you lose all bodily autonomy, you lose — you’re told, you know, when you’re allowed to eat, when you’re allowed to sleep, when you need to get up, when you need to take your medications and woe to you if you do not take your medications.
We have talked to people who have been physically restrained and punished, so we talked to one person who, as an adolescent, was sent to a psychiatric confinement because his parents weren’t sure what to do. And they wanted their child to have help. And what they did was, they took him to the hospital. And what ended up happening was he was put in confinement, and he was — again, you know, imprisoned — basically imprisoned with all of these restrictions on what he was allowed to do.
And when he was not allowed — when he either refused to take his medication or was seen to be angry, he would be physically punished. So hospitals guards would come and they would wrap him in a mat and do what they called a burrito, and they would sit on him until he physically passed out and was unable to physically resist any more.
And then he was placed in a locked room, which is very similar to solitary confinement in prisons. And there, he was just — he sat there, you know, for who knows how long, just staring at the walls by himself. There was no — you know, there was no support for, like, why — you know, “Why are you feeling angry, why did you do this, you know, why don’t you want to take these medications that may or may — you know, that may or may not be helping?” And instead, he was just punished for failing to adhere to these kinds of rules and restrictions.
At the same time, people are also involuntarily committed to state psychiatric hospitals and civil commitment centers. There’s approximately 22,000 people who are involuntarily committed — so they didn’t got looking for help, you know, a judge told them, like, “You must go to this place,” and there is no determined release date.
So unlike — unlike most prison sentences — barring the life sentences or the 25-to-life sentences, which have at least a modicum of a release date — there is no determined release date, it’s based on how you behave and how medical officials and psychiatric officials believe you are recuperating or able to fit into society.
In some states, they actually have not been — some states have actually not released people from involuntary commitment. And today, 20 states and the federal government have laws that confine about 5,500 people past their prison release dates. So I’m just giving you, like, the small, small nutshell. I’m sorry, like, we can — you know, maybe like talk about it more in the question-and-answer, but I do want to get to the other part of alternatives to incarceration that we talked about, in the little time we have left.
MARIAME KABA: Thank you so much, Vikki.
Maya, you wanted to jump in and talk a little bit about probation?
MAYA SCHENWAR: Yeah, absolutely.
So I think that as we’re looking at some of the newer and shinier alternatives to incarceration throughout this webinar, we also have to confront the largest alternative to incarceration, which has been around for a really long time, and that’s probation.
There are 3.6 million people on probation in this country. And I’m not sure if you can see the chart from the Prison Policy Initiative on your screen, but it shows that the majority of people under any kind of so-called correctional control are on probation. The United States has the highest probation rate in the world, which shouldn’t surprise us.
Thirty percent of people on probation are Black, although 13 percent of the U.S. population is Black. So obviously, probation being an alternative does not mean that it’s not also reflective of the anti-Black undergirdings of the system.
Also, I just want to mention that 10 percent of the U.S.’ incarcerated population is made up of women, but 25 percent of those on probation are women. And that number has nearly doubled over the last three decades. Women also face a higher risk of violating probation because the requirements of probation often conflict with caregiving responsibility.
Now, the official line about probation is that it’s this humane option — in contrast with prison — that lets people remain “in the community.” We hear a lot about community when we talk about these so-called alternatives. But 15 percent of people leaving probation ultimately end up incarcerated, and nearly 15 percent of people in jail and prison have previously been on probation.
So according to a report from the Harvard Kennedy School — this is a quote — “Ironically, the largest alternative to incarceration in the United States is simultaneously one of the most significant drivers of mass incarceration.” So why is this happening? Part of the reason is that probation is not actually some kind of gentle community alternative. Conditions of probation are harsh, and sometimes impossible to follow. They can include basically anything at the discretion of the system.
So you have curfews, abstinence from drugs and alcohol, prohibitions on associating with certain people, going certain places. And even things like not sitting in the front seat of the car or even, in a few cases, not getting pregnant. Plus, there are probation fees, fees for drug testing, fees for classes like domestic violence classes or parenting classes, all kinds of things. And keep in mind that most people on probation are low-income, and not necessarily capable of paying those fees.
By the way, these types of fees are one of the ways that probation is promoted as cost-saving. The system doesn’t have to pay for food or health care or any of the things that are paid for when people are incarcerated — as abysmal as health care and food are in prison, obviously. And when people are on probation, you can even charge them money.
So, on average, someone on probation is saddled with conditions that number in the teens, but it’s not uncommon for people to face a list of 20 conditions of probation. So think about doing all of that on top of trying to live your daily life. It can be impossible, and a lot of people are reincarcerated, as I mentioned.
One of the people that we interviewed for our book told us that when she started a 60-year probation sentence, her probation officer said she was more likely to win the lottery than to be able to complete that sentence. My sister once chose a prison sentence over probation when she was offered both, because she knew she’d end up in prison if she chose probation. So she said, “At least if I take prison, I won’t have to do both probation and prison.”
So I think we have to recognize probation as a harsh and punitive and violent system in and of itself, and we need to stop turning to it as the obvious replacement for putting people behind bars.
MARIAME KABA: Thank you so much, Maya.
Vikki, throwing to you to talk a little bit about sex worker rescue programs?
VICTORIA LAW: Mm-hmm. Well, another alternative that has been put into place besides jail and prison and criminalization, are sex worker rescue programs, or sex worker diversion programs. We saw this recently in New York City — or not — or last year in New York City, there was a woman named Layleen Polanco. She was an Afro-Latinx trans woman who died while in solitary confinement at Rikers Island las June, a couple of weeks before Pride.
She was originally targeted in a sting operation against sex workers, in which police actually went and, you know, sought out people that they thought were sex workers, which, for many trans women of color, means that they just walk around with a target on their backs all the time. And she was sent to Anti-Trafficking Court.
New York State has 11 human trafficking intervention courts, which exclusively focus on people who are arrested for sex work. So, you know, you don’t get to go to one of these, like, trafficking intervention courts if you are trafficked for domestic work, if you are trafficked for farm work, if you are, you know, trafficked for, like, you know, being a nanny. You know, you only get to go to these courts if the police have arrested you for sex work.
And it ostensibly offers counseling programs instead of jail time. And it’s one of the “kinder, gentler” ways in which the system is supposed to be addressing what they see as a crime.
And so she was sent to Anti-Trafficking Court. She was supposed to go to these programs, she was supposed to go to court regularly. And she missed several court dates, so the court issued an arrest warrant for her. In 2019, she was arrested. She was held on $500 bail — she could not afford $500, so she was sent to Rikers Island.
She was placed in the Trans Housing Unit — another carceral reform — and then she got into an altercation with another person on the Trans Housing Unite, so she was placed in solitary confinement. And she was in solitary confinement for nine days. And then she had an epileptic seizure and she died while in solitary confinement.
So I say all of this to ground this in: This program did not rescue her, it did not help her, it did not stop her from going to jail, it did not stop her from being put in a small cell all by herself, and it did not help her when she needed medical care and the jail officers ignored her for hours.
And it did not stop her from dying. In fact, being in this sex worker diversion program, I would say, actually led to her death. Because had she not been arrested in a sting by NYPD, had she not been sent to this court and told that she had to go to these programs and keep coming back to court, had she not then had an arrest warrant so that when she was arrested for something else, she was held on $500 bail, she would not have been sent to Rikers Island. And none of these things would have happened to her.
So we see these types of rescue programs in which police go out and they round up people whom they perceive as sex workers, and then put them into programs that are supposed to help them not do sex work any more, instead of, say, programs that provide jobs and housing and perhaps a universal basic income to people, that provide child care, that provide, you know, medical and mental health care.
We see, instead, this form of policing and a softer, less noticeable type of coercive control, but it’s still a form of coercive control. It might be billed as an alternative to incarceration, but it still subjects people to surveillance and control and there is a threat of confinement. And for Layleen Polanco and so many others, there’s a threat of death if they do not obey.
MARIAME KABA: Thank you, Vikki, for that.
We’re going to end with the last of our conversation (ph) pieces about alternatives. We’re going to talk about drug courts. So, Maya, you’re on.
MAYA SCHENWAR: Thanks.
So drug courts are always among the list of suggestions that mainstream voices offer as a way to change the system. Democrats especially love them; Republicans sometimes like them. You always hear this refrain: “Instead of prison, put people in treatment.”
And, you know, while we were writing our chapter on drug courts, even though I’d already been writing about this for years, I remember thinking about how of course I would rather my sister — who was incarcerated at the time — be placed in a treatment institution.
That’s the thing. Of course, most people would prefer these carceral, quote-unquote, “alternatives” to being locked in a literal cage. But the system sets us up to think that we can’t have nice things, we can’t have life-giving things. The choices are prison, or prison-lite. And that’s a false and dangerous and sometimes deadly set of options.
So people see mandated drug treatment, which often comes by way of drug courts, as wholly different than police and prisons. It’s social workers and medical professionals instead of police and prison guards, and it’s supposed to help you or even save you.
So, well, drug courts are actually alternative courts that tend to sentence people to a strict, abstinence-only regimen instead of incarceration. But the penalty for violating the terms of drug court is often incarceration.
The first drug court was launched in Miami in 1989, and these courts have grown substantially over the past couple of decades. There are now more than 3,000 drug courts in the United States, and many lawmakers would like to continue increasing this number. Drug courts are in Joe Biden’s platform for the presidency, for example. Yeah.
Drug courts are actually widening the net of who gets swept up in the punishment system. And this is something, obviously, we talked about a lot tonight with electronic monitoring, with sex worker, quote-unquote, “rescue programs,” with probation. They’re widening the net, bringing more and more people into the system.
So the existence of these courts, which are designed to handle small-time offenses, encourages the arrest and the charging of people with small-time offenses: drug charges, small theft charges. There is a good Drug Policy Alliance report that explains this in more detail, “Drug Courts Are Not The Answer.” And it’s cited in the slide that I think you’re seeing right now.
The additional arrests that drug courts inspire are shown to disproportionately impact Black communities and other communities of color because these are the communities that are targeted by the system, that’s entrenched. So racial disparities in incarceration actually sometimes worsen when drug courts are added.
Without drug courts, a whole lot of people might have been referred to voluntary treatment, or just seen their charges dropped. And instead, prosecutors and judges and their own lawyers are ushering people into this other form of control, and urging them to plead guilty and enter a court-mandated program.
About half of people in drug court programs don’t complete them. And those who don’t complete the program often face the maximum sentence for whatever they were charged with. So that actually means, yeah, a harsher prison or jail sentence than they would have gotten otherwise.
So this idea that you can coerce someone into getting help if their only other option is a literal cage, is really, really scary and troublesome. But you actually can’t coerce someone into recovery, it’s not even a thing that works. Research tells us, again and again, that mandatory treatment is not effective in reducing drug use, and we talk about this more in the book.
Plus, mandatory treatment violates a person’s basic human rights. You’re coercing someone into doing something with their body that they wouldn’t have done otherwise.
So, like any other coercive institution, drug courts’ mandated treatment programs can also be punitive inside the programs themselves, so they’re not necessarily this lovely environment of support.
One person we interviewed was put in a dormitory that was known as “The House of Pain.” She wanted — yeah, like she — she was put in this place that looked so much like prison. And she wanted to leave the facility. And as punishment for wanting to leave, she was forced to sit on a chair in the middle of the hallway for days on end, leaving only for meals and to sleep.
Plus, we have to keep in mind that drug courts are generally abstinence-only. Forcing abstinence is not the best strategy when it comes to addiction, like it’s not the best strategy for basically anything. If someone actually has a serious dependency on a drug and you force them to abstain, when they’re released from treatment or kicked out of treatment, their tolerance to the drug is down and they’re more vulnerable to overdose.
And as I mentioned at the start of this event, my sister, Keeley, died a few months ago while she was in a drug treatment program. And she’d been caught up in these punitive systems for many years. And these programs traumatized her further, tried to force her into abstinence, which ultimately made her more likely to overdose, and she did. And I have no doubt that the drug court system played a role in killing Keeley.
So we have to get out of this mindset that you help people by surveilling and controlling and confining them. We have to let go of that framework entirely if we want a society that is life-giving instead of deadly.
MARIAME KABA: Thank you so much, Maya.
So we only have a few minutes until the close. We were supposed to close at 9:30. I do want to make sure that we have time to answer a few questions. So if you might select maybe, you know, three questions out of the many that have been sent your way, I would love to have folks do that.
In the meantime, I just want to remind everybody again about the upcoming events in the livestream series. There’s the socialism conference this Saturday, July 4th; Ruha Benjamin and Dorothy Roberts on July 8th; Ali Abunimah and Philip Weiss and Nada Elia on July 14th. So look on Haymarket’s page, look on social media and you’ll find more about all those upcoming livestreams. You can register for the upcoming events, again, on Eventbrite.
So let’s go into the questions. I’m going to kick off with Vikki. Can you just read one of the questions, yeah.
VICTORIA LAW: Sure. Somebody asked, “How do we build accountability and community without community-watching vigilantism?”
So there are differences between accountability and community and policing. So, I mean, if you think about the people in your family — whether it’s your biological family or your chosen family — like, what do you do when they hurt you? Do you immediately call the police and get them hauled off? You know, do you call — you know, like do you call a neighborhood watch and have them publicly shamed? No, you — you know, like you try to hold them accountable.
And Mia Mingus, who is a co-founder of the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, talks about practicing everyday accountability and community. So instead of saying, like, “What are we going to do about all of these — you know, like all of these armed robbers and, you know, like, embezzlers that live in our community? Like, let’s start by being accountable for the small things that — you know, like in asking — and getting into the practice of being accountable and practicing community.
So Mia Mingus has an amazing and very startling example of how you can practice accountability. Like, if you live in a household with other people, think about, you know, being accountable for the ways in which you impact other people. Can you be accountable for things that you said you would do? “Hey, you know, you said you would do the dishes, you know, after you finished making that big breakfast, but instead you left them and you went to work or wherever you went to, and you left them the entire day, which meant that somebody else had to do those dishes if they wanted to use them.”
You know, so what are the small ways in which we practice accountability. When we’re looking at community, you know, like: Do you know your neighbors? Do you know your neighbors’ names? You know, like do you say hello to people on the street? Because people are not going to be accountable to complete strangers most of the time.
So then, instead of calling the police when somebody is having a loud party that’s keeping you up at 3:00 a.m., you might, like, send them a text and be like, “Hey, you know, can you start to wind it down because I am tired and I have to get up the next morning.” Or, you know, “Hey, you’re keeping my baby awake.” Or, you know, like, “Hey, you know, like, it’s really loud, can you turn the music down?” Instead of doing that.
So I think that’s one of the ways in which we need to think not just what do we do when we have this giant problem, but what are the ways in which we build community and accountability in our everyday lives, and how do we practice this type of everyday abolition?
Rachel Herzing, who we interviewed for our book, talked about the Build the Block initiative in Oakland, in which she got together people in a particular neighborhood, and they got together and they talked about what they had in terms of resources and strategies and skills, you know? And what they might be able to offer each other as a community.
And it turns out, like, this one, you know, like, had, you know, like some medical training, this one had this kind of skill, this one had that kind of skill. And as part of building, what can you do to support each other without having to pick up the phone and call 911 every time?
So I think, first of all, it’s starting with these concepts, like get to know your neighbors, get to know your community, you know? And stop looking at calling 911 whenever you need to solve a conflict, and instead, say, like, you know, like, “Hey, you know, like this person who is always blasting their music at, you know, like 3:00 a.m., how can I — you know, like how can I approach them and talk to them about this?” Rather than saying, like, “I’m going to call the cops.”
And then you can work from there, because then people feel like they’re part of a community and they are accountable to each other.
MARIAME KABA: Thank you for that, Vikki.
I would also just remind everybody that you should ask yourself the question right now, “What do you do or what does our current system offer when giant problems occur?” I mean, I — one of the things I’ve never understood is people thinking that police — the current police actually do — like address the big thing. They — are they preventing anything? No. Are they sometimes responding to things? Maybe, right?
Like the — and I think sometimes we — because we catastrophize and it’s because it’s real, like, it’s scary to feel like you might be vulnerable and, you know — and when harm has occurred to you, that’s real and you’re worried and scared.
I think sometimes we kind of superimpose our fear onto a system as though the system addresses our fear, for real, when it really doesn’t. And it’s — just having it there as a crutch is what we need — supposedly — to feel secure. But we never feel safe, we’re always just worried about the security angle of things.
And I think I’m always challenging people to say, like, “Yeah, are the cops showing up when your house has been broken into, in advance?” No. “Are they maybe at the end?” Perhaps. “Did they find your stuff?” No. Like, I mean, the list goes on and on, about what we’re really living with on a day-to-day basis.
So, Maya, maybe you’ll take a question?
MAYA SCHENWAR: Yeah, absolutely.
So there are a lot of good ones here. Obviously, we can’t — we have one more to answer, so maybe you all can jump in. I have a few thoughts. “What questions would you like folks in helping professions including libraries and also teachers, to ask each other as they figure out how to undo carceral logic in their own fields?”
And I think this is a really good question, the way it’s framed as what questions should we ask each other. Because that’s a really good place to start, right? We’re given these sets of imperatives, really. Like this is how we deal with things. And so much of how we deal with things is, like, the — calling the cops, you know, as your last resort or even your first resort, in some cases.
In terms of teachers, one resource that I want to refer (ph) people to is this book, “Being Bad,” which was written by Crystal Laura, who we also interviewed for our book. And she talks about the ways in which school sometimes gets set up to look like prison.
Schools are not prisons, and there’s so much good that happens in schools. But she talks about how things like uniforms, trapping people in classrooms, imposing rules that don’t actually need to be followed, all of these things kind of put people in this carceral place.
And one of the questions that I think stems from that is: What do we actually need to do? What’s actually facilitating safety, and what’s just facilitating control, you know? Like, is it actually helpful to not let people go to the bathroom, or is that a mechanism of surveillance and control? So questions like that. They’re like, What is really the goal here? Like, what system are we participating in?
And thinking about libraries, it’s interesting, my mom’s a librarian. And she actually became famous in her library for being the person who was always saying, “Don’t call the police,” and — which I’m very proud of.
And one of — one of the things that happens in libraries, is of course a lot of people who are unhoused, who are coming into the library because they need a place to be, especially in the winter, like, are in the library and the librarians are kind of enlisted as agents of surveillance, you know? Who are expected to call the police.
And so a big question there is, Why? Like, why couldn’t the library be a resource in many different ways, in addition to programming and books and that type of thing, since we have so few resources in our society for people to, you know, actually come into a building without buying something.
One of the questions that occurs to me connects with that model that Rachel Herzing proposed, that Vikki mentioned, this Build the Block pilot project, where you look at who in your workplace has what skills. How can you call upon each other to deal with problems that might arise? Like, in different scenarios, what can you do that has nothing to do with the police? And brainstorm those strategies, and actually devote time to that. I think asking each other those questions is a really, really important place to start.
I think I mentioned this, but I want to reiterate. Like, asking ourselves how we participate in systems, especially people in helping professions, is, I think, a really powerful mode of reflection. And it’s not that, like, “Oh, all social workers are bad.” Obviously not, you know? Obviously social workers are also doing a lot of really important book, but that kind of reflection is one of the things that can facilitate transformation.
MARIAME KABA: Thank you both so much for taking this time, for writing such a brilliant book.
I do want to just say a couple of things in closing.
I just want to remind all of us — I know, like, maybe we can just a deep breath after we have listened to all that you have shared. Because I know that, as you hear all of the problems in the system, it can feel so disempowering and feel so overwhelming.
But I think what we want to really leave you with in this moment, is that there are a few things that are already happening every single day, that people are doing, that are actually addressing safety in people’s lives. That’s happening, that happens all the time. It happens in your life. And I don’t want people to lose sight of that.
I think we all need to be skilling up. I think we all need to remember that, yes, we’re trying to dismantle these very oppressive death-making systems. But what we’re also trying to do is fight for broader systemic changes that are going to give us what we need. We are trying to fight for housing for everybody, for food for everybody, for health care for everybody.
Those things existing will have a massive impact on these oppressive and death-making systems, right? And I think they will help foster the conditions that will make it much more likely that people won’t feel the need to hold onto these death-making institutions. And so I just want to make sure that everybody sees that, understands that.
One of the tools that I spent a couple years working on was Lara Brooks, a friend of mine and comrade, was a toolkit called, “Whose Security Is It?” And it’s specifically for nonprofit spaces, specifically for youth-focused spaces. But it can be applied to any spaces, to hospitals, libraries, other places to help you kind of tune into some of the questions that Maya suggests that people be asking themselves and uplifting along the way. And I think that will be dropped into the chat, but if you don’t get it, it’s at thepicis.org, and you can go ahead and find that toolkit, “Whose Security Is It?”
So more resources, more ways for you to be engaging. None of this, we should be feeling as though we have no way to actually address. We can address this stuff. We can because somebody created these things. And if somebody created this stuff, then somebody can create something different. And those somebodies are us.
So I hope that people leave with that sense of understanding our power, and not giving it up, and not feeling demoralized but feeling, actually, empowered to figure out how to expand on the things we already know how to do.
So, again, before we close, I want to remind people that if you’re in a position to make a donation, no matter how small, please consider giving to Haymarket Books.
I want to thank Haymarket Books for organizing this livestream, I want to thank The New Press and Truthout for co-sponsoring.
I want to thank Vikki and Maya for writing an incredible book, which I hope everybody’s going to pre-order it immediately, right after this.
And I want to thank all of you who joined this conversation, that lasted past 9:30 Eastern time. So we really, really appreciate it.
And, also, if you appreciated what we talked about, please share it with other people in your lives. Share the YouTube stream with your folks, have further conversations, read the book, create study groups, do all the things that we need in order to be able to share this very important information that Maya and Vikki pulled together, synthesized, analyzed and returned to us as a gift.
So thank you so much. Good night.