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Do Prisons and Mass Incarceration Keep Us Safe? (Part One)

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Eddie Conway interviews Maya Schenwar, author of “Locked Down, Locked Out,” who argues mass incarceration in the US causes more harm than good for prisoners and communities.

Prison fence(Image: Prison fence via Shutterstock)

Also see: Part Two: Do Prisons and Mass Incarceration Keep Us Safe?

Get Maya Schenwar’s Locked Down, Locked Out at Truthout by clicking here to order.


EDDIE CONWAY, FMR. BLACK PANTHER, BALTIMORE CHAPTER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Eddie Conway, coming to you from Baltimore.

Two-point-two million Americans are currently in the nation’s prisons and jails. According to research advocacy organization The Sentencing Project, this number represents a 500 percent increase over the past 30 years. Prisons are commonly thought to be necessary for the nation’s public well-being, but some believe they actually do more harm than good.

Joining us today to discuss this idea is Maya Schenwar. Maya is the editor-in-schief of Truthout. Maya is also the author of a new book, Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better.

Thank you so much for joining us, Maya.

MAYA SCHENWAR, AUTHOR, LOCKED DOWN, LOCKED OUT: Thanks so much for having me, Eddie.

CONWAY: In your book, you unpack the idea that prisons keep the majority of the American, the U.S. population safe. You found that prisons are actually harmful not only to prisoners, but to their families, to the community also. Why is that?

SCHENWAR: Well, I think that what prison does is kind of the opposite of what you need to do to foster safety in a community. Research has continually shown that what builds safety in a community is connection, is getting to know your neighbors. It’s building community organizations, really fortifying the bonds between people.

What prison does is it uproots people very suddenly from their environment and from their families. So just in terms of a community structure, it breaks down bonds and it breaks down networks, and it does that in a very sudden way when people are [pulled up (?)] from their community by the state. And, of course, that predominantly affects poor communities of color.

I think that beyond just that community structure, though, it’s about family and it’s about loved ones.

And the thing about this philosophy of punishment that we have that we’ve kind of come to accept as normal is that it all centers around isolating a person, that, oh, they did something wrong, so, clearly, the thing that they need is to be isolated. And that’s actually the opposite from what anything logical tells us about what motivates people to change. So plenty of people are incarcerated for crimes that didn’t actually harm anyone. Either they’re innocent or it’s a totally victimless crime, like drug possession or very small theft, that kind of thing. But even for people who are incarcerated for crimes that have actually harmed people, isolating and confining them is actually the thing that’s going to disconnect them from the implications of their action.

CONWAY: Are you saying that isolating the prisoners is actually dehumanizing them and making them more dangerous?

SCHENWAR: Yeah, I think that it does have have an effect of treating someone as less than human is traumatic and also cuts you off from a conception of being part of humanity, which is one of the motivating factors to change, right? Like, plugging someone into a human community, those connections are what motivate people to make amends for their action, to take a different course in life. All of those things are motivated by other people, and particularly by having strong relationships with other people.

And so I think it’s kind of right. It’s on both the level of what isolation does to a person, which is traumatizes them and reduces them in the eyes of the public and other people to this level of less than human, which should never be done to any human being. And then, also, you’re taking away the bonds with other people that would facilitate change in that person’s life.

CONWAY: And you’re also kind of, like, focusing your book on the fact that prisoners suffer, and the impact from the prison system after their release. What are some of the issues that they face?

SCHENWAR: Well, I think that that kind of ties back into this way of disconnecting people from society, that that disconnection doesn’t just stop once the person is released from prison; it continues on and on.

So, on the one level, coming out, obviously, if you have a record it’s going to be much, much more difficult, particularly for people of color, to find jobs, to find educational opportunities, to find housing. All of these very, very basic things that we need to connect to society, to make a contribution, and to survive, those things are being denied to many, many people who have a record. And in addition, many people coming out have lost connections with family and with community. And the lack of bonds there is a major challenge that people face coming out. And certainly the stigma that exists in society, as it relates to people coming out of prison, is no help in that kind of path toward reconnecting with your community of humans on the outside.

And I think another aspect of this thing of emerging from prison—I was thinking about this earlier, talking to someone who’s working on reentry programs. And the idea that prison is a correctional system is still really ingrained a lot of people, I think. So people who haven’t been to prisoner or haven’t had family in prison still retain this notion that you come out and you’ve experienced some sort of, like, rehabilitation or correction, and therefore are more equipped to be in society. But actually it’s really a process of adjustment that requires even more adjustment than you would have needed to make before you went in. And that’s due to just prison fostering an environment that’s the opposite of the kind of environment you need to connect with society and to get a job, get housing. All of those things are actually more difficult after you’ve been in prison. The kind of correctional mindset really needs to change. We need to stop using that language.

CONWAY: I see from your book that a lot of the stuff that you write is from your own personal experience. You had a sister that’s been in and out of prison. And I’m wondering, how does this experience inform your understanding of the prison-industrial complex?

SCHENWAR: Yeah. Well, my sister has been in a doubt of incarceration over the past nine years. And it’s really driven my journalism on this subject—and that’s my reporting, my editing, the stories I commission for Truthout—because what I’ve seen with media coverage of prison, it’s so often just about the numbers, or it’s about the corporations involved, or it’s about what policy is happening on Capitol Hill. It’s usually not about people. And I just read story after story in which human beings were, like, completely disconnected from the narrative around prison reform.

And so the work that I’ve tried to do on this subject has been about inserting people back into the stories that we’re telling about prison and prison reform, and kind of talking about how this issue connects with people not only in prison, but also people on the outside who have loved ones behind bars, and ultimately all of us, because prison does have this rippling effect that touches everyone in society in one way or another.

CONWAY: Would you say that, like, your experience with your sister, say, for instance, because you are white and you’re middle class, would be different from the experiences of most of the prison population, which is black and poor in at least 75 percent of the cases? Is that a different experience? And do you have any idea what those differences might be?

SCHENWAR: Yeah, absolutely. And I read about this in the first chapter of my book, just getting into it.

I think that my experience certainly isn’t representative. And when I write about this, usually I’m drawing from other people’s experiences.

I think that some of the deepest impacts that have been communicated to me by family members have actually been financial and just, like, very concrete. So, for example, one of the families that I talk to is the Fair family in New Haven, Connecticut. And the women I interviewed most was Barbara Fair. And Barbara has had seven sons incarcerated. It’s all of her children have been incarcerated. And they were all young black men growing up during the height of the drug war. So the late 1980s and 1990s. So each of them in turn was going to prison for a very, very small crime, usually. And so Barbara, this was all on her.

I think that one of the kind of untold stories of the prison system is the way in which men’s incarceration affects women. And particularly this falls on black women. Barbara was paying for the phone bills, hundreds and hundreds of dollars a month, visiting her sons in prisons in all different parts of the state, and sometimes other states, spending all of her time and money doing this kind of caretaking, and at the same time experiencing that heart-breaking emotional baggage of watching child after child go to prison.

And actually, even after their release, I think this goes back to what we were talking about earlier. Barbara needed to be the person providing for her sons when they got out and couldn’t get a job because prison had supplied them with this record. She needed to provide psychological support for her son coming out, who had major PTSD. She needed to continue to be the one shouldering the load for seven different people.

And beyond that, what I talk about with her story is that throughout all of this it wasn’t Barbara kind of sitting there being this passive victim of the prison-industrial complex. Barbara actually started taking action. And she’s become an activist on all kinds of different fronts. This is something that doesn’t get touched on enough, I think, in media coverage of this subject, but so often, obviously, like yourself, people who are bound up in this system are taking action, and they’re taking public action, whether it’s on the legislative front, whether it’s in their communities doing grassroots stuff, whether it’s protest in the street. And so Barbara has been taking action on all of those fronts. She’s been organizing victim offender conferences, restorative justice. She organized a biking-while-black protest in her community to protest the profiling of black people riding bikes. She has been going all over the country speaking about her experience with the system and her sons’ experience, organizing campaigns. She was one of the top organizers in the Free Her movement, which specifically focuses on women in prison and ending the drug war and its disproportionate effects on women.

So I think that this type of family story that involves not only violence—because what prison really is is state violence—so not only violence, not only pain and heartbreak, but also activism and finding new ways of moving forward. Those are the kinds of stories that we need to be telling.

CONWAY: Okay. Let’s stop here. In the next segment we’re going to talk about solutions. Maya, thank you for joining us.

SCHENWAR: Thank you so much, Eddie. It’s really great to speak with you.

CONWAY: Thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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