‘Chipping Away At The System’: Maya Schenwar on Alternatives to Our ‘Justice’ System

George Lavender

Maya Schenwar, author of Locked Down, Locked Out

Writing about Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better, Michelle Alexander says, This book has the power to transform hearts and minds, opening us to new ways of imagining what justice can mean for individuals, families, communities, and our nation as a whole.” (To read a chapter from the book, click here). The Prison Complex spoke with the book’s author, Truthout Editor-in-Chief Maya Schenwar, about how writing the book changed her own perspectives on prison abolition and alternative forms of justice.

To start with, why did you first decide to write this book?

Given my experience with having a family member incarcerated and also my correspondence with people in prison over the years, my hope was to introduce into this conversation this element of connection and disconnection. These statistics get repeated again and again: We have 2.3 or 2.5 million people behind bars, we’re the most incarcerated country in the world, the drug war … Those are all really important to hear and talk about, but a lot of times those millions and millions of other people who are affected by incarceration but not incarcerated themselves aren’t discussed. The families, and loved ones, and communities of people who are behind bars are often affected in really damaging ways and that affects the rest of us. Every single person in society is affected by incarceration, so I definitely wanted to bring that into the forefront of the conversation. The other thing I wanted to do was talk about how prison disconnects and isolates and tears people apart — and what are things we can do to bring people together in a way that can address harm and violence without prison. It’s always tricky to talk about that, but I think it’s really necessary because otherwise all of our discussions about mass incarceration or incarceration in general come down to, Well we always have to have prison, whether or not we incarcerate a lot of people it always has to be there to protect us.” I think if you challenge the idea that prison protects people and talk about the way prison damages people you have to be able to also talk about ways to do things differently. So I want to try to begin addressing that.

Who did you imagine reading your book?

It’s funny because that’s one of the things you have to put in a book proposal and I kind of faked it when I wrote my proposal. I was like, Oh well I think the people I’m targeting are people concerned about social justice, like the people who read Truthout but don’t necessarily know a lot about the prison-industrial complex. But in writing this book, I kind of shifted a little bit in my head, because a lot of time the people I was writing about were not people who would necessarily be reading Truthout or identify as progressive. So I think that one of the challenges with writing about the prison-industrial complex that demonstrates how it affects everyone is trying to write with the feeling that you’re not just speaking to leftists or progressives or people who identify a certain way ideologically, but to people who are affected by the system nonetheless. I hope when people read the book, they gain a little bit of understanding of how they might be affected.

Before this interview, The Prison Complex asked for questions on Twitter. @AliceOllstein asked:

@MayaSchenwar @GeorgeLavender What do u say to people paralyzed by the enormity of the task of end mass incarceration & its many cruelties?

 — Alice Ollstein (@AliceOllstein) November 252014

I think that the answer to that is you can never have some huge monolithic campaign to end mass incarceration. It wouldn’t be feasible, and it would also be counter to the kind of action that’s actually effective. I think that the point of thinking about abolition or decarceration as a goal is to think about chipping away at the system from various sides, so you’re not saying, I’m going to end mass incarceration now,” but, There is this prison near me, how can I think about a campaign to close that prison or reduce the population?” And do that with the consciousness of spreading the word about mass incarceration. So educating people about why the whole system is bad while you’re chipping away at parts of it and helping to shrink it at the same time. I also think building alternatives — well, I don’t even like the word alternatives—but building other ways to deal with problems and ways to prevent violence from happening are really motivating ways to work towards abolition. So if you talk about it in terms of mass incarceration, that’s this towering thing that’s very abstract. What I try to do in the book, and what a lot of organizers are doing, is to say, Okay, mass incarceration is millions of individual people, so how do we start identifying those individual people or communities or groups and start thinking about what they really need.” I think chipping away at the system from various sides means figuring out in your role and in your position in life what can you do to contribute towards shrinking the system. That’s a lot more manageable. 

On that note, in the course of writing this book and speaking to organizers how did your own views change on the idea of prison abolition?

I think that I definitely solidified around the idea of abolition through the writing of this book. Going in, it was something I believed in, but I believed in it as this kind of lofty goal that couldn’t really be addressed in the present moment. Kind of, Okay, that’s a dream.” And really what I learned by interviewing organizers and gaining insights from people in prison is that people are finding ways to do abolition every day. So for some people that might mean not calling the police and figuring out ways to deal with problems or fears or threats in ways that don’t involve that pipeline to the system. For other people it might mean working for the closing of a prison or working on bail reform or working to end mandatory minimums with the idea in mind that this is a step toward abolition — toward both shrinking the system and demonstrating that the system isn’t effective in serving humanity. I talk in the book about how I had personal conflict around my feelings towards the system because my sister’s drug problem was really creating issues for my family and it seemed like it would be easier if she went to prison — one part of me thought that. And actually when she did go back to prison, it became very evident that that was not helpful for her life or any of our lives, and that it further damaged our family structure. I now definitely call myself an abolitionist, but I also feel that one of the most important parts of that is thinking about how I’m carrying that through in my actions. So it’s not just about subscribing to a particular ideology or platform, but what does that platform mean in my life. It’s messy. It’s one thing to think a certain way or buy into a philosophy and its different to think about how you’re acting on that philosophy. I think that’s changed my view not just in my personal life, but also in terms of my job as a journalist, and that’s been interesting as well.

Are you concerned that the abolitionist label shuts down conversation about alternatives to incarceration?

You kind of have to use it strategically. I don’t start conversations with people who disagree with me by saying, You have to call yourself an abolitionist.” I think sometimes when you start a conversation with that word, it can shape the conversation in ways that aren’t helpful. It’s really crucial to think about who you are talking to, and how does prison or the prison-industrial complex relate to them, and how can you make it personal and real. It’s been interesting at Q&As at my readings, because people raise their hands and want to get into a debate. I’m not particularly interested in trying to convince people to think exactly what I think, but I think questioning is actually really productive. I definitely had to do that in my personal journey on this subject. A lot time people will say, What are you going to do if someone breaks into your house?” They’ll bring up these scenarios, and I’ll ask a question in response. Instead of throwing the word abolition at them I’ll say, What would happen?” I’ll play out this situation of this person going to prison, what is that going to do for them, and more importantly what is that going to do for you, the victim or the hypothetical victim? Starting those conversations has been fascinating. Watching people think through what is prison doing for them or to them.

The second part of your book is about alternatives to the prison system. We’re hearing a lot lately about programs that are labelled as alternatives.” You’ve written about problems you see with mandatory drug treatment, others have criticized mandatory psychiatric treatment. Talk about the dangers you see with some alternatives”?

A really important question to ask every time an alternative is proposed is does this alternative” perpetuate the prison-industrial complex? And not just does this alternative put more people in prison specifically (although some of the alternatives actually do ultimately incarcerate more people), but does it perpetuate a system of social control, particularly racist social control? Does it confine and isolate people? Does it cut people’s ties with their families and communities? And does it embed the state more in people’s lives? Sometimes those questions are difficult to answer but actually my experience of looking at these alternatives is that they’re actually not that difficult to answer.

For example, I’ve written about mandatory drug treatment. So with mandatory treatment, oftentimes what happens is someone is arrested. That’s already putting them in the complex, and then when they’re convicted they’re then taken to sentencing. So all of this stuff has already happened that has entrenched them in the system. When they go to sentencing, the idea is that the drug treatment is proposed as an alternative to sending them to prison, but sometimes that treatment itself is happening in a facility that looks very much like a prison. It’s locked down, you aren’t allowed to leave, they’re separated from their families, usually they’re not allowed to have their kids there with them. It also perpetuates this idea of the state having control of their their bodies. Most of the time, people mandated to treatment aren’t dependent on drugs, but they might have committed a drug crime. So it’s this force, the state exerting control on peoples bodies and very disproportionately targeting black people and other people of color and manipulating and confining their bodies. That’s an example I come back to a lot because particularly liberals seem to like the idea of helping people instead of hurting them. But I think we really need to dig beneath the rhetoric. A lot of these alternatives and things proposed instead of mass incarceration are things called targeted policing” or targeted crime hotspots.” It sounds really good in a way, Oh, we’re just going to zero in on violent crime and people killing each other.” but really what it means is targeting communities of color. So that means heightening policing in certain places where people are already marginalized. As we’ve seen, especially over the past few months, there has been a lot of energy around resisting police violence. Obviously police violence has been a problem for a very long time, and police violence is essentially one of the things being proposed as an alternative.”

On Twitter @JoshGravensTX asked:

@GeorgeLavender @MayaSchenwar ? as the #WarOnDrugs comes to an end what will take its place? @inthesetimesmag @Piper @AliceOllstein

 — Josh Gravens (@JoshGravensTX) November 242014

First of all, the War on Drugs” is sadly not ending, although the rhetoric of the War on Drugs is ending. which is exciting. Obama now puts the war on drugs in quotes, so, yay, that’s good! But large numbers of black people are still getting arrested for marijuana despite the fact that white and black people use marijuana at similar rates. There’s been a big scare around heroin over the last year and a real ramping up of law enforcement attention and prison-based and incarceration-based attention <on> heroin and of course black and brown communities are the ones targeted in that case as well. So I think a) the War on Drugs not over and b) I think we also have to think about what else is being demonized beside drugs and how that is fueling the pipeline to prison. I think there’s an eternal focus on sending black and brown people to prison, so no matter what the fad is that’s what the state likes to do. We have to keep that in mind no matter what criminal charges we’re looking at. Another thing is, there are certain crimes that we’re just not allowed to talk about and that’s something we should be thinking critically about. One thing that’s been really allowed to accelerate over the last few years is the sex offender registries. People get on these registries for all kinds of reasons. One of my penpals that I write about in my book was 21 and had sex with a 15 year old, and that got her on the registry for 25 years, in addition to going to prison for a few years. She’s not allowed to see her children. We have to ask: Is this just something that’s off limits to question? Certainly people in power are not allowed to question it. Sex crimes are always the crimes that are off the table in terms of reform. What are the effects that’s actually having both in terms of justice and in terms of safety and in terms of civil rights and civil liberties. I think that if we’re really going to talk about reform, and certainly if we’re going to talk about decarceration, we have to talk about how prison is being used and how the prison-industrial complex is being used in all cases. That’s really uncomfortable for people. Talking about the War on Drugs has become really safe and comfortable, even amongst conservatives, but questioning prison as a whole is a whole different subject.

And on that subject, there’s been a lot written, including here on The Prison Complex, about a cross-party” consensus on reforming the criminal justice system, what are your feelings about about that?

I think that the problem with that gets back to some of the issues we’ve been talking about with alternatives and with the problem of changing the system instead of letting it incarnate itself in another form. Conservative groups like Right on Crime” are advocating for reducing the number of people in prison for certain non-violent offenses like drug possession for someone who has no prior convictions, and while they’re advocating for that they’re also advocating for increased surveillance and increased policing in communities of color. They’re doing it through this insidious rhetoric of, We want to be smart on crime.” The question is: How are you defining real dangers and how are you addressing them? Those are crucial questions, but often those are being overlooked in favor of this idea that it’s very exciting to have a bipartisan consensus. I think it’s really hopeful that people are getting more united on the idea that we’re incarcerating too many people, and ideally, this would be a moment to have really important conversations about what we are saying will actually address harm in our societies and what are really the problems. Now I think there are spaces to have some of these conversations but politicians are really anxious about touching them. One thing that I’m also concerned about is we like the idea of releasing people for non-violent crimes with no prior offenses, but there’s always this language of focusing on the people who deserve to be incarcerated and strengthening those penalties or enhancing those penalties. That’s unfortunately throwing very large numbers of people under the bus. In fact, it’s throwing most people under the bus. I even feel that way about Proposition 47 in California. It’s great that it’s going to reduce the prison population, but all the PR around it that evoked that tough on crime” message? It kept coming back to we want to lock up people who deserve to be locked up.” I think it’s really sad that that’s the direction advocates had to go.

You write that Americans like happy endings. It feels like you’re searching for some optimism or hope in the book, to what extent did you find it?

I think that I found a little bit of the happy part without the ending part. There are all these projects going on around the country focusing on decarceration that are becoming very successful. Really closing jails and prisons and bringing important issues to the forefront. Also there are projects that are introducing new ways or different ways of dealing with harm and violence in communities and that’s very hopeful. So throughout my interviews with organizers and people who are involved in carrying out those projects, I did get a real sense of optimism about the future and a little bit about the present. The reason I say there are no endings is that I couldn’t possibly make any predictions. I tried to emphasize that while this stuff is going on in the present we’re dreaming of a different future and working towards a different future, but we can’t say what that future will be. It’s been disappointing to me to see that as consciousness has been rising about mass incarceration and the damage it causes, that a lot of people are assuming that prison populations are going way down and this mass incarceration is going to be over. But when you look a little closer under the microscope you see all these insidious trends towards scary alternatives, and you start seeing that prison populations were decreasing for a couple of years, but in 2013 they actually increased, because while there was some reform on a federal level there was more incarceration on a state level. So it’s going to be a trudge, and I think all we can do is put one foot in front of another and keep getting involved in ways that are possible for us individually. Part of what I wanted to get across with the idea that there is no real ending. When people get out of prison it’s often framed as a happy ending, and under the current system that’s just not the case. It’s about getting out and grappling with a world where the dominant culture doesn’t want you and also it’s about grappling with the fact that so many people get stuck in that cycle of prison. There is no ending there. The title of the epilogue is Not An Ending” and I was thinking, Is that a cop-out”?! I do think just because you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, or whatever metaphor you want to use, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be putting one foot in front of the other and thinking about what we can do every day.

I want to push you a little more on the cop-out criticism. You quote Beth Richie, which perhaps could be applied to all these alternatives who says of one alternative that it’s still an experiment a way of thinking, and a call to develop something new.” Were you concerned that people might read about these alternatives and feel like they were too vague?

That was a concern for sure. I rewrote the second part of the book quite a bit for that reason. And that’s because the subtitle of my book which I’m still not totally crazy about is why prison doesn’t work and how we can do better.” People are looking for the answer to end incarceration and do something differently and I think what I realized, through talking to organizers and activists and other writers, is you can’t propose the monolithic alternative to prison. Any kind of monolithic solution is going to be ultimately a failure that’s going to perpetuate a lot of the grounding of the prison-industrial complex. Huge monolithic state institutions come along with racism, ableism, transphobia, classism, all these things that are built into these structures. Also you can’t really imagine into existence what every single person in the country engaging in transformative justice would look like because transformative justice is specific to situations, and people, and communities and individual problems. You can’t come in from the top down and say ok guys here’s your solution” because that’s not transformative. So I think ultimately I do think the alternatives that are being proposed that are mass scale solutions are all dangerous. My idea was to go around and look at what are individual communities or individual groups doing, and how can I bring those to light and demonstrate that stuff is being done outside the current system.

Picking up on that, here’s another question from @AliceOllstein. She asks:

@MayaSchenwar @GeorgeLavender @inthesetimesmag How do we ensure decarceration movements/​models are led bottom-up instead of top-down?

 — Alice Ollstein (@AliceOllstein) November 252014

You can’t ensure that. If we’re the ones doing the movements, we have to check ourselves at every turn. We have to make sure that people who are actually entangled in the system are the ones leading it, because it’s very easy to advocate for people and not actually advocate things that will help them. I think that’s the trap that many of these alternatives that are being pushed for by lawmakers are falling into. They’re advocating things that look good on paper and sound good rhetorically but wouldn’t actually fit in with what most people in prison are looking for and most family members and most victims. So that kind of litmus test I was talking about earlier for alternatives can also be used to look at initiatives you’re involved in. Are we advocating for things that are going to perpetuate the system? Are we perpetuating the system through our actions, not just goals, but how are we doing this advocacy and are we making decisions that are ultimately going to impact people in destructive ways? That’s definitely difficult. I’ve struggled with that myself. The eternal dilemma is how do you advocate on the legislative level for things that will help people in the immediate term because people are in prison right now so how do you advocate on the level of condiitons and that kind of thing and also push towards decarceration.

And finally, what are your plans for the future?

I think at this particular moment if someone told me I had to write another book I would run away to another planet because that was really hard! But I do feel like my work on this book has shifted my approach to the work I do at Truthout. I said this process had shifted me as a journalist and an editor and that’s definitely true. Truthout covers these issues quite a bit. My approach is not to try and maintain some kind of objective facade but to think about trying to move the conversation forward. If I want to be part of the movement, what part does the media play in that? Media plays a huge part. Media perpetuated all the myths about tough on crime” and how we needed to fight crime and fight drugs. Media perpetuates myths every time a story happens in which someone goes to prison. And how does the media portray people who have been accused of crimes? How does the media portray marginalized communities who have been targeted by police? These are questions that I need to ask not just as a critic or as someone standing outside looking in, but as someone who’s inside of it, and I need to make those decisions as an editor. How do we make the world a better place through the media? And that’s not just about covering certain stories or certain topics it’s also about our methods and what words we choose and who we ask people to interview and how we frame situations. There are a whole lot of tricky questions there. So I think in the most immediate sense I see my work as trying to infuse the media I do with those larger goals and think about how the media can move us towards a world beyond prisons.

This interview was edited for clarity.

George Lavender is an award-winning radio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.
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