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From Incarceration to Decarceration

The Need to Abolish Prisons

Aviva Stahl is a Brooklyn-based independent journalist who focuses on prison issues. She primarily writes about solitary confinement and the communities that experience the greatest marginalization on the inside, including LGBT people and Muslims.
Maya Schenwar, Locked Down, Locked Out (San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler Publishers, 2014), 228 pages, $18.95, softcover.

Prison justice issues are garnering more public exposure today than ever before. In June 2012, the United States Senate held its first hearing on solitary confinement, the second in February 2014. This past fall, the New York Times ran a series of prominent exposés on conditions on Rikers Island that resulted in substantive shifts in staffing and conditions. Even the immense success of the TV show Orange Is the New Black suggests that what happens to people locked up is no longer a fringe issue, but part of our public consciousness.

Yet there are so many contradictions bound up in the way we talk about prisons. Solitary confinement is torture for children, but not for terrorists; the death penalty is unjust, but locking people up for life is not; “inmates” are terrifying beings, except the ones who look or speak like us. Therefore, for many progressives, the question is not whether prisons “work”—but how to make them more humane for those who “deserve” time on the inside.

For a prison journalist like me, who is constantly navigating the space between these contradictions, Maya Schenwar’s Locked Down, Locked Out is a refreshing and desperately needed analysis into the problems at the root of our prison-industrial complex. In providing a moving macroanaly-
sis of why prisons do not work, and what alternatives might provide healing for everyone, her book constitutes a compelling retort to today’s constant refrain of “reform, reform, reform.” The text is meticulously researched but also deeply personal: Schenwar begins by describing the moment she learned her sister had been incarcerated (again), the first of her family’s experiences woven throughout the book.

For Schenwar, reform is anything but the answer. In the introduction she tells us, “Incarceration serves as the default answer to many of the worst social problems plaguing this county—not because it solves them, but because it buries them” (3). The first half of the book is dedicated to exploring why that is, showing how prisons shatter poor neighborhoods and communities of color by isolating and disconnecting friends, parents, children, and partners from their loved ones on either side of the bars. A central facet of this story is how people on the inside are impacted by incarceration. “Loneliness gnaws at the essence of who we are. The hunger for connection with the outside world is what, in the end, turns us callous, creating delusions that we are better off lonely,” writes a Pelican Bay prisoner (9).

Schenwar brings us, in tow, on a family visit to see her sister in prison – and asks what it means to her sister to feel abandoned when the visit finishes, or what it means for her to feel that she has “abandoned” her sister when she leaves her behind. In another chapter, Schenwar describes another form of isolation experienced by folks on the inside: how prisoners are cut off from all forms of communication, except for very occasional phone calls and letters (if they have even been lucky enough to maintain relationships on the outside). One of my dearest friends in prison, a woman named Geri, is nearing the end of her sentence after many, many years being locked up. In a recent letter she described her anxiety at the prospect of release. “I’ve never touched a cell phone or ‘tablet’ or even ‘seen’ the Internet,” she told me. How could anyone learn to survive in that parallel reality, and then thrive when they are thrust back into the free world?

In her chapter on guard abuse, Schenwar provides a particularly compelling analysis of why prisons are inherently flawed institutions. I am in touch with many trans women locked up in New York, and have lost count of the number of times I have opened a letter to find a detailed account of a physical or sexual assault committed by a Corrections Officer. One woman told me how a male guard had moved her from one solitary confinement cell to another, all the way at the end of the hall, so that movement in and out of the vicinity would not be visible. The same guard returned another night to rape her, and then another night, and then another; with literally no way to contact anyone else but other guards, she was powerless to stop him. “Although the US Supreme Court held in 1993 that an inmate ‘has a constitutional right to be secure in her bodily integrity and free from attack by prisons guards,'” Schenwar writes, “the very structure of prisons – in which guards are explicitly handed the mission of controlling prisoners’ bodies – belies that ideal” (65).

If prisons are unredeemable institutions, what is our alternative? Schenwar gives us an answer, but not a simple one. “Decarceration…is a movement toward un-canceling people – not just by fighting for their release, but by recognizing and supporting their humanity” (119).

One example Schenwar cites of how we can bring decarceration into our daily lives is through prison penpal projects. “I think about how the one-on-one relationship, in which the prisoner emerges as a person (with thoughts, a personality, a history, hopes, dreams, nightmares),” she writes, “Might serve as a model for the beginnings of a person-based, connection-based justice system” (100). This chapter was another that spoke to me on a deeply personal level. It is the handwriting in the letters I receive that reminds me why responding matters, and why writing on these issues is so important; the handwriting is visual proof that someone real wrote this letter, even if the reality they are describing seems terrifying and utterly surreal.

Other important tasks in the process of decarceration are figuring out how to handle human conflict outside of police and prisons, and identifying different ways to hold accountable people who have caused harm. Schenwar provides a host of examples of already-existing projects committed to healing individuals and communities through connection, instead of isolation. Take accountability projects like Philly Stands Up! or Support New York, which work with perpetrators of sexual assault and domestic violence to enable them to recognize the harm their behavior caused and support them to change. As Schenwar and her interviewees stress, these processes are not easy: they take time and trust and work, on the part of the perpetrator, the survivor, and the community. And they require us to resist the urge to call the cops even when our families have experienced the most grievous forms of harm – to “hear” and challenge that part of ourselves that might even take pleasure in knowing that someone else has been isolated, disconnected, “canceled.”

One of the prisoners I write to was incarcerated for sex offenses – she was convicted (and is guilty, by her own account) of raping two women. In her last letter to me, she expressed her gratitude that I would be willing to write about the injustices she experienced on the inside, despite the nature of her crime. As Schenwar so eloquently states, being truly committed to a new vision of justice means “knowing that accountability isn’t only an obligation thrust upon people when they’ve done harm” (186). It is only through letter-writing—through connection—that I was able to learn why this woman believes she was driven to hurt others in the way she did, and how it relates to her own history of oppression. Perhaps my support can enable her to heal.

Locked Down, Locked Out is a brave text that centers the voices of incarcerated people and the experiences of criminalized communities. Maya Schenwar compellingly argues that imagining a different future – one where we do not merely have more “humane” prisons—requires us to recognize and resist our individual and societal attachment to carceral logics. Her book is a must-read for anyone who wonders if today’s prison reform logic will bring justice and healing to all of our communities.

2015, Volume 67, Number 6 (November)
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