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Why Prison Doesn’t Work

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Maya Schenwar has paved new terrain in her memoir cum analysis, Locked Down, Locked Out, about the prison industrial complex. We have a plethora of books and online materials that detail the facts and figures of the War on Drugs along with the policy debates on issues around mandatory minimums and employment difficulties for people with felony convictions. Michelle Alexander, Angela Davis, Ruthie Gilmore and March Mauer are the pioneers in this genre with new generation authors like Bryan Stevenson now entering the fray. We also have the stories- from the popular hit Orange is the New Black to the grinding but vital tales of solitary and torture like Robert King’s From the Bottom of the Heap. Schenwar’s book combines these two genres but also adds a third dimension-the story of a person with a family member caught up in the uncaring revolving door of mindless, repeating incarceration.

On one level, Schenwar’s book is about her sister Kayla’s multi-staged battle with drug addiction and the toll her serial arrests and convictions took on the Schenwar family. We get the details of incarceration from someone who has waited in the interminably long lines to visit, has put up with astronomical phone bills to cover calls from a locked up loved one desperate to hear a friendly voice. We slip inside her daily journey as the author carries on with her life, all the while the incarceration of her sister and best friend grabbing her by the soul. But yet Maya Schenwar has done so much more than provide a memoir or diary.

She is not the typical critically impacted family member. She comes from a middle class family where young girls are not supposed to end up behind bars but in college dormitories. Her family can afford the phone bills and the gas to drive four hours to a remote prison in the midst of the Illinois cornfields. Her story reminds us that our prison system has stretched its tentacles so far that even people like her family are getting a taste of the misery typically reserved for the outcast people of color in our urban centers.

What is unique about Schenwar is that she knows all this and more. She is not only a visitor to prisons but an activist who fights to have the prison system abolished. She has studied the system in its detail and reflected extensively on how it could be transformed. The strongest part of the book is that she shares these reflections with us as well. While her voice dominates, she structures her narrative almost like a long performance which she hosts while sharing the stage with a long series of guests, each of whom adds another dynamic dimension to our understanding of this social policy debacle which goes by many names- mass incarceration, prison nation, the prison industrial complex-none of which fully captures the racial, class, gender, economic and political forces that have created this monstrous system.

Schenwar seems to know everyone involved in this epic social justice struggle to create a criminal and social justice system as opposed to the injustice systems that exist. We hear the voices of the famous-Angela Davis and Michelle Alexander, but more importantly we get ground level perspectives from dozens of activists and projects in different parts of the country trying to upend this prison nation and find new “connections”, new ways of doing things. Refreshingly, women of color occupy a lockeddownprominent position in Schenwar’s chronicle, women like Chicago’s Mariame Kaba who runs a Project Nia, which specializes in community justice, combining restorative techniques with transformative analysis to forge new consciousness and connections in the oppressed communities of her city. We meet Susan Burton, who more than two decades ago descended into a spiral of substance abuse and incarceration after police killed her five year old son. Her descent into darkness ended after nineteen years behind bars. Burton now runs A New Way of Life in Los Angeles, a program which provides housing for formerly incarcerated women and their children but also empowers them as social justice activists. We also meet formerly incarcerated activist Jason Lydon, whose Black and Pink group in Massachusetts has built up a huge network of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people from the LGBTQ community, a cohort frequently targeted for special forms of harassment and segregation in many prisons systems.

Ultimately, Schenwar’s book is not just another chronicle of how depressing our criminal legal system is, of how overly victimized poor people of color are. She walks the careful tightrope between honesty about the horrors while offering the hope of transformation through highlighting the activities and the organizations of Kaba, Burton, Lydon and many others. In weaving all this together she manages also to demonstrate how the system creates internal contradictions for all those touched by incarceration, no matter how committed they are to abolition or transformative justice.

Schenwar has the courage not to spare us her personal angst and anger Kayla’s failure to address her problems of addiction, at the ways in which her sister’s repeated falls tear at the fabric of their family and even erode some of the unconditional love Maya so clearly has for Kayla. To her credit as a writer, Schenwar is able to take a simple personal incident, when someone breaks into a car and steals her laptop, into a moral dilemma on a much grander scale. She has lost a laptop with her book manuscript on it. She has not backed it up. But does she call the police? Who has done this harm to her? Yes, there are ideas about restorative circles and peacebuilding but how do they solve the problems we confront face to face, the problems which are the result of this country’s decision to solve problems of poverty, inequality, racial conflict, unemployment and crime through bulimic prison building and overpolicing rather than building what Schenwar calls “connections,” rather than creating bonds of empathy and solidarity that take us to a higher level of humanity not back to the doctrine of passionless greed and brutality?

Like all books that tackle a broad canvas, there are things that inexplicably seem to be missing. The two that stood out for me were her failure to mention immigration and immigrants’ rights organizations in any detail. Detention of immigrants has become a critical part of mass incarceration but also, the DREAMers and others who have so heroically resisted deportation and criminalization have become critical icons of social justice in this era. In addition, while she does a wonderful job of introducing us to so many effective projects and community-building efforts that make effective connections, she doesn’t give us much of a hint as to how these genuine alternatives might constitute a social movement where the whole becomes much greater than the sum of its parts. While community building is crucial, reallocation of resources and political power are also essential to getting at the root of mass incarceration. These will need organizations that can act at a statewide and national level to contest the current reality.

Minor shortcomings aside, this is a great book, essential reading with something inspiring and insightful for those who are on the frontlines of this battle and those for whom this is a new issue.

James Kilgore is an activist with the Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice in Illinois. He is the author of three novels, all of which were drafted during his six and a half years of incarceration. His forthcoming book, to be published by the New Press in 2015, is titled Understanding and Ending Mass Incarceration: A Primer.  He can be contacted at  waazn1@gmail.com

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James Kilgore is a writer and activist based in Urbana, Illinois. He spent six and a half years in prison. During those years, he drafted three novels which have been published since his release in 2009. His latest book, Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Era will be published by The New Press in September. He can be contacted at waazn1@gmail.com

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