Friday, November 21, 2014


It is Cops and Jails friday at Scission and the temptation is to head to Ferguson for a story, but we will wait on that for now.  Instead how about a book review.  The book in question, Locked Down, Locked Out, is a damning account of the ugly philosophy and practice of what we call incarceration.  The book written by Maya Schenwar, editor in chief at Truthout, is:

...hard-hitting and personal exploration of the enormous damage prison causes by severing millions of people from their families and communities - and the practical alternatives to incarceration that can create a safer, more just world. 

And it is more.

Schenwar talks of her own personal experiences with her sisters incarceration.  Jean Trounstine adds in her review:

But Schenwar’s sister’s struggle and her family’s excruciatingly painful experience of dealing with it is only her entry point into the story of incarceration. This saga, as she says, is borne by all who love someone locked up, although “this country’s most marginalized communities bear the overwhelming brunt of the devastation.” Locked Down, Locked Out is a heartfelt book which takes to task the “behemoth” often called “the prison industrial complex.” Prisons and jails are locking up 2.3 million people behind bars and Schenwar gives us stories as well as facts to illustrate its inner workings, while still managing to present us with hopeful alternatives to prisons.
Going beyond her sister, Schenwar shares stores from many other prisoners with whom she has come to know over many years.

In an interview with Truthout Schenwar is asked what it means to her to be a prison abolitionist.  This is how she answers,

I don’t think that prisons can be fixed and I don’t think the system surrounding prisons can be fixed. It also means putting prisons in the context of why they exist. It means recognizing that they’re grounded in racism and anti-blackness. It means understanding that they’re perpetuated by social, racial, economic injustice, not by a process of correction.

I know there’s a lot of controversy around imagining alternatives. But I think that’s part of being an abolitionist: having discussions about what do you do in particular situations if prisons didn’t exist. It drives me crazy when people ask, “[Without prisons] what would we do with people who commit violent acts?” At the same time I think it’s important to think about. Not because people who commit violent acts are so different from people who don’t, but because you need to have a framework for dealing with things that happen in ways that don’t involve confinement and further violence.

...I think being an abolitionist is about making mistakes and trying to understand them and moving forward that way. It’s always going to be about contradictions until we’re living in a better place.
In her book Maya writes:

Prison’s role in society, the logic goes, is to toss away the bad eggs so they can’t poison us—so we don’t even have to see them. With those eggs cleared, we seamlessly close up the gaps and carry on, clean and whole.

The surprise pops up when the broken seams are revealed—the way that incarceration rips open new holes in the social fabric of families and communities outside, severing intricate networks strung together in ways that are observable only upon their breaking. Instead of eggs, we are tossing away people’s mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, partners, friends

It should be noted that while the first half of this book focuses on the problems of prison, the second half is all about ways deal with those problems.  Trounstine in her review of the book elaborates on that last paragraph.  

 She says “really effective treatment means bringing people out of isolation—not imposing more of it.” She points out ways people on the inside work with people on the outside through telling their stories. And she highlights some particular community-based programs that she has encountered from shore to shore...
 Angela Davis adds,  

Maya Schenwar's stories about prisoners, their families (including her own), and the thoroughly broken punishment system are rescued from any pessimism such narratives might inspire by the author's brilliant juxtaposition of abolitionist imaginaries and radical political practices.

In another review of the book on Truthout,  Mariame Kaba ends with a quote from anti-prison activist Barbara Fair.  I think I will end with the same quote.

I have worked so hard at reform, and saw so little change, that I have come to the conclusion that revolution might be the only response to what is occurring in America relative to criminal justice and the prison industry it feeds.

As a former prisoner myself, an ex-con as it were, I think you and I need to read this book.

The following is from the web page of Maya Schenwar.


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. Maya Schenwar’s personal, open-hearted sharing of her own family’s story, taken together with many other stories and real-world experiments with transformative justice, make this book not only compelling and highly persuasive but difficult to put down. I turned the last page feeling nothing less than inspired.
Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
Locked Down, Locked Out paints a searing portrait of the devastation caused by America’s obsession with prisons. Maya Schenwar helps us grasp the real-life human toll of mass incarceration, both on prisoners and their families, and–equally compellingly–provides hope that collectively we can create a more humane world freed of prisons. Read this deeply personal and political call to end the shameful inhumanity of our prison nation.
Dorothy Roberts, author of Shattered Bonds and Killing the Black Body
If Maya Schenwar’s “Locked Down, Locked Out“ had been just about her and her family’s experience with her sister Kayla’s struggles with addiction and incarceration it would have been worth the read. But Maya has given us more: the narratives of others and how incarceration weaves itself around the lives of those inside and out, until all are entangled in the vicious web. She tells us “prison seals its inhabitants off from the world” and there is no doubt that she is correct. With “Locked Down, Locked Out” Schenwar gives those whose names we have forgotten their names back, and gives us all reason destroy what has been this nation’s consistent and embarrassing failure.
R. Dwayne Betts, author of A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison
Maya Schenwar’s authentic and compelling writing gives a glimpse into the lives of people who are trapped in the U.S. criminal justice system. Woven through her chapters is an abiding personal commitment to build connections between people inside prison walls and beyond. Among books that aim to narrow the gap between law and justice, this is one of the finest.
Kathy Kelly, two-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee and author of Other Lands Have Dreams: From Baghdad to Pekin Prison
How do we keep people safe without prisons? Schenwar doesn’t simply elucidate the many ways in which prisons destroy families and communities; she also brings readers into the everyday workings of real-life projects that begin to answer this question. Anyone who has ever felt concerned about harm and safety should read this book.
Victoria Law, author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women
Locked Down, Locked Out does a remarkable thing: it provides a human accounting of an inhuman system. Maya Schenwar takes us on a harrowing, inspiring journey through the horrors of the prison nation and its effects that reverberate far beyond the prison walls, as well as the creative brilliance animating contemporary movements for justice not vengeance. A guide for anyone interested in real-world dystopia and all who dream of freedom.
Dan Berger, author of Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era
Maya Schenwar’s stories about prisoners, their families (including her own), and the thoroughly broken punishment system are rescued from any pessimism such narratives might inspire by the author’s brilliant juxtaposition of abolitionist imaginaries and radical political practices. 
Angela Y. Davis, author of Are Prisons Obsolete?
The prime excuse for imprisoning people–to punish wrongdoers and serve as deterrent to others–is simply incorrect, unworkable and costing the nation many lives and billions of tax dollars. Maya Schenwar makes a powerful argument with experience, research and clear direct language that our resources can better be utilized to provide treatment, education, restorative justice practices, healing circles, the arts and more. Tough on crime? It’s tougher to care. These alternatives to bars and isolation cost far less–and have proven to work. Why then do we keep getting this wrong? I salute Maya and her courage. This book should stand out as key to finally ending the imprisoning of America.
Luis J. Rodriguez, author of Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. and Hearts & Hands: Creating Community in Violent Times
Locked Down, Locked Out is a searing portrait of waywardness and redemption, justice arrested and deliverance detained. I read it ravenously, surprised and enlightened on every page. No one has narrated and illuminated the collateral damage of our carceral state more powerfully than Ms. Schenwar.
Bill Ayers, author of Fugitive Days: A Memoir and A Kind and Just Parent: The Children of Juvenile Court
Maya Schenwar’s book is a welcome contribution to the growing body of literature on mass incarceration. Read it and learn not only about how the criminal (in)justice system works and whom it affects, but also about where you fit into it. With lucidity and courage, Schenwar treats her subject in its entirety, helping us see the role played by those outside the walls. She creates a portrait of crime and punishment—and some promising alternatives—that can, if we let it, guide us toward correcting our current “correctional” system.
Laura Whitehorn, former political prisoner; editor, The War Before
Ms. Schenwar has written a tour de force—a must-read, damning account of the twisted philosophy and practice of incarceration, where prisoners are “disappeared,” condemned to a life of being marked as a “convict,” deprived of future opportunities, stripped of hope, abandoned. Until society changes its approach towards its “offenders,” until we leaven punishment with forgiveness, with reconciliation, and with restorative justice, we are all guilty as charged!
Dennis J. Kucinich, US Congressman (1997-2013) and Presidential candidate
This moving book makes a very important intervention into both the popular understanding and the political discussions about the devastating impact of mass imprisonment. In her riveting descriptions of what happens to individuals and families caught in the long reach of the prison nation, Schenwar makes a compelling case for prison abolition and reinvestment in communities. This book will change both what we understand about injustice and how we work for more logical and effective solutions.
Beth E. Richie, author of Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation
Locked Down, Locked Out may be the best and most deeply moving book yet published on mass incarceration in the United States. It is a call for America to reclaim its humanity, in the face of a system of punishment and retribution that is as cruel and ineffective as it is symptomatic of how much the United States has lost sight of the slightest vestige of democratic ideals. Deeply personal, heart-wrenching, and rigorous, Locked Down, Locked Out provides a powerful snapshot of the damage that mass incarceration does to families, individuals, and society in general. This book should be read by everyone who wants to understand not simply the need for prison reform, but also what it means for the United States to recover a sense of dignity, justice, and the need for collective action.
Henry A. Giroux, author of Disposable Youth: Racialized Memories and the Culture of Cruelty
Maya Schenwar proves prisons are not the solutions society should seek, but rather, that we should see them as the problem—and take steps to restructure society to bring healing to communities and families.
Dolores Canales, founder of California Families Against Solitary Confinement
Locked Down, Locked Out is a much-needed look at systems of social control with a big picture perspective. A must read.
Joseph “Jazz” Hayden, founder of All Things Harlem and the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow
Maya Schenwar brings us closer into the lives of people inflicted with the illness of drug addiction and those who love them. Her family’s story brings compassion into the picture and helps us to understand our colossal failure of using prisons to warehouse people most in need of healing.
Andrea James, founder of Families For Justice As Healing, organizer of Free Her! and author of Upper Bunkies Unite
With vivid candor, Locked Down, Locked Out gets to the heart of one of the greatest tragedies of the prison system: the break-up of families. Both heartbreaking and joyous – an enlightening journey.
Deborah Jiang-Stein, author of Prison Baby