Prison Nation: Our Shame

In the United States, we don’t think about the prison system much. It’s that “out of-sight, out of mind” thing.

But that’s the whole point. Prison in America isn’t about rehabilitation; it’s about isolation. As Maya Schenwar writes in Locked Up, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better: “Prison’s role in society, the logic goes, is to toss away the bad eggs so they cant poison us – so we don’t have to see them. With those eggs cleared, we seamlessly close up the gaps and carry on, clean and whole.”

Schenwar is editor-in-chief of Truthout, an independent social justice news website. Her impressive book is far more than a recounting of depressing stats of our penal system. Her sister suffered from a substance abuse problem and was incarcerated repeatedly. Schenwar uses her story as the anchor for this acute indictment of America’s prison system.

Put it this way: If a company produced cars and 43 percent of them were defective, the company would go out of business. No one would buy those cars. But that’s how we operate our criminal justice system. Schenwar writes: “Ninety-five percent of prisoners are released. They’re emerging from their isolation poorer and more alienated than when they went in. They’re coming out with fewer economic opportunities and fewer human connections on the outside… more than 40 percent of those released will return to prison within three years.”

Schenwar explores the racist nature of prison – African-Americans are six more likely to be incarcerated than whites – and the strains placed upon families by its policy of making contact with loved ones behind bars ridiculously difficult.

Truly, the US has earned the title of “Prison Nation,” with more prisons being built and more inmates than any other country in the world. And, as we all know, the War on Drugs fueled this tragedy.

What does Schenwar suggest? Chip away at the edifice of prison from a number of different directions. “All over the country,” she writes, “people are implementing community-based accountability and transformative justice strategies, making human connection both their jumping-off point and their objective. They’re combining new models of doing justice with larger movements for change, taking on deep structural issues that drive the current system.”

Her simple message: We can do better.

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