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The HIGH TIMES Interview: Maya Schenwar

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The United States has earned the title “Prison Nation,” with more prisons and more inmates than any other country in the world. And, as we all know, the War on Drugs has played a major role in fueling this tragedy.

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 can’t 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.”

Her book is an impressive, hard-hitting indictment of our penal system, especially in terms of the damage it inflicts on people who serve time, often for nonviolent offenses. Are new models of doing justice possible? Schenwar thinks so.

Your younger sister Kayla, who spent time in prison, serves as the anchor of your book. How is she doing?

She’s doing really well. This time, when she got out, she was given a chance to have some resources—I don’t even want to say to “rehabilitate,” but to reconnect. She was released into a less punitive environment. She was released into a women’s treatment center that focused on connection with her baby, her family, with people in the community. It’s been difficult. Finding a job is extremely difficult—working through the barriers not only to employment, but to housing and educational opportunities, certainly. My sister is lucky in that she’s been able to maintain connections with us, her family.

Was her incarceration drug-related? 

Yes. Everything that happened revolved around her addiction. Not because an addiction prompts criminal acts—but because heroin’s illegal, and because a heroin habit is illegal, she had to commit certain crimes to keep herself out of the view of society. The last thing that she was incarcerated for was theft: She stole a bottle of perfume from a drugstore.

You come from a solid middle-class family. How did she fall away? 

Early on in high school, she got into some trouble—the kind of thing that a lot of people fall into during high school. She was arrested for drug possession and ended up going to juvenile detention. For most people who go to juvenile detention, the path isn’t good. It takes them off the path of finishing high school, finding a solid job, getting a college education, and it significantly increases their chances of going to prison as an adult.

Did her situation motivate you to write about America’s prison problem?

I actually started writing about this topic before she went to juvenile detention. I had a friend who was deported: While detained, he was kept in the county jail. I’d never visited a jail or a prison before. It just struck me very hard. It was his mom and me and another friend on one side of this Plexiglas, and him on the other. He tried to kind of hug his mom. I remember everyone was crying. That’s what I came away with: He can’t hug his mom. Is that good for anyone? My book covers a lot of things, but it’s about the way that prison breaks down the bonds between people.

America’s prison population has soared. Is this a politically driven phenomenon? 

Crime has always been an issue that politicians can win with, while prison reform is an issue that you couldn’t even campaign on, because the people who are most affected are disenfranchised. People who are in prison are obviously disenfranchised—people getting out very often can’t vote. Also, the communities that are most incarcerated are not the communities giving money to political campaigns. They’re certainly not the people that politicians are targeting for votes. So prison reform has never been an issue that would serve you well politically. Crime, on the other hand, is really easy to utilize, because it scares people, and fear is the best campaign tactic: “You have to vote for me because I will protect you from evil and scary people. I’m the one who’ll be tough on crime, keep law and order.”

Of course, a lot of that is very racialized. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, that fear tactic was used to build the War on Drugs. A myth of super-predators was created, but they were always framed as young black men. It was a very scary tactic: “There are these people who exist among us. We have to clean it up, get it off the streets!”

There are many people who profit off the prison system, and it was very convenient to claim drugs as the reason that they were doing what they were doing. So the rate of incarceration just exploded, because once you make these really tough laws, anyone can get caught in them, anyone who’s a little bit vulnerable: people of color, poor people, people with disabilities—including people with drug dependencies, who are more likely to be convicted of drug possession.

Right now, we’re dealing with a system that incarcerates 2.4 million people, most of whom are incarcerated for things that weren’t dangerous to anyone. Prison, however, makes violence fester. Caging people is a violent act, and often the people going to prison are traumatized—especially if you’ve done something violent, you’ve probably been a victim of violence yourself. That’s what the research bears out. “Hurt people hurt people” is a pretty common phrase along these lines.

Prison isn’t going to prevent future violence. So if you’re thinking practically—as opposed to following one of these fear-based campaigns—you have to think creatively of the different things that can be done that won’t entrench violence.

How has America, which supposedly cares about social justice, become the world’s leader in incarcerating people? 

It’s a number of things, but a couple stand out. One is that racism isn’t unique, anti-blackness isn’t unique—but American anti-blackness is. We had slavery, and prison has become an incarnation of that.

Michelle Alexander writes about this in The New Jim Crow. After slavery, prison became the substitute. The 13th Amendment states that people are not allowed to be enslaved, unless they’ve been convicted of a crime. In the South, blacks were then enslaved after being arrested for ridiculous crimes—loitering or whatever. Incarceration became used more and more as a form of racial and social control. The Drug War has played out along those lines; it’s encompassed everyone. Black people, certainly, were specifically targeted. Other people of color, too—poor people.

You say that isolation is the true purpose of incarceration, not rehabilitation.

The parlance of the system is correctional: We “correct” people by isolating them. Prison cuts people off in a dramatic and harmful way. It cuts people off from the things that will help them move forward with their lives—relationships with other people.

Inmates are often far away, and it’s practically impossible to contact someone in prison. The most reliable form of communication is letters, using the postal mail, which, at this point, is the way people communicated 100 years ago. I love sending letters, but I don’t want that to be my primary form of communication with the people that I love most.

Phone calls are exorbitantly expensive for many. They’re controlled by private companies that usually have a monopoly on the phone service and charge families really high rates. You can’t call someone in prison; they have to call you. You have no idea when the phone call will come, and you can’t call them back. Once you’re on the phone, the call is monitored and your time is limited.

If you visit, you’re in a situation where a guard is breathing down your neck. Usually, you’re with a number of other people. It’s not a normal interaction. It’s not a way of existing in a world with other people. 

You make the point that the experience for women in prison is more severe than it is for men.

One thing Kayla said about women in prison is that most of them had one moment that determined the rest of their lives. A lot of times, it was a moment that was an act of self-defense. Or they were in a group of people that was doing something violent, and they were pressured. Often, they were an accomplice to a boyfriend or a husband. These situations determine the rest of their lives. We talk so much in this country about our Christian ethos, the idea of redemption. But that’s not what prison practices. It practices punishment, and this thing that you did then determines the rest of your life.

Over the course of the Drug War, women actually became the highest-increasing group of people in prison. They’re mostly incarcerated for nonviolent crimes, largely drug crimes. And prison is an institution that’s very conducive to sexual violence—particularly guards taking advantage of their place in the power structure.

The vast majority of women in prison have minor children on the outside. When they’re incarcerated, they’re often torn apart from what’s most important in their lives—their children. And those children are separated from the thing that’s most important to them—their mothers. Children are often uprooted from their homes, sent to live with a family member they may not know very well. Often, they’re put into foster care; and sometimes that’s permanent, as sometimes custody is terminated for incarcerated mothers. And it’s very hard to earn back your child, which is not something that anyone should have to do from behind bars. It’s really a system that tears children from their mothers. That’s something that we don’t see often enough in the coverage of prison. 

For the past 30 years, the public has disregarded the growing prison problem—out of sight, out of mind. But you see room for optimism.

Definitely. But the majority of people who are turning on this issue aren’t doing so because they’ve suddenly been enlightened. It’s just getting so big that it’s difficult to ignore.

There’s a huge crunch on state budgets. Prisons are really, really expensive. Look at the numbers: In some states, the cost of keeping someone in prison is $60,000 a year. Think about the trade-offs in terms of education or health care.

What are some alternatives to incarceration?

Well, I think one alternative is—nothing! They just shouldn’t be incarcerated. That person should not be entangled in the criminal system. We have to really re-examine the definition of crime.

How would you redefine crime?

In terms of harm: Was someone actually hurt in this situation? Obviously, there are lots of situations where someone has been hurt, and they must be dealt with in a different way. But there are lots of approaches that people are beginning to explore. One that I discuss is restorative justice, which is bringing together the victims of a crime with their community and their family, often with the perpetrator of the crime, and sitting them in a circle.

What are the circumstances? The victim tells their story. They voice what happened to them, and the perpetrator listens, which is very difficult. Then the perpetrator talks about their side of things and what led to the event. They have to be prepared to show remorse, give an apology, and then think about how to move forward. What’s the accountability? Here, the victim and the community are able to hold this person accountable in a manner that can actually help the victim heal. It’s something that the criminal system does not do. The victim is erased—it’s the state versus the perpetrator.

How common is this?

Actually, a lot of communities are doing it. A lot of the most encouraging things these days are happening outside of the system. There’s a very robust restorative-justice program in Evanston, Illinois. There’s a restorative-justice program in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago where they’re training barbers to be restorative-justice practitioners, so they can actually hold circles in the barbershops where people already go and feel comfortable sharing what’s going on in their lives. That’s an example where they’ve taken an existing situation that’s a safe space and are using it as a violence-prevention mechanism.

Don’t you think we’ll always need prisons?

No, I don’t. Prisons are a fairly recent invention. The modern prison is only about 200 years old. Someday, I think, prison will be obsolete. The important thing to think about as we reduce the size of the prison population is reforms that are not carceral. For example, I’m really against lockdown drug-treatment facilities—instead of prison, they throw you in a hospital where the door is locked. I think we need to think outside of the system, about what changes we can make in our communities to prevent violence. I think the more that we can be creative and build those kinds of structures, the more we’ll be able to fundamentally move away from prison.

But what about very violent offenders?

Right now, we can’t see that happening because we don’t live in a society that’s conducive to actually preventing violence from happening in the first place. The structures that are in place right now nurture violence; they facilitate violence. Prison actually feeds violence and creates violence. But so does the military and our system of security—even the way we operate schools. It’s built around violence in many ways. I think the more we can change existing structures that foster violence, the more we can move away from prisons themselves.

That seems optimistic.

I don’t think so. There’s a way of thinking about things. When you’re inside the status quo, you may think: “This is the way it’s gotta be.” But 200 years ago, people said there’s no way that we can get away from a system that endorses corporal and capital punishment.

Upon reading your book, what would you want people to bring away from it?

Two things. One is recognizing our common humanity. Many people, when they talk about prison—even when they talk about reform—view people in prison as this wholly separate population. They can’t see them physically, so they don’t recognize them as human.

The other thing, I guess, is to ignite that sense of imagination in terms of what’s possible for the future: making people realize that prison is not the way to prevent harm and make things safer—in fact, in many ways it makes things less safe. It’s been really interesting lately to see some of the new studies showing that states that reduce their prison populations the most are the same states that are able to reduce crime the most. Because prison, in many ways, is criminogenic—it creates crime. It creates violence. 

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