Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law have been writing about the shortcomings of prisons for years, but as the pandemic continues, their collaborative effort “Prison By Any Other Name” questions the inefficacies of the system, with its scant alternatives, providing examples of how these institutions extend the control and surveillance over those who are involved with the criminal justice system. Schenwar talked with Newcity about the impact of alternatives in Chicago as well as nationally, the Chicago Gang Database, sex offender registries, defunding police, removing police stations from schools, and the role of Black women in rethinking prisons. We even talked about how her work is received not just as a family member of a formerly incarcerated sibling, but as a white activist who sometimes engages with predominantly white audiences.
Tell us how you and Victoria started collaborating on “Prison by Any Other Name.”
Both of us were coming from backgrounds of writing and editing about prison. In addition to all of Vikki’s freelance work and my main work with Truthout, Vikki had written a previous book, “Resistance Behind Bars,” about incarcerated women organizing, and I’d written “Locked Down, Locked Out,” which is primarily about the impact of prison on families and communities. As we interviewed people about incarceration, we became more and more aware that for many people, being released from prison does not mean being freed from the system. These are all extensions—from electronic monitoring and house arrest to locked-down drug treatment and psychiatric hospitals to probation and sex-worker rescue programs, not to mention the child welfare system, community policing and all the other ways that police and prisons entangle themselves in homes and communities, systematically targeting Black communities and other communities of color. We were also seeing how these extensions of the system were targeting disabled people, trans people, drug users. These “alternative” systems were endangering people’s lives and deeply harming marginalized communities. But much of this was not being documented because it doesn’t fall into the category of what most people see as prison. It’s all part of what Beth Richie calls the prison nation—our culture of policing and imprisonment that has very long tentacles. Both Vikki and I also had personal experiences which drove our work. Vikki had been on probation as a teenager. And my sister spent the past fifteen years in and out of jail and prison. During that time, for my sister, being out of prison meant being under heavy surveillance, including probation, monitoring, drug court, and other punitive so-called alternatives. We realized that there was a need for a book tying together all these things—all these ways that prison extends far beyond prison walls—to show that many popular alternatives to incarceration and policing are simply expansions of the same old oppressive systems.
There are several approaches to the idea of prison abolition and defunding the police throughout the book. Could you talk about the work here in Chicago that’s highlighted in the book or that you wish you could’ve covered as Black Lives Matter, police brutality, and prisons have taken on even more significance after COVID-19 and the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor?
Yes! Most of the book focuses on what’s wrong with many popular reforms to prisons and policing, and how they’re widening the net of who gets policed and punished and surveilled. But in the last chapter, we talk about how things could be different: What does a world look like in which not only police and prisons, but these harmful alternatives, are abolished? We discuss projects around the country that have contributed to this work, and mention some past and current efforts in Chicago that address extensions of the prison-industrial complex, including [the former] We Charge Genocide‘s efforts against “community policing,” the Just Practice Collaborative‘s role in training people to facilitate transformative justice processes, the Visible Voices collective that provides a space for formerly incarcerated women, many of whom are still under state surveillance, to tell their stories, the ways in which restorative justice practitioners have worked within Chicago Public Schools to counter the police, how Ujimaa Medics are providing community health care. We highlight efforts happening around the country that provide a glimpse of what the world could look like, beyond the prison nation.
We turned in our final-final manuscript in January after many drafts. After our book went to press, COVID erupted, then the police-perpetrated murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Tony McDade, and the uprisings followed. Suddenly, “abolition” was being uttered, if not endorsed, in mainstream circles! Mainstream newspapers were publishing the words of Mariame Kaba. Multiple large cities were committing to seriously reduce police funding, thanks to powerful grassroots organizing. If we were to write the book now, our final chapter would include some of the recent visionary work being done primarily by Black-led abolitionist groups to defund police. This connects deeply with the goal of our book, because the current movement is not saying, “defund the police and instead fund electronic monitoring” or “just switch the money over to community policing.” People are saying no, we need healthcare, education, housing—actual support and liberation, not punitive, racist, oppressive “alternatives.” In Chicago, we’re seeing powerful efforts like the newly formed Black Abolitionist Network, which is calling for a seventy-five percent cut to Chicago’s police budget and the investment of that money in real community programs and services, the removal of police from schools, and an end to the gang database, among other demands. And there are many neighborhood-based mutual aid groups that have sprung up during the pandemic, in which neighbors are building connections and figuring out how we can provide for each other, how we can ensure that everyone has housing and food and care. That’s abolitionist work; it’s building the world we want to live in, wholly outside of policing, surveillance and imprisonment.
The earlier chapters discuss the problems with electronic monitoring. Could you talk about the challenges that families face when a relative is under this sort of surveillance?
I think a lot of times people forget that incarceration—of all types, including electronic monitoring, which scholar-activist James Kilgore and others have termed e-carceration—affects whole families and communities, in addition to the primary impact on the person who’s incarcerated. Electronic shackles amount to home confinement: You can’t leave your house without pre-approval. Many things outside of a job and essential medical appointments aren’t going to be pre-approved. One key impact is on children. One of the people we interviewed who was confined on a monitor for several years talked about how she couldn’t take her children to the park, or drop them off at school, or attend their sports games and practices. She had five kids. But she could not participate in whole swaths of her kids’ lives, particularly as they grew older. We need to think about the impact of that on kids’ lives. When kids are old enough, they often also begin to worry about the fact that since their parent is shackled with a monitor, that parent is always one step away from jail or prison, because the consequence of violating the monitor’s strict conditions is often incarceration. In one study, kids expressed fear that their parents would be taken to jail anytime the monitor beeped. Beyond children, family members often become the ones responsible for attending to the basic needs of a person who’s shackled with a monitor. When my sister was on electronic monitoring, we were bringing her groceries and other supplies, and checking in constantly because we were worried about what this confinement was going to do to her mental health. Knowing that your family member, who is probably already struggling, risks incarceration if they leave the house—even for, say, an emergency room visit—is terrifying.
Another idea that you mention is Mariame Kaba describing the idea of “Somewhere Else” as a place that people could find support services as a substitute for prisons that are often vague suggestions or they’re fraught with common shortcomings as institutions. Also, there are many existing alternatives that invade people’s privacy and impede their ability to work. Can we talk about how such existing institutions could become better possibilities?
Yes, Mariame was one of the first people we interviewed and this idea that she mentioned—the “Somewhere Else”—guided a lot of our work thereafter. The idea is that under the logic of our prison nation, people cannot simply be freed. Instead, they need to be put in some other restrictive, coercive institution, even if that institution purports to help them: a kinder, gentler cage. Electronic monitoring—confining people to their homes—is a Somewhere Else. Psychiatric hospitals are a Somewhere Else. Locked-down drug treatment centers are a Somewhere Else. These are still places to put people who’ve been deemed “criminal,” to remove them from the larger society. This is why Mariame, and many others, talk about the need to challenge criminalization itself. Get rid of that label and that system. Instead of thinking in terms of Somewhere Else, we need to think about building support for people’s self-determination and expand their options for what kind of support they can get voluntarily. For example, it’s been shown again and again that forcing people into some treatment (addiction treatment, mental health treatment) does not actually succeed, even by the system’s own standards. It doesn’t improve people’s lives. Instead, these coercive measures are unethical and often very traumatizing, and sometimes enact the opposite of what’s needed. My sister was placed in a mandated drug court program after her last incarceration. She wasn’t ready to stop using heroin, but the program forced her into abstinence from the drug, lowering her tolerance and making her more vulnerable. When she left the program, she overdosed and died.
Instead of these harmful and even deadly measures, we need to think about how treatment could be offered on a voluntary basis in ways that account for people’s autonomy. Not everyone wants to—or is ready to—stop using certain drugs. So, what kinds of harm-reduction measures, such as safe consumption or safe injection sites, can we offer to make survival more possible for people with substance dependencies? How can we decriminalize all drugs so people are not being traumatized further by being trapped in cages? And how can we offer optional support so that people can get medical care and housing and their other needs met, regardless of what drugs they’re using?
Another example: We need to be thinking about what “voluntary” and non-coercive might mean in terms of mental health treatment. Psychiatric hospitals and court-ordered assisted outpatient programs operate by holding everyone to a certain norm, and medicating them and prescribing certain therapies to try to shape them toward that norm, but not everyone sees the condition they’ve been diagnosed with as a problem needing to be eliminated. For example, some people who hear voices and see visions don’t want to lose those voices and visions, though some do. How can we develop networks of mutual aid and healing justice that allow people to choose how they live in the world? How can assistance be offered in ways that don’t intend to force everyone to align with a certain norm? These are questions we can be asking. We can look to the work of groups like the Fireweed Collective, a mental health education and mutual aid project, for more on this.
Many protests around removing police from schools in Chicago have centered on providing other resources, like school nurses and counselors. I know BYP100 [Black Youth Project 100] and other organizations were demanding mental health care centers on the South Side. I kept thinking about the statistic cited in “Prison By Any Other Name” where you cited that seventy-five percent of the students arrested by police in schools are Black.
Yes, that seventy-five percent number was from a Project NIA and Loyola University study from a few years back, specifically focused on Chicago, and we see similar patterns in other cities. A 2018 study showed that ninety percent of students arrested in New York schools were Black or Latinx. Like so many of these systems, school policing does not “work” in the ways that many people assume it does. There’s no research showing that it decreases violence in schools. There is plenty of research showing that school policing targets Black students and other students of color and disabled students, and increases the number of students who are arrested and entrapped in the prison cycle.
Crystal Laura, a Chicago writer and scholar who we interviewed for our book, wrote a great book called “Being Bad” about the school-to-prison pipeline. She talks about how all kinds of resources have gone into policing students, essentially creating police stations inside of schools, where students can be booked—and also the morphing of schools into more prison-like institutions in other ways—requiring uniforms and metal detectors, dispensing horrible food, not letting people leave the room even to go to the bathroom. So, what could we do with the resources that go toward school policing and school prisonization, if they were reinvested? We’d need to absolutely increase nurses and counselors and mental health care, as you mentioned, especially given how those resources have been nearly entirely stripped from so many schools and communities. Also, despite Chicago Public Schools constantly mentioning “restorative justice” as a buzzword, their funding for actual non-punitive restorative justice programs, which eschew police involvement, is meager. And all students should have access to smaller class sizes and recess and arts programs, which are provided as a given at schools filled with middle-class white students. I also think about how the Movement for Black Lives platform’s education section called for not only better services, but also good-quality food and recreation and a curriculum that meets students’ needs both culturally and materially. There are plenty of important places that reallocated money can go, if it doesn’t go to police. The calls for “CPD out of CPS” right now are so essential.
So many Black women are central to shaping the ideas in “Prison By Any Other Name.” Mariame Kaba, Angela Davis, Beth Richie and Ruth Gilmore among them. Have you found that people respond to you differently as a younger white woman and a journalist? If so, how do other people react to you writing about prisons and other forms of state supervision?
Yeah, in “Prison By Any Other Name,” Vikki and I wanted to center the words and work of Black women abolitionists because this is where abolition—and so much of the most important work against prisons and policing—comes from. When I wrote my last book and was going around talking about it, I noticed that particularly in predominantly white spaces, people saw me as something of a novelty and were quick to attribute these interesting “new” ideas to me. This is part of the reason we have like twenty-million citations and so many interviews in “Prison By Any Other Name”—because abolition is a collective project with Black feminist roots and roots in incarcerated people’s organizing. We want to make clear that we did not come up with those things ourselves.
Another thing I notice, in terms of reactions, is other white people often respond to me by knowingly saying, “But you can’t really want to abolish the police,” mentioning all the ways in which police supposedly protect communities—and this goes unsaid, but it’s usually white communities that they’re talking about. There’s an assumption that I must see the police as a force that actually protects me in some way, when some of the most traumatic experiences of my life have happened because of police and prisons.
In terms of being a journalist—I’m definitely that, but in addition to my work at Truthout and my writing, I’m also an organizer, currently mostly with Love & Protect, a Chicago-based collective that supports women and nonbinary people of color who’ve been criminalized or harmed by state and interpersonal violence, so I’m bringing that work to bear in my writing and speaking. I don’t think there should be a hard line between journalism and activism.
Although there has been public discussion about getting rid of the Chicago Gang Database, “Prison By Any Other Name” also addresses how sex offenders registries are not always effective as a community safeguard. Could you talk about both databases?
Gang databases are part of a whole range of data-driven reforms that are marketed as savvy ways to prevent “crime,” but actually put targets on people’s backs, particularly Black and Brown people, making people more vulnerable to the police and, very often, officers aren’t required to provide evidence for designating someone as a gang member. And once people are in the database, whether or not they’re actually in a gang—the database isn’t even accurate about that—they can lose out on jobs, be further subject to immigration enforcement, face worse consequences within the criminal legal system, miss out on educational opportunities. Last year, ninety-five percent of people on the database in Chicago were Black or Latinx.
Even if the databases were entirely accurate, we’d have to ask: Why are police recording data on gang membership? Why should gang members have this additional target on their backs? Why do people join gangs in the first place—as New York organizer Josmar Trujillo asks in our book? (He points out that although gangs are obviously sometimes involved in violence, they also are places where people organize and build community, often in neighborhoods where few resources or support structures exist.) Here in Chicago, the Erase the Database project, a collaboration between Organized Communities Against Deportations, BYP100 and Mijente, has exposed the racism and cruelty of the database and called for its elimination. The recently formed Black Abolitionist Network is also calling for the elimination of gang databases, including the city’s new “criminal enterprise database.”
Sex offender registries, like gang databases, are not cultivating safety for anyone. There’s no research that sex offender registries do anything to prevent sexual violence. Yet there are around 900,000 people on these registries nationwide. That’s a huge number—and people on the registries are listed publicly, leaving them and their families open to massive stigma and vigilante violence. Meanwhile, harsh conditions are imposed on them, sometimes for life, including residency restrictions that often leave them with very few places they’re allowed to live. Again, there’s no evidence this prevents abuse in any way, but it leaves a lot of people unhoused. One woman I interviewed who was on the registry, due to having dated an underage boy when she herself was young, had her children automatically taken away from her and, for a long time, was not even allowed supervised visits with them. Many people are not allowed to use the internet even if their offense had nothing to do with the internet. Jobs are severely limited, too.
Meanwhile, with both the gang database and the sex offender registry, this punitive data collection allows officials to completely sidestep dealing with the actual roots of violence. Obviously, these databases do nothing to address poverty, white supremacy, patriarchy, and so on. Instead, they punish and surveil marginalized people, trapping them in an ever-growing cycle.
You and Victoria talked about the organizations and practices that people are creating in several cities to enact alternatives to prisons via restorative justice and practices from small organizations, but you also talk about challenges that they face. What else would you add to that discussion since the book is already in print and the landscape has shifted so dramatically?
The groups we mentioned in our book—from the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective to the Audre Lorde Project’s Safe Outside the System to Creative Interventions’ Storytelling and Organizing Project—can provide models for different ways to approach dealing with harm, without prisons or police. And new models are always growing—now we can also look to projects like Los Angeles’s CAT 911, which is building community alternatives in emergency situations, and the ongoing way that Minneapolis’ Black Visions Collective has combined calls to dismantle the police with building spaces for healing justice.
Of course, responding to harm is just one aspect of abolition work, as the current defund police movement is reminding us. A large part of it is building up structures of support, from quality health care for all to liberatory education to universal housing, and childcare and robust funding for the arts and youth programs. A large part of it is digging up the roots of these oppressive systems—dismantling white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, ableism and other structures of oppression.
I hope that as some people with political power begin to adopt the language of defunding (and even dismantling!) the police, thanks to the longterm efforts of grassroots groups, these people with political power take the work of organizers to heart. There’s always a risk of powerful people using radical language while maintaining the same old systems. We’re seeing some of that play out now, as always. But, of course, those attempts at co-opting language or concepts doesn’t diminish the fact that this powerful organizing has been happening for decades. Abolition has always been about challenging structures of power, and so activists have always known that the abolition of policing and prisons will not come from above. The whole structure of society will need to change, including political hierarchies. That may be daunting, but it’s also exciting. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, “Abolition requires that we change one thing: everything.”
Newcity Lit Editor Tara Betts is the author of “Break the Habit” and “Arc & Hue.” Her interviews and features have appeared in publications such as Hello Giggles, Mosaic Magazine, NYLON, The Source, Sixty Inches from Center, and Poetry magazine. She also hosts author chats at the Seminary Co-Op bookstores in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.