New book reveals potential pitfalls for those seeking justice reforms
Across the country, violence by police against Black and brown people has stirred up concerns about our nation’s philosophy of policing. Discussions are proliferating about shrinking or abolishing the current system, and even in some quarters, there are calls to “re-fund the police—smarter.”
As Massachusetts considers legislation to address police abuses and racial injustice, some stakeholder groups, such as the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice (CHHIR&J) and Families for Justice as Healing, are questioning the efficacy of these reforms. They warn that a commission-heavy bill will not create real change for communities most devastated by police violence—for one, there is no ban on excessive force without exceptions, nor have lawmakers even considered excessive force in prisons.
Whether or not those concerns affect legislation in Mass, they certainly echo the arguments laid out in Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law’s new book, Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms (New Press, 2020). Schenwar and Law describe the futility of “reformist reforms,” which is what they label policies advertised as “progressive” that nevertheless end up worsening problems. Schenwar and Law’s main premise:
Innovation, in itself, is no guarantee of progress. In so many cases, reform is not the building of something new. It is the re-forming of the system in its own image, using the same raw materials: white supremacy, a history of oppression, and a tool kit whose main contents are confinement, isolation, surveillance, and punishment.
Michelle Alexander, author of the best-selling The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, describes in her Forward to Prison by Any Other Name how the desperation for “meaningful progress” to dismantle mass incarceration can lead us to illusory solutions. We ponder: Maybe if police officers are forced to wear body cameras, it will stop abuse; maybe a decade under house arrest is better than three years in prison; maybe we can train police into not harming our children in schools.
However, popular alternatives often contain “hidden dangers.” That is, instead of healing harm, seemingly mild alternatives to prison such as electronic monitoring (EM), community supervision, or mandated psychiatric treatment widen the net of surveillance, control, and confinement, say the authors. They show how well-intentioned ideas such as sex-worker rescue programs, police in schools, and community policing can create more harm. In a webinar about the book, Schenwar referred to these alternatives as “prison-lite.”
Schenwar and Law know all too well what happens when “prison-lite” takes over the state. They come at taking apart reform with years of both personal, journalistic, and activist experience.
Schenwar, the editor-in-chief of the progressive online outlet Truthout and author of Locked Down, Locked Out, lost her sister Keely to heroin this year. Keely was engulfed in some of the carceral interventions for those with drug issues, interventions which the book exposes as ineffective and even destructive.
Law, a reporter and the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women, committed armed robbery to initiate herself into a Chinatown gang in New York and was put on probation when she was a teen. Her experience with probation and a stint on Rikers Island took her to fight for humane ways of healing harm.
Their explanations of what happens when the net widens are chilling. For example, consider how criminalization is all too easy with electronic monitoring. Your daughter is sick and needs to go to the hospital, but your leg is strapped to a monitor and you are not permitted to leave the house after 6pm. You can’t get your probation officer on the phone. Do you take your chances with re-incarceration? Or risk your child’s health? This kind of scenario unfolds frequently, say the authors, to the 130,000 people who are monitored daily. What does it really mean to turn your home into your prison?
While Schenwar and Law occasionally overwhelm the reader with data, their anecdotes drive home their points. Each chapter, aptly titled to show its net-widening approach, such as “Confined in Community,” or ”Locked down in Treatment,” has plenty of eye-popping stories from scholars, activists, and formerly incarcerated people they interviewed—and there are dozens to give the book heft and credibility.
Schenwar and Law also show the darker side of what seems, on first pass, the friendly neighborhood watch system. They write, “Take the Onset neighborhood in the town of Wareham, Massachusetts, where ‘armed with two-way radios and a hefty dose of community pride, Onset Community Crime Watch volunteers patrolled the streets in marked cruisers, looking out for graffiti vandals, suspected drug dealers, and people loitering and drinking on the sidewalks.” As one person interviewed for the book said, “They’re using the community to tell on the community.”
The authors describe how the foster care system plays out as punishment, and serves “as a pipeline to prison.” “In Massachusetts,” they note, “72 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system [have] been involved with child protective services.” “Hanging out with someone who hangs out with someone can sweep you into surveillance,” they add, noting the experience of the many young people of color they talked to.
The book asks what kinds of true alternatives could help remove criminalization from the equation and get us away from the need “to create new Somewhere Elses to put people,” a concept they attribute to activist Mariame Kaba. This, I found, was the most frustrating part of the book. Perhaps because some of the alternatives in this section didn’t speak to me or solve enough problems, or it could be because, as the authors note:
[I]t is so difficult to get ourselves out of the habit of looking for a one-to-one replacement for any carceral institution, whether it be a prison or a prison alternative. That’s part of the logic of Somewhere Else: If we don’t put them in prison, we’ll put them in a treatment center. If we don’t put them in a treatment center, we’ll put them in [fill in the blank] as a solution.
In sum, Prison by Any Other Name offers us a deeper understanding of the way racial and social controls keep people disenfranchised and locked up even if they are no longer behind bars. It asks us to change our thinking, and such a request could not come at a more opportune or turbulent time.
Jean Trounstine is a writer, activist, and professor whose latest book is Boy With a Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse, and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice. She is on the steering committee of the Coalition for Effective Public Safety.