Rattling the Bars, hosted by former Black Panther and political prisoner Marshall “Eddie” Conway, puts the voices of the people most harmed by our system of mass incarceration at the center of our reporting on the fight to end it.
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Authors Maya Schenwar and Vikki Law argue that many alternatives to incarceration follow the same model of oppression as physical prisons.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Eddie Conway: Welcome to this episode of Rattling The Bars. I’m Eddie Conway, your host, coming to you from Baltimore. Recently, there has been a new book out by two authors that has done extensive work in the prison system. The book is, Prisons By Any Other Name, and it was written by my sin Maya Schenwar and Vicky Law. They’re going to join me today to kind of explain what’s in the book. Basically they’re challenging the idea that alternative to incarceration is better and represents some kind of reform. When in fact they’re saying that’s not so that it continues the same oppressive system and it continues to uphold white supremacy. So Maya, Vicky, thanks for joining me.
Vicky Law: Thanks for having us on.
Maya Schenwar: Thanks for having us.
Eddie Conway: So could I start off just with both of you all given some personal background. Why you wrote this book and why you’re involved in prison work? You could start Maya and then Vicky, you could follow up.
Maya Schenwar: Sure. I think that this book, in particular, Vicki and I both came from both our professional work reporting and editing and writing about prisons for many years and our personal experiences and interactions with the system. And not only with prisons and jails, but also with all the extensions of the prison system. So for me personally, I’ve been writing and editing stories and books about prison and related subjects for about 15 years, and I’m also involved with prison abolitionists organizing efforts. But the main drive to focus so intensely on this particular subject was rooted in personal experience. So for the past 15 years, my sister Keeley was cycling in and out of jail and prison, and also various alternatives such as electronic monitoring and mandated drug treatment and probation, and a lot of this stemmed from her addiction to heroin.
So she would go to prison, she would become even more deeply traumatized and come out and she’d go right back to using heroin. And then when she out here she’d have an electronic monitor shackled to her ankle, or she would be on probation, or she would be locked in some kind of treatment center that was very, very restrictive. And all of these punishments involved some sort of forced confinement and control, and they also involved forced abstinence from drugs, which we know does not work for addiction. So she was trapped in this cycle of many different forms of punishment and confinement, which were said to be forms of help. And so this is how I came to be interested in these sorts of alternatives, so-called alternatives, these reforms that actually end up looking very much like incarceration, although they’re not obviously the same. So along with jail and prison, they were contributing to very much hurting my sister and harming our family along the way. So that’s where I’m coming from personally.
Eddie Conway: Vicky, what is your experience that brought you to this?
Vicky Law: So like Maya, what brought me to co-writing this book with Maya, it was both professional and personal. So as a teenager in New York city, I went to one of the schools that we would now call a school to prison pipeline school in which it was an overcrowded school. It was mostly black, brown and immigrant, people who were able to lie about their addresses or have their children test for one of the handful of specialized public high schools in New York City, avoided sending their children to this school. But if you didn’t have resources, if you didn’t have somebody whose address you could borrow to lie about your address as to where you could go to school, or if you didn’t know about specialized high schools, or if your child was not considered intelligent or talented enough to get into one of these schools, then that was the kind of school you went to.
There were metal detectors and x-ray machines at the front door. That’s what we went through every morning. There were several thousand students, grades nine to 12. The classrooms were often crowded. I didn’t realize this at the time that you weren’t supposed to have 40 children in a classroom, but this is what I learned later. And it was the perfect recruiting ground for gangs. And so when we think about what we know about the teenage brain and impulses and longterm planning, we know that when you are looking at a possible future of sitting in a classroom, being warehoused, or if somebody comes up to you and says, “How would you like to make a couple of hundred dollars every night?” A lot of my friends ended up joining gangs, dropping out of high school and then getting arrested and being incarcerated.
I had a brief stint with the law myself. I participated in an armed robbery, were arrested and because of my race, I am not super brown, my gender, my size, I’m five feet and at the time I think I was about 80 pounds. And the fact that I had no record and was considered a good student, I was ultimately sentenced to probation as a youthful offender, rather than having to go through the criminal legal system as an adult facing years in prison for one teenage action.
And the probation I went through was very different than what the probation of today was. Like people on probation today, I had a curfew. Now, if you think about most people, whether they are teenagers or grown adults, they don’t necessarily want to be told that they have to be in their house by 7:00, 8:00, or 9:00 at night. There was a raft of restrictions that accompanied by probation, but there wasn’t the technology yet to be able to force people to comply.
Nowadays, we know that there are 3.6 million people on probation and probation is a driver back to prison for many people. At the time, again, there was not the technology so I didn’t have to worry if I came home at 9:30 instead of 9:00 at night, that I would set off an alarm and end up spending years in prison for being a teenager, they wanted to stay out later. Or because I was riding the New York city subways and the subway didn’t show up or decided it was going to be stuck in the tunnel or move slower than expected, and I got home late.
So fast forward to my professional life, I’m a journalist that writes about issues of incarceration, and I was seeing that there were increasingly ways in which people were proposing alternatives to incarceration that instead of actually addressing why people were being criminalized, why people were being arrested, why people were committing violence and harm, if they were committing violence and harm, or why they were committing criminalized acts that did not actually harm anybody. So instead of addressing why so many of my friends joined gangs, instead these alternatives basically built different types of imprisonment and incarceration and expanded the net of both racial and social control into our homes and communities. And these alternatives were increasingly being embraced as ways to decrease mass incarceration in physical jails and prisons, but not actually address underlying causes of why we rely on punishment and punitive systems to address what are basically societal failings.
Eddie Conway: Maya, Vicky just brought up a good point, and you raised the point earlier about these alternatives. And I understand your book is suggesting that the alternatives is just a continuation of the prison system wit large. Explain, because so many people want their loved ones or their family members to not be inside behind a wall, behind fences, they want them to be in the neighborhood, in the house, even if they got to wear a bracelet, even if they got to stay near the house. So how is this worse or bad, or how is this making our community part of the prison system? Can you explain that?
Maya Schenwar: Yeah, absolutely. So I think one thing to clarify is that in our book, we’re not arguing that electronic monitoring or drug court or any of these alternatives are worse than prison. Although a couple of the people we interviewed did say, “Well, I wish I would have just gone to prison because I would’ve gotten it over with,” when they’re serving these very long probation sentences. But instead of thinking that way, because most people would rather be on monitoring, most people would rather be in a treatment center than prison, we’re saying these should not be the only alternatives. It shouldn’t be a bad cage and a worst cage. So I was very relieved when my sister was sentenced to electronic monitoring because it was definitely a better option than prison, but it was still a very, very punitive and harmful so-called alternative that ended up sending her back to prison, since the penalty for violating the terms of electronic monitoring is prison.
So what we’re saying is, what should be happening, if we’re really talking about forward motion, is we should be shrinking this giant carceral system. But instead, a lot of the prison reforms that we address in our book are expanding the system. Not only are some people who might’ve been in prison or jail put on monitors or in treatment centers or psychiatric hospitals, that’s happening to some extent, but also the presence of these alternatives is allowing authorities to hand them out to people who otherwise would not be under any physical control of the state. So maybe people who are charged with or convicted of very low level offenses that otherwise might be released on their own recognizance or the charges might be dropped. Instead, we see them being placed on electronic monitoring, placed on some sort of treatment oriented probation, all of these things.
So it’s actually expanding the system and it’s operating according to the idea that if we can’t put people in prison, or if we’re looking for an alternative to prison, we have to put them into some similar looking institution instead of actually addressing the root causes of why systems of policing and prison exist, which are built on white supremacy, built on capitalism. It’s not addressing any of those things. So just electronic monitoring as an example, what’s happening.
There has been a major expansion. So in 2005, there were 53,000 people on electronic monitoring. And recently, estimates have put it around 200,000 and that might’ve even increased as a result of people being released on monitors during COVID-19. And people on monitoring, it’s this very restrictive system. People have to get pre-approved permission to go anywhere. And sometimes they’re faced with an inability to do things like go to the ER or go grocery shopping for essential supplies.
One of the people we interviewed said she was not even able to take her garbage out because it was at the end of the housing complex. And so we see it still operating in this way, and it’s not just of course, “Oh well, I guess I can’t go outside. But if I really had to, I could,” it’s well, if you violate those terms, you could be headed back to prison. And in many cases, with both probation and electronic monitoring, and also drug court, people actually see longer sentences if they violate those terms, than they might if they had just been sent to prison in the first place. And when we look at these systems, these reforms, the people who are criminalized hasn’t changed, so it’s not altering the system of criminalization. People targeted by monitoring are still black and indigenous people, other people of color, sex workers, drug users, trans people, disabled people.
So it’s perpetuating the same system. And we see that, like I said earlier, it’s widening, but not of surveillance and punishment, freeing more and more people in. So when we call these reforms into question, we’re not saying, “Oh, people should just be in prison, instead.” We’re saying we want to shrink and eventually dismantle this entire unjust system.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Vicky. Because there’s a financial component to this expansion of the prison industrial complex and it seems to me that the electronic monitoring, the online thing, the ankle braces, all that stuff, the burden of finances falling on the actual person that’s used in the particular system. So not only is the prison system expanding, but it’s also charging the poorest part of the population to expand. Can you talk a little bit about that? Follow the money a little bit.
Vicky Law: Sure. So one of the largest corporations that supplies electronic monitoring, bracelets or shackles, is BI, which was bought by private prison corporation GEO Group, which is one of which is one of the largest private prison corporations in the world, back in the early 2000s. And what this basically does is, it not only gives an incentive to states and local jurisdictions to have people on electronic monitoring, it shifts that burden to them, so that that way the state and the local jurisdictions save money. They don’t have to pay the overhead of having somebody in the physical building, you don’t have to pay staff salaries, you don’t have to pay staff benefits, you don’t have to pay overtime, health insurance, into their pensions and to unemployment funds. You don’t have to pay for food, you don’t have to pay water bills or electricity bills.
People in jails and prisons supposedly have an eighth amendment right to medical care. States and local jurisdictions don’t have to provide even a pretense of medical care if somebody is locked in their own home. And what we’re also seeing is that in many cases, they partner with private companies, such as BI, and BI is one of a host of private electronic monitoring companies that provide electronic monitoring services. So the physical shackle, the person that monitors where you go, the person to whom you have to submit up to a week in advance, where you are going to go outside of your house and what times and wait for approval.
Yes, you can go pick your child up from school. No, you cannot attend their school play. Yes, you can go grocery shopping at the store three blocks away. No, if that store has no toilet paper, because everybody has bought all the toilet paper during the pandemic, you cannot go two blocks further and go to the next store to see if you can buy toilet paper. Yes, you can take your mother to her doctor’s appointment. No, your mother fell down in the middle of the night and if you go take her to the emergency room, you are out of bounds and we will send you to prison.
So this is what the electronic monitoring company does, because they watch you through the GPS device to make sure that you are actually in your house when you say you were going to be in your house, and you were only at the place that they have pre-approved. And people are forced to pay either by the week or by the month for this supposedly privilege of being incarcerated in their own home. One of the women we interviewed who lives in Indiana had to pay $115 a week for her electronic monitoring. She lived in a small town in Indiana. It was very hard for her to get work with an electronic monitor and suddenly a felony conviction.
She then had to rely on her husband, at least she had another adult in the house who was able to work to basically provide for all of the family’s financial needs, and they had this sudden financial burden on top of them. And she was told that her sentence would not be considered complete. She had been sentenced to X amount of time on this electronic monitor, but her sentence was extended because she had not paid her bill in full, so she was going to have to continue this sentence. And with every week that passed and every month that passed, another chunk of money was added to that bill. So basically she was going to be sentenced in perpetuity for her failure to be able to pay. And we interviewed another person in Olympia, Washington, who was told that if on the day that his sentence ended, he did not have the bill paid in full, he would just be sent back to the jail. And after he was released from the jail, he would still be responsible for this bill.
So it works in different ways, but it puts people, particularly people who are poor and marginalized and unable to scare up resources, to be able to afford a good defense or to be able to live in a neighborhood where the police aren’t stopping them or any number of things that people with more resources are able to do to navigate out of the criminal legal system altogether into a position where if they cannot afford and they don’t have family or friends that can afford to help them pay this bill, they are going to be penalized and sent back to prison. So we see that electronic monitoring has become a booming business because of the nation’s addiction to punishment. So we’re not saying, “Okay, electronic monitoring company, you have to monitor this person, but also make sure that you can help this person go get a job.” No, they are not social service agencies. They are basically prison guards and jailers by another name using technology,
Eddie Conway: Maya. Kind of walk me through, I mean the prison industrial complex is so vast, it encompassed so many people, judges, lawyers, social workers, parole agents, police officers, correctional officers, you name it, bails bondsman. How do you turn that around? How do you think in terms of shrinking a system like that when there’s so many people that make their livelihood off of incarcerating people of color and people that are poor.
Maya Schenwar: So I think that we need to start from taking a step back and thinking about the whole thing as a system of criminalization, rather than like looking at all of its different parts. Even though, obviously in our book, we’re documenting how large the system is and how many people are complicit in it. And thinking about, okay, what can we do that disrupts this entire system of criminalization, as opposed to replacing each of those things one by one. And one of the things that we talk about toward the end of our book, is that a lot of these systems that we’re looking at, such as schools and the realms of the medical system and social work, these are realms that actually also produce good, they’re not entirely a punishment system. They’ve just been drafted into the punishment system because it’s so sprawling in this country and it infiltrates practically all of our institutions.
And so we need to think about a radical shift in resources. And this is one of the things that the current movement to defund the police, that’s been organized by young black abolitionists all over the country, is pushing for, is this radical shift in resources toward life affirming priorities. So we think about, okay, yes, there may be jobs lost if prison and policing goes away, but we can’t keep these violent institutions that are actually enacting some of the largest acts of violence that our country sees, because they produced jobs. And then instead we think, okay, what are all the other many, many, many priorities that this country is not fulfilling? And so we have to look at health care, mental health care, education, dramatically expanding these systems so that we’re supporting everybody. The arts, recreational programs, programs for youth, housing.
So expanding all of these things and really fueling an economy that supports people’s survival, supports people in thriving,, those are the ways we need to be channeling our economy. So I think a lot of times, the argument around jobs as brought up when a particular prison is going to be closed. And people say, “Hey, this prison supports this town, we have to rally around this prison to save people’s jobs.” Even though people’s jobs are supporting mass violence. And so I think instead of that, we need to think, okay, why is there a town that is entirely built around a prison and that’s how people have to make their living? And so yeah, I think in addition to questioning the system of criminalization, we’re actually questioning the entire economic system that this country is structured upon and racial capitalism itself really.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Vicky, you can have the last word on this. What do you suggest that the public people that’s concerned about the conditions in prison and outside of prison? What do you suggest that they could be doing?
Vicky Law: Well, there are a number of things they could be doing. Across the country, there have been growing calls to defund the police. And not just defund the police and put the money in some pot elsewhere, but shift resources into departments and agencies and institutions that actually help people’s basic needs to survive and thrive. We just talked about this idea of job loss among prison and jail guards. But we have to think about the fact that across the country, because of COVID, we’re seeing teachers, school counselors, medical staff, people who work in food industries, all being laid off or not hired to begin with. So we see job loss happening across the country. So this idea that only prison guards or jail guard should be exempt from job loss really doesn’t help promote public safety. So people can get involved in organizations that work around prison justice and prisoner rights.
And then on a personal, they can also say, “Well, what can we do to promote safety?” One of the things about policing and prisons is that it shrinks our collective imagination as to how we can actually promote out our own safety and how do we actually prevent violence from happening or address harm. And instead, we ended up relying on calling 911 for everything. And so it means that instead of getting to know our neighbors and figuring out like, well, what are ways in which we can support each other through things like everyday life? And now everyday life is a pandemic, what are ways in which we can start to build community so that when problems come up starting small and perhaps branching out into bigger things, we can actually support each other. So how do we support each other in getting food, finding medical care, not leaving our house, if we feel sick so that we don’t spread COVID, and perhaps doing things that help people survive in this moment.
Eddie Conway: Maya, Vicky, thanks for joining me.
Vicky Law: Thanks so much for having us, it was great to speak with you.
Maya Schenwar: Thanks for having us, Eddie. Thank you.
Eddie Conway: Okay. And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling The Bars.