Rattling the Bars: Women and Incarceration
Truthout Editor-in-Chief Maya Schenwar discusses her work as a journalist, organizer, and prison abolitionist
EDDIE CONWAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Eddie Conway, coming to you from Baltimore.
This is a special edition of Rattling the Bars, and today my guest is Maya Schenwar, is the Chief Editor of, “Truth Out”, the author of, “Lock Down, Locked Out,” and the co-editor of, “Who do you Serve, and Who do you Protect?”
She also works with women’s organization in Chicago, that addresses issues around women in prison, and she works with other Chicago community groups. And today I just want to look at the work that she does on the ground, around women in prison, and talk to her about the pending March on Washington, by prison rights groups, and prisoners’ families in August.
Maya, thanks for joining me.
MAYA SCHENWAR: Thanks for having me here, Eddie.
EDDIE CONWAY: Can you tell me a little bit about your work? I’ve read your book, and I know you look at prisons and the conditions in prisons. But one of the things that has always been missing from the dialogue, is the work that’s done around women in prison. Can you share with us some of that work you do?
MAYA SCHENWAR: Yeah, absolutely. So, I got involved in writing about, and organizing around prisons because my sister was incarcerated. And so, she’s been in and out of prison for over a decade now. And when I first started looking into this issue, I was shocked at how little was written about women in prison, even though since 1980 really, women have been one of the fastest, if not the fastest increasing group in prison.
And to give you an idea of that actually, the population of women in prison has gone up by 800% since 1980. So, that’s double the rate of men in prison, because of course, we know everyone’s numbers has been going up since 1980. And so, … when you hear about organizing around prisons, particularly when you’re first getting into it, a lot of time what you’re hearing about is men.
And that’s both because men are the majority of people in prison; and also, because of sexism, because of the patriarchy, because of heterosexism, and trans phobia, and all of these different things that come together, to make it so that women in prison. And particularly, more marginalized women in prison are less focused on in the public eye, and particularly the mainstream public eye.
So, I started in my role at “Truthout,” because I’ve been a journalist this whole time. I started looking into, well, what is going on around women in prison? And so, I did a little bit of work on that at the beginning, but I also discovered that there were a couple of really hard-working journalists and writers, who had been covering this for a while. And one of them was Victoria Law, who’s still writing for “Truthout”. Who wrote, “Resistance Behind Bars,” which is one of the only books on the resistance movement of women in prison.
And if you think that the impacts of prison on women are under covered, resistance definitely is something that is just hardly spoken of, when it comes to women. So, yeah, Victoria Law’s been doing great work, and one of the things that she documented was that, as long as there have been women in prison, there have been women resisting the prison system.
And so, that’s happening on both sides of the bars. And much of the most powerful work is happening within prisons. And so, once I heard about this kind of work happening, you know, I started writing a bit about it as a journalist.
Commissioning articles as an editor. And a few years ago, I actually started getting involved as an activist because I realized that you can be a journalist and an activist at the same time. So, where I got involved in at the time was the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander.
And a lot of people may have heard of Marissa Alexander’s case. At the time, she was facing a possibility of 60 years behind bars for firing a warning shot in the face of a threat on her life, by her abusive, estranged partner. And so, this was a situation where a woman was clearly defending herself, defending her life.
In this particular situation the woman had harmed no one and she was facing decades behind bars. So, I got involved in organizing on this campaign in Chicago. It was started by an organizer named Miriam Carver, who does a lot of organizing around incarcerated women, and that campaign not only was successful in coordination with the National Coalition, Marissa Alexander, actually now, finally a couple of weeks ago got off her electronic monitor and she is now free.
I guess now it’s actually been a couple months. This year went quickly. But yeah, Marissa is now free, and that coalition actually, after Marissa took a plea deal a couple of years ago, transitioned into becoming a group called, “Love and Protect,” which focused more broadly on the criminalization of survivors of domestic and sexual violence.
And so, that group in Chicago now, “Love and Protect”, is one that I’m involved with. And it’s also part of a national coalition called, “Survived and Punished”, which focuses on that issue of the criminalization of survivors of violence.
EDDIE CONWAY: Well, are you aware that there’s going to be a National March in Washington D.C. on August 19th? A million families and friends and supporters of prisoners are supposed to be coming together to demand justice for prisoners, and recognition of their human rights. Are you aware of that?
MAYA SCHENWAR: Yeah. Now I am. And actually, I hadn’t heard about it until recently, and I think this is a really, really important development. We’ve been seeing these convergences around the country around immigration issues, around the Muslim ban. There was the Women’s March right after Trump was elected, and I think this is a really, really crucial time for our national mobilization.
And so, I’m really hoping that this will also be a march in which groups supportive of women in prison, in particular, are invited and encouraged to participate.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. All right, well I want to follow what’s going on with that march, so to the degree that you get involved, or hear more about it, can you get in touch with me, so we can kind of like keep reporting on it?
MAYA SCHENWAR: Absolutely. Yeah, and I think that — that’s one of the exciting things about this march. For me as an organizer, and as a journalist, is I consider myself a prison abolitionist, and I love that right in the mission statement of this march. It talks about the need to actually move beyond the prison system, and to move toward a system that we can really call justice.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay, yes I’m in full agreement with that. Okay, so we’ve run out of time, and I thank you for participating.
MAYA SCHENWAR: Sure, happy to be here.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay, and thank you for joining Rattling the Bars.