• Q&A

We can’t ‘fix’ policing or prison — but we can decide how to create actual safety

"Prison By Any Other Name" authors Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law caution against quick-fix solutions and spotlight grassroots abolitionist movement building.
Graffiti on a wall in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Flickr/Renoir Gaither)

“Prison By Any Other Name” is a new book that shows how many alternatives to prison in recent years have still reinforced and extended mass incarceration. It comes as a new wave of reforms are being proposed following the George Floyd protests, and activists are calling to defund the police. The book is written by two prominent journalists ― Maya Schenwar, editor-in-chief of Truthout, and Victoria Law, co-founder of Books Through Bars-NYC and longtime editor of the women’s prison zine Tenacious. (Both are also connected with Waging Nonviolence, with Schenwar serving as an advisory board member and Law as a columnist and contributor.)

Cautioning against any quick-fix solutions and spotlighting those doing grassroots movement building, the book includes many powerful stories from those impacted — including a Black mother who is on electronic monitor, an Asian American trans person who spent time in a mental institution and a young African American girl who was disciplined by her school for her clothing. While not confined to a formal prison setting, they were all a part of the same system that enforces white supremacy, isolation, control and surveillance.   

This is an unapologetically abolitionist book. It includes examples of those working on the ground to create other options than prison, such as organizations like the Icarus Project, Just Practice, Visible Voices, Sero Project, Safe OUTside the System and Creative Interventions. In place of militarized police and a war economy, they seek systems for de-escalating violence, healing past trauma and investing in our communities. I spoke to the authors about what we can learn from this book at this critical moment in time. 

What inspired you to team up to write this book? 

Victoria: We were both growing increasingly concerned about bipartisan proposals for reform, many of which basically proposed to slightly reduce mass incarceration and then offer prison “alternatives” that looked much like prison. Both of us had observed this phenomenon in policy, in our journalism and through personal experience. I had been reporting for years on women’s criminalization and incarceration ― and their resistance. 

Through my reporting, I noticed a disturbing trend in which some of the most popular reforms widen the carceral net to include people (of all genders) who might previously not have been incarcerated or punished. But these alternatives often come with a long set of rules and restrictions with heavy punishment for even the most minor infraction. 

I myself had been on probation as a teenager, a time when technology had not caught up. Had technology existed to monitor my every movement under the threat of imprisonment for the smallest rule violation, I recognize that, far from an alternative, probation would have been a more circuitous pathway to imprisonment.  

In this current moment, we’re seeing how politicians have turned demands to defund the police into shell games.

Maya: Yes, we were both observing this ongoing trend of reforms being implemented that did not change the fundamentally racist, punitive, surveillance-oriented nature of the system. In my own life, I had long been witnessing my sister being funneled in and out of jail and prison ― and then into other harsh systems like electronic monitoring, locked down drug treatment, probation and more, all of which served to punish her and deepen her addiction to heroin. 

At the same time, many of those I’d interviewed about their experiences in prison had ended up right back in prison, thanks to extensions of the prison-industrial complex like probation, the sex offender registry, predictive policing and more. It became clear that focusing solely on mass incarceration didn’t create a full picture of the vastness of this system. 

This book was written before the George Floyd uprisings. How does it anticipate and speak to the current calls to defund the police? 

Victoria: We’re in a momentous time where we’re seeing demands to defund and abolish the police, not simply to reform via body cameras, sensitivity training and diversity hires. We’re optimistic and cautious. While reporting for our book, we’ve seen how demands for decarceration have led to reforms that are kinder, gentler ways of expanding the carceral system. Some of these reforms ― such as locked down mental health and drug treatment ― are near-exact replicas of incarceration which don’t address underlying causes, such as trauma and violence, and don’t promote safety. Other reforms expand the prison into our homes and communities ― via community or neighborhood policing, electronic monitoring and school policing. 

We have to remember that organizing towards abolition and safety takes many forms.

In this current moment, we’re seeing how politicians have turned demands to defund the police into shell games. In New York City, for instance, organizers have demanded a $1 billion cut to police ― and that those funds be put into community resources. Instead, the City Council shifted several hundred million dollars ― and police officers ― from the NYPD to the Department of Education so that, at the start of the school year, those same school police officers will report to work, but be paid by the Department of Education rather than the NYPD. That’s one stark example ― as demands to defund the police continue and grow louder, I’m sure we’ll see other reforms that ostensibly address these demands, but instead reinforce the policing system, a pattern that we’ve already seen in some of the reforms to reduce mass incarceration.

How have new forms of state surveillance been a repackaging of mass incarceration? How have they impacted marginalized communities? 

Maya: The reforms that we discuss in our book ― from electronic monitoring to mandated treatment, from data-driven policing to sex offender registries ― have done nothing to uproot the structures of white supremacy and capitalism that gave rise to mass incarceration. Instead, they present themselves as “replacements.” Instead of confining people in a literal cage, for example, electronic monitoring works to turn your home into a cage. People on electronic monitoring are effectively on house arrest, not allowed to leave ― on penalty of incarceration ― except for preapproved departures. One of the people we interviewed could not even take her garbage out for fear of activating her monitor.

Building a society in which people’s needs are met, where they can not only survive, but thrive, is crucial to abolition.

All of these “alternatives” still disproportionately impact Black, Brown and Native communities — as well as trans people, disabled people, drug users and other marginalized groups — because these are the communities that our systems of criminalization were set up to target. 

What I most appreciate in your book are the many voices of people directly impacted by mass incarceration. Can you describe how the experiences of some of the individuals you interviewed show how prisons and the alternatives to prison have failed? 

Victoria: Again and again, people told us about the myriad ways that the rules and regulations prevented them from participating in family and community life while doing nothing to address the root causes of their criminalization. Let’s look at mandated drug treatment, for instance: one woman told us that, when her father was diagnosed with a terminal illness, the drug treatment center would not give her permission to leave to visit him. Because she was in drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration, leaving would have resulted in her being jailed ― which eventually happened after she had had enough and left. Like jails and prisons, the program removed even the most basic autonomy, such as how many socks and underwear people could have. At the same time, many do not offer ways for people to explore the underlying traumas and root causes of substance use.

An important aspect of this book is the inclusion of women and queer people who are often overlooked in other books about mass incarceration. Could you say something about how their stories give us special insight into the prison system? 

Maya: I would say the majority of the people we interviewed were women, trans or nonbinary people. There’s a misconception that almost everyone affected by these systems is a cis man. That’s not true for jails and prisons, and it’s even more false when it comes to many of the so-called “alternatives” and extensions we cover in our book. Ten percent of incarcerated people are women, but 25 percent of people on probation are women ― partly because women are more likely to be convicted of small-time offenses like drug possession and theft. 

If violence and oppression are entrenched in institutions, you can’t try to mold them to be something different.

Another example is the child “welfare” system, which ostensibly protects children from alleged neglect and abuse by placing their parents ― disproportionately Black and Indigenous parents ― under heightened surveillance, under threat of removing their children. In reality, it is another extension of the prison-industrial complex. Very often allegations of neglect, which comprise the majority of cases, stem from poverty: Children don’t have enough to eat, adequate housing, adequate clothing and parents are blamed for their poverty. They’re investigated and sometimes their children are torn from them ― and of course, the vast majority of parents and caregivers who are most impacted are women.

Women are often in a uniquely difficult position to meet the strict, harsh requirements of surveillance regimens (like probation and electronic monitoring), because most women entrapped in these systems are mothers and have caregiving responsibilities. That makes them vulnerable to being incarcerated, because incarceration tends to be the penalty for violating the conditions of probation and other alternatives.

Also, we recognize the fact that most women entrapped in the legal system are survivors. This manifests in all kinds of ways, but one that we draw attention to is within the child “welfare” system. One mother that we interviewed had her four children taken away because she called a domestic violence hotline for help. She was trying to find support in getting away from her abuser ― instead, authorities came to remove her children, saying their home was unsafe.

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I encourage people to read all the way to the end of the book. The last chapter is really my favorite. It’s about how organizations and individuals are doing the difficult day-to-day work of transforming their communities. What are some of the tactics and strategies they employ to make change?  

Victoria: Across the country, groups are working towards community safety. The Safe Neighborhoods Campaign in central Brooklyn, for instance, invites business owners to make their stores into safe spaces for queer and trans people. The campaign trains them not only in recognizing queer and transphobic violence, but also in de-escalation techniques. The campaign not only centers the safety of queer and trans people of color, but also pushes business owners (and employees) to imagine themselves as people who can ensure others’ safety. Participating business owners reported being better equipped to deal with immediate violence ― for example, one coffee shop owner reported witnessing a young woman fleeing a group of boys chasing her down the street. The shop owner let her in, locked the door, and got in touch with her parents to ensure the girl was able to get home safely.

We get to decide how to actually create safety and reduce harm and violence in our communities.

We also describe the Build the Block pilot project implemented by Rachel Herzing in a neighborhood in Oakland. Herzing supported neighbors in developing alternatives to 911 ― since so often, 911 results in the presence of police, which can lead to police violence. One strategy they used was to develop a detailed directory of the needs of all the neighbors, and the skills and resources they could offer. For example, neighbors could share that they had young children, lived with an elderly parent with dementia, had certain mental health conditions, etc. And then they could share if they were an EMT, or were trained in harm reduction, or knew de-escalation techniques, or had a whole range of other skills to offer. This paved the way for neighbors being able to call each other ― people they knew and cared about ― in many situations, instead of calling the police.

We have to remember that organizing towards abolition and safety takes many forms. To paraphrase Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who we interviewed for our book, organizing for farm workers’ rights and environmental justice are steps away from mass incarceration. Building a society in which people’s needs are met, where they can not only survive, but thrive, is crucial to abolition. 

Why is it important to uphold prison abolition in this moment? How can abolition provide ways for us ― as families, as neighbors and community members ― to find nonviolent ways to keep our communities safe? 

Maya: Abolition is the only way forward. Recent acts of police violence (in cities that have already done police reform, like Minneapolis) and the ensuing uprisings have again brought to the fore the fact that the police cannot be made nonviolent. The U.S. police grew out of slave patrols and genocidal vigilante groups; they are an inherently violent, racist and oppressive force. Prisons, too, are descendants of slavery and genocide. And they are torture chambers, no matter how you dress them up; caging a human being is an inherently violent act.

If violence and oppression are entrenched in institutions, you can’t try to mold them to be something different. Would you try to “fix” war, to make it nonviolent? So, we can’t fix policing or prison.

But this opens up all kinds of exciting opportunities. We get to decide how to actually create safety and reduce harm and violence in our communities. People are doing this already in all kinds of ways, all over the country, in specific organizing projects but also just in daily life. So of course, now is a moment when it’s possible to get involved in some really exciting organizing work ― around defunding the police, around getting police out of schools, around creating real paths to safety. Plus, it’s a moment when we can particularly lift up all those lifegiving priorities that have been getting the short end of the stick ― like health care, education, housing. All of those priorities that would be well-resourced if we were to stop pouring funds into war and police and prisons and prison-like institutions.

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