Best for: People interested in what justice could look like.
In a nutshell: Author Maya Schenwar – whose sister has been in and out of prison – explores what is wrong with our current system, as well as alternatives.
Line that sticks with me: “Isolation does not ‘rehabilitate’ people. Disappearance does not deter harm. And prison does not keep us safe.”
Why I chose it: A political podcast I used to listen to interviewed the author. It struck both my husband and I so much that we accidentally bought two copies.
Review: I grew up assuming that if something bad happens, I should call the cops. Aside from the recognition that this is rooted deeply in the fact that police responding to any incident I report will see a white woman, and thus probably won’t shoot me, it is also based in the idea that justice means the ‘criminal’ is apprehended, tried, convicted, and sent away. This book asks those of us who hold that assumption to set it aside and imagine something else.
Ms. Schenwar is the editor of Truthout, and has written a lot about the prison-industrial complex. Part of her writing is informed by her personal experience of having a family member – her sister – in and out of prison and the broader criminal punishment system for many years. This fairly quick read (I took in all 200 pages in two days) is broken into two parts – the first looks at all the ways the criminal punishment system tears families and communities apart, and the second explores alternatives.
The basic premise is, I think, summed up in the line that stuck with me. Society sees individuals who harm others as needing to be taken out of society. Allegedly, this should ‘rehabilitate’ them, but it doesn’t. It doesn’t keep people who haven’t caused harm yet from harming others, and it isn’t making me any safer when I walk down the street. Instead, our current system is causing more harm by removing individuals and perpetuating even more harm. If the person who earns money fro the family goes to jail, what happens to her husband and children? If a child’s father is in prison and her mother is working multiple jobs to meet her needs, what options does the child have?
So much of our society is built on this very specific way of viewing “justice,” even though there’s not a lot out there to suggest that throwing people in prison gets justice for anyone. The language choices Ms. Schenwar makes throughout really got me thinking – she doesn’t talk about our current system as ‘criminal justice,’ it’s ‘criminal punishment.’ And instead of referring to crime, she talks about harm. The discussion around the latter point I found especially interesting.
The only reason this isn’t a five-star book for me is that, while the examples of alternatives are plentiful, Ms. Schenwar doesn’t, for me at least, offer up what this could look like on a large scale and what it would take to get there. But it’s a starting point for me, and one that will lead me to learn more about prison abolition and what I can do to support such movements.