Feb. 22nd, 2016

cafenowhere: coffee cup with sugar packets that read WTF (book)
Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn't Work and How We Can Do Better by Maya Schenwar

My Goodreads review, cross-posted.

The first half of this book discusses how the (American) prison system sabotages all the factors known to reduce recidivism rates among ex-inmates: family connections, interpersonal relationships, community engagement, education, and employment.

The author, Maya Schenwar, illustrates with examples from her own family's experience. Her sister was incarcerated multiple times and gave birth in prison. Schenwar explains that inmates are warehoused far from home, sometimes even out of state, making family visits prohibitively expensive or impossible for working-class and poor families, which is the majority of the affected families. If family makes it to the visitor center, long lines and short hours mean some won't get in. Phone call rates are extortionate; calls are monitored and interrupted; call privileges are subject to the whims of wardens and corrections officers. Mail, also monitored and censored, routinely goes "missing." Books are heavily sanctioned and may be taken from inmates for minor infractions. And once released from prison, a person's job prospects are dismal because their skills (if any) are out of date and few employers will accept an ex-con. Thus rather than rehabilitating, the system ensures that people leave prison worse off than they entered it, and therefore more likely to re-offend or fall afoul of parole restrictions.

Meanwhile, structural conditions that predispose people toward crime, such as racism and poverty, are fortified when the prison/legal system "disappears" millions of marginalized people for years or even lifetimes. Though the author is white, she is cognizant of that privilege and readily acknowledges how much worse the odds are for minorities of all kinds. She frequently turns over the bullhorn so those minorities can speak for themselves.

Schenwar doesn't ignore the abuses that inmates suffer from guards and other inmates, but she doesn't spend much time on it, either. This makes the book less upsetting than others in the genre.

The second half of the book focuses on decarceration, what we as individuals can do to dismantle the prison system. She encourages pen-pal programs and activism opportunities, but she also asks us to reconsider our understanding of crime (versus harm, for example) and whether we really need to bring police into situations. She also spends a fair amount of time on models of community-based justice (or transformative justice), with concrete examples of how schools and communities can address harmful behavior and remedy the underlying causes of violence without throwing people away.

This is a practical, personable book that is easy to read. A list of resources gives readers ideas for immediate action, and extensive bibliographic notes pave the way for further research.

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