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Breaking the Bars After Attica

This Friday, the 45th anniversary of the Attica Rebellion, prisoners in up to 50 prisons across the country are organizing work stoppages and protests. Left Voice interviews Maya Schenwar, author of “Locked Down, Locked Out”.

Maya Schenwar

September 7, 2016
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Those organizing the national strike declared, “On September 9th of 2016, we will begin an action to shut down prisons all across this country. We will not only demand the end to prison slavery, we will end it ourselves by ceasing to be slaves.” Solidarity actions outside the prisons have been planned by various organizations, including the IWOC, the IWW, and StrAPT in Los Angeles.

Left Voice talks to Maya Schenwar, editor-in-chief of Truthout and author of Locked Down, Locked Out, a deeply moving book that examines the prison system–its devastating effects on prisoners, families and communities, racist underpinnings, and profiteering structure. She discusses material in her book, which tells the stories of prison pen pals and relatives, including her sister–imprisoned repeatedly and forced to give birth in lockup. Last, Schenwar discusses how activists and communities have organized against prisons and it’s devastating effects.

In your book, you depict the life and conditions of prisoners from conversations you’ve had with current prisoners, their families and activists. You write about your sister, in and out of prison for much of her adult life, telling us of how she gave birth while shackled to a bed, and was forced to leave her newborn and return to her prison cell alone. You describe a former prisoner who spent years without seeing the sun or the moon. How do these stories inform our understanding of the prison-industrial complex, and why are they important?

I think that sometimes, what gets lost among the statistics and the data and the political proclamations is that incarcerated people are human beings, living the reality of prison from day to day. The danger, if the politics around prisons are separated from that humanity, is that we get these “reform” proposals that actually do not benefit people behind bars. For example, the Justice Department just declared it will move toward closing all federal private prisons. Politically, this sounds like a huge step, because the reform rhetoric, particularly among mainstream Democrats, has made it seem as if private prisons are the problem. However, if you look at how this step will affect people who are currently living in cages, it doesn’t do very much. Private prisons are often worse than public prisons, so people may see some improvements in conditions. But this order to shut down private prisons will not actually free anyone. People will still be living in cages. Plus, it erases the fact that even “public” prisons are entangled with all kinds of private companies–phone services and commissary services which rob the families of incarcerated people (who are usually poor), companies which benefit off super-cheap prison labor, construction companies that get rich off of building prisons. You’ll never get privatization out of prisons, and even if you could, people would still be stuck in cages. So, that’s one example of why centering our conversations on people’s lives, instead of political talking points, is so crucial.

The danger, if the politics around prisons are separated from that humanity, is that we get these “reform” proposals that actually do not benefit people behind bars.

At the same time, particularly on the left, personal stories guard against the idea that “the only good reform is completely abolishing prisons.” I believe we should completely abolish prisons, but I also believe strongly that part of how we will make our way toward abolition is through smaller changes: acts of decriminalization, sentencing changes, abolishing monetary bail, closing down prisons, shrinking prison budgets, etc. Every time one of these decarceration-oriented steps happens, real people get out of cages. We need to value people’s lives. That’s why I celebrate every time someone is granted a presidential commutation–not because I think that Obama is going to abolish prisons (hahahahahahaha) but because that’s another person who won’t be spending their life behind bars.

Personal stories about people in prison allow us to empathize, to imagine ourselves and our loved ones in their shoes. Once you do that, it’s hard not to care, and once you care, it’s hard to avoid the fact that all of us need to be taking action.

In your book, you ask “what’s the point” of keeping your sister in prison, separated from her newborn baby. You show how prisons destroy families, communities and the people who are locked up. What’s the point? In other words, what is the role of prisons in capitalist society?

This is a great question, because it hits on the fact that prison is not pointless: It’s not just a “mistake” that people in power made while trying to solve crime. As scholars and activists like Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Christian Parenti have pointed out, it serves some very particular purposes. Prisons play a key role in capitalism, particularly US capitalism (given that the US contains a quarter of the world’s prisoners, despite holding less than 5 percent of the world’s population). One aspect of that role is that it serves as a place to dispose of “surplus” populations. Capitalism requires that poverty exists, but then, it has the problem of what to do with all these poor and working class people–there need to be modes of repression, to avoid mass resistance. Prison is in some ways a perfect mode of repression: It not only confines people, but it also cuts off much of their communication with the outside, severing many of the ties that fuel organizing and rebellion.

So, instead of providing people with health care, well-resourced schools, childcare and access to the arts, the “answer” to poverty is incarceration. And prison actually helps preserve poverty. It perpetuates the existence of subjugated classes of people. And when these populations are framed as “criminals,” it’s harder to question why they are being confined, isolated, and subjected to extreme social control.

Prison is in some ways a perfect mode of repression: It not only confines people, but it also cuts off much of their communication with the outside, severing many of the ties that fuel organizing and rebellion.

Plus, we can’t forget that incarceration is feeding a whole range of corporations that profit off them by building, running, and “servicing” prisons and jails. It’s also bankrupting state budgets, shifting resources away from programs that actually serve the public good.

You described the racism inherent in the prison system, even citing someone who calls prisons the modern version of the slave auction block. How does racism play into today’s US prison system? How are Black people disproportionately affected by the prison-industrial complex?

Throughout most of the history of prisons in the US, it’s been used as a means of racial control. The prison system expanded after slavery, for instance. The 13th amendment, which abolished slavery, contained an exception that allowed (and still allows!) the enslavement of people who’ve been convicted of a crime. So, large numbers of Black people were incarcerated, often on bogus charges or for breaking laws against homelessness, “loitering,” drunkenness, or other laws that were only enforced against Black people. Then, they could be legally re-enslaved. Prison legitimated the continuation of slavery, as well as the continued subjugation and exploitation of Black people more broadly.

Prison legitimated the continuation of slavery, as well as the continued subjugation and exploitation of Black people more broadly.

A similar type of thing played out after the civil rights acts passed in the late 1960s, as the Black Power movement picked up steam. Prison was used as a tool of repression and control on a large scale, and the “tough on crime” politics, “zero-tolerance” policing, and war on drugs that followed were also manifestations of this tactic of making racist practices legally permissible by shuttling large numbers of people of color, particularly Black people, into prisons. The anti-Black racism that underlies the US prison is evident today at every point in the criminal punishment system, from surveillance to policing to arrest to conviction to sentencing to imprisonment to parole, and more. Black people are five times as likely to be incarcerated as white people, and are much more likely to be harmed or killed by police. Racialized oppression, repression, discrimination, and exploitation are present at every turn within the prison industrial complex.

You say that the effects of prison don’t stop at the barbed-wire fence or end on the release date. What do you mean by that?

Prison continues to affect people after they’re released. One way that prison lingers after someone’s been released is that once you’re slapped with the “felon” label, it’s hard to escape it. As a “felon,” it’s harder to get housing, jobs, and educational opportunities, and in some states, you can’t even vote. You’re viewed as less than human.

Also, people are coming out of prison having lost years–sometimes decades–of their lives. If they’ve been incarcerated for a long period, many (or most) of their loved ones have likely drifted away. Incarceration is isolation: It’s hard not to be distanced from those you love, because that’s one of the things prison is built on. Once people get out, without support from other people–from a community–it can be hard to survive, let alone thrive, particularly given all the disadvantages that come from having spent time in prison.

There’s also the fact that prison is traumatic. Lots of violence takes place behind bars–physical violence, sexual violence–much of it perpetrated by authorities. But even beyond those types of violence, putting a human being in a cage is, in itself, a violent act. The trauma stemming from enduring all of that harm often sticks with people.

Plus, most people being released from prison are on some type of supervision: parole, an electronic monitor, a halfway house, etc. And under these types of surveillance, the slightest “wrong move” can result in reincarceration. Maybe you come home past your 8 o’clock curfew, or miss a check-in with your parole officer, or skip a drug test, or are late to work… These things are often punished harshly. When you leave prison, you’re usually not “free.”

It shouldn’t surprise us that two thirds of people coming out of prison are rearrested within three years in the United States. (Of course, this is also a result of police unrelentingly targeting certain poor neighborhoods, particularly neighborhoods of color, again and again.)

How does class affect who gets arrested? How does it affect prisoners and families once someone is in prison and how does it affect them when they get out?

The system is built to incarcerate people who can’t afford to defend themselves against incarceration. The obvious example of this is that if you’re wealthy, you can pay for a fancy lawyer and will probably get a better deal than someone who must be assigned to an overworked public defender. One of my incarcerated pen pals talks about how, if she could’ve paid for an attorney, she probably wouldn’t have spent a day in prison, and I believe she’s right. Others I know talk about how class markers like where they lived, how they dressed, how they spoke in court, etc. made them more likely targets for policing and prosecution. In some cases, homelessness and poverty themselves are criminalized–we’ve seen the revival of “debtors’ prisons” in recent years, with people being incarcerated for nonpayment of fees and fines.

Jails are filled with working-class and poor people who are awaiting trial, so they’re technically innocent…They’re incarcerated for their poverty, not for a crime.

I think our bail system is a classic example of how class can dictate whether or not someone is behind bars. When you’re arrested and bail is set, you remain incarcerated if your family or community members can’t afford to bail you out. Jails are filled with working-class and poor people who are awaiting trial, so they’re technically innocent (supposedly, people are innocent until proven guilty in this country). They’re incarcerated for their poverty, not for a crime.

Beyond this, it’s important to remember that even when someone is “guilty,” so many acts we call crimes are committed in the service of survival. Of course, prison doesn’t actually do anything to address poverty, so when people come out of prison, they usually have even less money, fewer resources and fewer opportunities. But if they steal again, or go back to selling drugs, or whatever it is, they may well be reincarcerated. Prison plays a role in perpetuating poverty.

Add to this that the families of people in prison are saddled with all kinds of financial burdens: high-priced phone calls, long-distance visits, commissary money to buy hygiene products and other essentials, and more. Often the person who’s gone to prison is a household’s primary wage-earner, or at least contributes to household income, so families are losing that, too. A report came out last year (done by the Ella Baker Center and a few other groups) that showed that 1 in 3 families of incarcerated people went into debt in order to pay for phone calls and visits–that’s not even counting the other expenses! Wealthy families may be ok shouldering those burdens — but, of course, very few wealthy people go to prison. So, this is another way in which prison perpetuates poverty.

In the past years, we’ve seen thousands take the streets against police brutality. What connection do you see between the mobilizations against police violence and organizing against prisons?

One of the things about the movement for Black lives is that it generally doesn’t approach policing in a vacuum. It recognizes policing as part of a larger apparatus of criminalization. So the protests against police violence have called attention to these larger systems of racial and social control that drive our criminal punishment system. Also, activists have continually called attention to the fact that police shootings, tasings, and beatings are not the only forms of police violence, and that locking someone in a cage — imprisoning them — is another form of violence enacted by police. These connections are definitely being drawn. Another thing: As the protests have continued, lots of activists have been arrested at these protests, and the jail support that follows draws attention to incarceration. Raising bail for a known activist draws attention to the larger issue of bail, for instance.

On September 9, there will be a nationwide prisoners strike. Can you talk about prisoner organizing and particularly, about the challenges and potential?

Some of the most effective organizing around prisons has been initiated by and led by people in prison, from campaigns to close down prisons to the hunger strikes against solitary confinement to pushes for better medical care and food. When people talk about prison-based organizing, the focus is often on physical rebellions or officially-declared strikes (which are important!), but as historian Dan Berger has pointed out, a lot of the regular work of prison organizing is labor that’s usually gendered as female: building up social connections, facilitating communication, caring for people, building community.

There are constant challenges, including repression by authorities–the whole prison system is built to shut down protest, and people are retaliated against for speaking out and for organizing.

Prison organizing includes producing media to tell the outside world what’s going on, building up networks between incarcerated people to get the things they need, protecting each other against violence perpetrated by authorities, collaborating to work on folks’ legal cases, working collaboratively to file lawsuits about abuses happening behind bars, and more. Of course, hunger strikes, work strikes, and other types of protests also play a significant role. And organizations with both inside and outside members (like Black & Pink, All of Us or None, and the coalitions formed around the Pelican Bay prison hunger strike) have been instrumental in pushing needed reforms and decarceration.

There are constant challenges, including repression by authorities–the whole prison system is built to shut down protest, and people are retaliated against for speaking out and for organizing. One of my pen-pals in prison has been “rotated” to a different prison every year he’s been incarcerated, because he works to organize within prison and speaks up against injustice. People are often placed in solitary confinement in retaliation for taking action. Another challenge is communication, especially in the most brutal and restrictive prisons. But in many cases, people in prison have surmounted these barriers, even when it seemed impossible. The largest hunger strike in recent years was organized by people in solitary confinement units in California, where they were locked in a cell alone for 23 hours a day, spending the remaining hour in a solitary outdoor pen. More than 30,000 incarcerated people participated in that hunger strike at its peak, and it resulted in a number of changes to the system.

I think that for all of us doing organizing around prisons, it’s crucial to take our cues from people who are actually experiencing (or have experienced) incarceration. Prison is built on a foundation of isolation, alienation, and disconnection — so the more we can connect, and follow the lead of the people who are most impacted, the more effective and ultimately revolutionary our resistance will be.

This interview was conducted by Tatiana Cozzarelli, a graduate student in Urban Education and editor and contributor for Left Voice.

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