Maya Schenwar sat down gingerly. “Can people still see at least the top of my head if I sit down?” she asked. As the audience members in the Seminary Co-op murmured assent, she lifted her chin, peering into the packed crowd that filled every red seat before her and spilled out onto the carpet.
“I can see your heads,” she chirped. At last, Schenwar began to read from her new book, Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better.
Schenwar, the editor-in-chief of the independent web publication Truthout, launched Locked Down, Locked Out at the Seminary Co-op last Sunday. The book explores how the prison-industrial complex breaks crucial connections between prisoners and their families and communities, and how that isolation blocks prisoners from true rehabilitation.
At the Co-op, Schenwar first read the story of prison activist Barbara Fair to show the ripple effect by which imprisonment impacts prisoners’ families. All seven of Fair’s sons were incarcerated for drug-related convictions; as young African-American males, she says, they were targeted. Fair’s life “quickly molded itself around prison”—visits to distant facilities, expensive phone calls, financial troubles, panic attacks. Although her sons are now free, Fair must still support her youngest son, who spent some of his time in prison in isolation and now lives in a psych ward.
It was “crucial,” Schenwar said after reading the excerpt, to see how family members get pulled into the ordeal of prison, and how that usually ends up dissolving the relationship between prisoners and their family. Schenwar’s selection also made clear her favorite mode of writing: argument through anecdote.
Although Fair’s story is mingled with quotations from researchers and scholars, her personal story is put first. In an interview on Truthout with former organizer and education reformer Bill Ayers, Schenwar said she dislikes how the mainstream discussion of prison reform “often centers on statistics and budgetary arguments and corporations and ideologies—everything but people.”
Make no mistake, Schenwar does cite stats. But Locked Down, Locked Out is about humanizing people who should never be dehumanized—it harnesses the power of anecdotes to present a fuller narrative. Her direct presentation of the words and stories of prisoners and activists, replete with novelistic detail, is engaging and informative. They’re also excellent vehicles to deliver memorable and necessary facts and statistics.
The news that people visiting state prisoners in Arizona must each pay a one-time twenty-five dollar “background-check fee”—a blow to poor families—is just as striking as the anecdote it’s encased in: a teenager and her grandmother kicked out of their visit because the teenager hugged her incarcerated father and “was accused of being ‘too affectionate’“ with him. What results is not a collage of scattered misfortunes, but a clear portrait of how myriad factors—legal, racial, and socioeconomic discrimination, not to mention sexism, homophobia, and transphobia—collude to entrench a system that keeps isolating and punishing people.
Although research often comes to the same conclusions, it can’t do so with the same force—it’s one thing to point to numbers and to say that black people are disproportionately incarcerated, and another to look at what’s actually happening in prisons and communities to show that aggressive incarceration provokes and reproduces the very crimes that are used to justify it. “This system is rupturing marginalized communities, constantly and systemically,” Schenwar said, in her interview with Ayers. “Isolation and disconnection and trauma—these things don’t stop violence; they fuel violence.”
One story that most effectively illuminates problems with the institution is Schenwar’s own: the book is partly a memoir about her sister, a heroin addict who’s been incarcerated three times. Schenwar is unafraid to depict how easy it is to fall into complicity with the system: in the introduction, when Kayla (a pseudonym) is arrested for the seventh time in six years, Schenwar hangs up on her call from Cook County Jail, frustrated with Kayla’s continual struggles and a little relieved that she at least knows where her sister is.
The fraying of this relationship strengthens the book’s points about prison’s pernicious destruction of relationships. If even Schenwar’s middle-class family struggles to maintain connection with a daughter whom prison has repeatedly failed to help, what hope is there for families without the time and money?
Kayla appeared in the second excerpt Schenwar read at the Co-op, in which she gives birth to her daughter while incarcerated. Induced labor was scheduled for the prison’s convenience, no relatives could be present, one phone call was allowed, and Kayla was shackled to the hospital bed after the birth. As people hunched forward to listen to Schenwar read, it was hard to dispute the potency of writing about a sister gasping into the phone about a baby she could keep for only thirty-six hours: “I love her, I love her, I love her, and I just want to hold her forever.”
Schenwar hadn’t intended to read this section. Kayla herself was supposed to come to the Co-op to read a poem she’d written, but she was on house arrest and didn’t receive permission to attend—“Because obviously this is a dangerous place,” Schenwar snorted. “Surveillance, home confinement—there are all these different ways the prison nation extends itself beyond just the walls of prison.” The failed reading operated in tandem with the book, a vivid manifestation of the prison and legal systems’ failures.
Not everything in the book is bad news; some of it, though thorny, is hopeful. The second half of the book, from which Schenwar chose her last reading, investigates alternatives to prison. The community-based justice methods she advocates eschew the rhetoric of “crime” in favor of “harm,” which is based not on a person’s relationship to the law but their relationship to other people.
Schenwar was anxious, though, not to foster easy thinking. “There isn’t one blanket solution to getting out of the prison-industrial complex,” she said.
Nor was she afraid during the post-reading questions to be blunt about the realities of reform. When asked whether any activism unique to Illinois could be undertaken, she laughed and collapsed in her chair a little as she said, “I was really hopeful about Illinois, but then we got a very terrible governor.”
After stewing more about Pat Quinn’s downfall, Schenwar paused and asked, “Are we done?” Another pause, and she threw her hands in the air: “Oh, right—you should buy my book!” As the crowd’s attention dissolved into chatty energy, a Co-op employee said that the book had sold out. The reading had garnered the largest ever attendance for a Co-op event: a small victory for the humanity of people behind bars.