Tag Archive: book review

Review: Maya Schenwar’s ‘Locked Down, Locked Out’

locked

By Ani M.

Truthout editor-in-chief, Maya Schenwar was kind enough to send the Prison Books Collective a copy of her new book, Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better. The book is half journalism and half her memoir of the years her sister was alternately incarcerated and struggling with addiction. Since personal narrative is my favorite framework for gleaning new information, I claimed the book first with the promise to read quickly and beg her for more copies to send into prisons if it was any good.

At the Prison Books Collective we read a copious amount about prisons every week and very little makes it on to our social media and even less on to our website. As abolitionists, we find too many informative articles take a tone about just punishments that we reject. Or the reforms proposed in articles are ones that create new improved prisons instead of moving to abolish them. Much is written about the difficulties of transitioning people from incarceration to life on the outside; too little is written about the necessity of transforming life on the outside to eliminate incarceration.

Maya Schenwar’s Locked Down, Locked Out is a steady seduction. As she states early on, because she is white, from an intact nuclear family, well educated and prestigiously employed, people can hear the story of her sister and perceive it as a subject of inquiry, something to question: What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this? Schenwar is a likeable first person narrator with whom it’s easy for a similarly situated audience to identify as she searches for the answer to her own questions. How did her sister end up in prison more than once? Why did her family decide it was the safest places for her to be? What would be the real alternatives to that choice? (more…)

How White Liberals Used Civil Rights to Create More Prisons

liberalprisonIn their quest to wipe out extra-legal racial violence, white liberals created a system that continues to kill black people—legally.

From The Nation

Neither liberals nor conservatives are chomping at the bit to discuss the historical roots of the modern gun-rights movement. If asked to describe it, liberals will gesture vaguely at the eighties and nineties, blaming survivalists, school shootings, “cold, dead hands” and the National Rifle Association. Conservatives, on the other hand, will jump the historical mark by some distance, talking about the founding fathers, the Second Amendment and the right to an armed militia. Neither side wants to admit that the first modern anti-carry law was passed by California Governor Ronald Reagan in 1967. Nor would they want to mention that Reagan passed the law to disarm the twentieth century’s greatest gun-rights militia: the Black Panther Party. Political genealogies in America are more mixed than the 24/7 news cycle will allow.

In her first book, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America, historian Naomi Murakawa demonstrates how the American prison state emerged not out of race-baiting states’-rights advocates nor tough-on-crime drug warriors but rather from federal legislation written by liberals working to guarantee racial equality under the law. The prison industry, and its associated police forces, spy agencies and kangaroo courts, is perhaps the most horrific piece of a fundamentally racist and unequal American civil society. More people are under correctional supervision in the United States than were in the Gulag archipelago at the height of the Great Terror; there are more black men in prison, jail or parole than were enslaved in 1850. How did this happen?

The common-sense answer is that launching the war on drugs during the backlash against civil-rights struggles encouraged agents of the criminal-justice system to lock up black people for minor infractions. This isn’t wrong, or not exactly. Ronald Reagan’s infamous Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which established federal minimums (a k a sentencing “guidelines”) and abolished parole in the federal prison systems, did lead to an explosion in the number of federal prisoners, particularly drug offenders. It was one of the pivotal moments in the production of the prison-industrial complex (PIC)—the overlapping sphere of government and industrial activity that employs hundreds of thousands of guards, cops, judges, lawyers, bail-bondsmen, administrators and service employees and which sees millions of prisoners performing barely paid production labor to generate profit. But, as Murakawa painstakingly demonstrates, the Sentencing Reform Act has a “liberal core,” and is built on the technical and administrative logic of racial fairness that structures all federal civil-rights legislation. (more…)

Dan Berger Illustrates Centrality of Prison to Civil Rights Struggle

alcatrazFrom Truth Out

Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, by Dan Berger, University of North Carolina Press, 416 pages with 28 illustrations, $34.95 hardcover. (Release date: November 14, 2014). 

Dan Berger’s exhaustively-researched study of the ways prison, and the threat of incarceration, impacted the nationalist politics of the 1960s and ’70s zooms in on what he calls “the intersection of black protest and state repression.” Much of the narrative is focused on George Jackson and his effect on activists both inside and outside of lock up. In addition, while the book is steeped in the hyperbolic language of the era, it offers an inspiring glimpse into the lives of men and women who were willing to risk everything for equity, freedom and justice.

Berger situates the development of prisons squarely within the history of the American republic. “The United States has been a leader in carceral violence because of its roots in settler-colonial racism and its egalitarian distrust of state power, which, paradoxically upholds degrading punishment over beneficent state action for those deemed ‘criminals,'” he writes. Skin color, of course, is key.

“Chattel slavery initiated a racial regime rooted in confinement,” he adds, and even when slavery was officially ended, bondage became a tool of authoritarian displeasure, with those deemed guilty of unlawful behavior sentenced to a period of enforced separation from their associates.

“Throughout American history,” Berger continues, “the idea of criminal justice has been bound up with anti-black racism: Black communities have been disproportionately harassed, policed, arrested, tried, convicted, confined, killed and generally thought to be deserving of punishment.” (more…)

THE HOWS AND WHYS OF PRISON ESCAPES

swimming-to-freedomFrom Vice News

Over the course of his 50-year career, Donald E. Westlake wrote more than 100 books, the vast majority of them crime fiction—most often seen from the point of view of the criminals. In 1993, the Mystery Writers of America gave him their highest honor, naming him Grand Master, largely on the strength of his two classic series: one featuring hard-boiled burglar Parker (played on screen by Lee Marvin, Robert Duvall, Mel Gibson, and Jason Statham, among others), the other portraying hapless heister John Dortmunder (who lucked out and got Robert Redford—go figure).

Along the way, Westlake wrote a fair amount of nonfiction, usually relating in some way to the crime genre. In October, the University of Chicago Press will publish a selection of that nonfiction in The Getaway Car: A Donald E. Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany. The piece below, an essay originally published in 1961 in the third issue of Ed McBain’s Mystery Book, is a selected history of the hows and whys of great prison breaks. As a writer, Westlake always enjoyed putting his characters into agonizingly difficult situations and seeing how they get out; that enthusiasm for an impossible puzzle animates this essay.  (more…)