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

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?

Schenwar’s critique of prisons is not new, but her descriptive manner makes it more accessible to what may be your more apolitical reader who receives it as a gift from their favorite abolitionist. Consider this passage about the “company store” aspect of prison life:

“To call prison “isolation” – and to leave it at that –wouldn’t be quite accurate. It’s more like this: Prison seals its inhabitant off from the world, and then sells (by means of visits, or commissary products, or phone calls, or stamps, or email) a stunted version of the world back to them, in bits and pieces. Sometimes, links to the world are sold for money, sometimes for compliance, sometimes for racial privilege, sometimes for political docility, sometimes for gender normativity, sometimes for luck.”

A significant amount of information is packed into narratives of equally likeable incarcerated persons and their families. One of the men convicted of a drug offense was trying to raise money for his child’s bone marrow transplant and his family was left in economic peril and social isolation. His case is so poignant he was one of the few to receive a presidential commutation and release. For the first half of the book, a dense amount of information is conveyed with a light touch: struggles of families on the outside and incarcerated persons on the inside are peppered with numbers and analysis on the prison industrial monolith. At the half way point, Chapter 7 calling for decarceration begins a more comprehensive focus on reforms and alternatives. Schenwar cautions against “mental health prisons” and “social services prisons” as alternatives. In Chapter 8 she explores the differences between restorative justice and transformative justice, the problem with “crime” as a construct and the use of police departments in “restorative” programs. Chapter 9 looks at the other end of the school to prison pipeline and what Schenwar terms “restorative justice” programs, but what are also called “trauma informed” school programs in other approaches. The last forty pages continue in this vein, giving plenty of examples to the abolitionist plagued by the question “what do we do instead?”

Many texts on prisons are polemical or factual, which can make them a difficult sell to the casual reader, yet the casual reader also lives within the prison industrial complex. Mass incarceration and racism, the tortures of solitary confinement and the vagaries of the death penalty claim a well-deserved spotlight in the press and reform efforts, but we can also be left with a sense that prison would be okay if we could just do away with 24 hour lockdowns, capital punishment and imprison a percentage of people of color equal to their distribution in the population at large. Locked Down, Locked Out captures the mundane and simple ways “the criminal punishment system” is intolerable, isolating and dehumanizing not just to those within the walls but to everyone in the “prison nation.” It’s an accessible introduction to abolitionist ideas with a seven page resource guide for further explorations. I would share it with friends and family, but also it could be educational for prisoners who can’t imagine rehabilitation outside the carceral system.