Prison everywhere around you

by Wade Rathke

October 10, 2020

Pearl River   Talking to Victoria Law on Wade’s World about the book, Prison By Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms, that she co-authored with Maya Schenwar, it was hard to escape the sense that “prison culture” has lapped up on the beach of one major institution after another. Of course, as she noted, behind physical bars throughout America, we have 2.3 million caged, and another 3.6 million on probation and parole an arm’s length away.

Sadly, this is an area in which we lead the world.

That’s not really the point that Law and her co-author want to make, though it clouds all of their arguments. The heart of their book’s mission is that the same kind of surveillance, intrusion, and curtailment of basic rights and freedoms has now become standard operating procedure in other areas, often masked as reforms.

They want to make sure that no one confuses “popular” reforms with progressive reforms.

They make their case persuasively:

  • Mandatory reporting by social service agencies of even trivial issues that might be classified, depending on the bias, in the ill-defined categories of “abuse and neglect” can mean children taken from families by child protection agencies and ending up in foster care.
  • Metal detectors and armed school security in the wake of various school assaults and the over militarized reaction to them from the NRA and conservatives have made young people, especially those often profiled who are Black and brown, feel like going to school is like being in prison.
  • Treatment centers for alcohol and drug issues have also taken on aspects of prison’s mandatory sentencing and isolation.

The list goes on, but one of the most troubling examples was the Catch-22 of electronic monitoring that they argue has made home a prison of sorts for many. Diversion programs that allow someone to elect monitoring rather than life in a prison seem like a good choice for people, and for mothers with children at home, it is hard to imagine them not jumping at the option.

Law pointed out that the problem is that the least infraction could not just put you back in prison, but lengthen your time, so that you are serving way more than your initial sentence putting you in a trick bag.

As disturbing to me was the fact that public jurisdictions pass the costs of the electronic monitoring off on the imprisoned while privatizing the monitoring so that everyone is making money along the chain, and missing a payment for the daily charges can also lengthen your sentence. How is that just?

All of this adds to the attractiveness of restorative justice and community accountability that provide the wraparound programs that can successfully integrate people back in the community with lessons learned and life paths re-charted.

The problem is that the dominant ideology is still punitive, and the driver behind these so-called reforms for prisoners is reducing costs, not achieving reform, rehabilitation, or certainly justice.

Law and Schenwar are quick to point out some hopeful points of light, but it was hard to visit with Law or read their book without seeing this is as a very dark journey towards real reform that has hardly even begun.


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