Not All Reform Will Move Us Forward: Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law Call for Restorative Justice

July 20, 2020   •   By Eleanor J. Bader

SINCE THE END of May, protesters have gathered in every nook and cranny of the United States to mourn the deaths of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black and Brown people lost to police violence. Their actions have prompted a deep interrogation of the many ways that the so-called “criminal justice system” has harmed communities of color.

A new book by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law, Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms, addresses these same concerns and systematically investigates how devices like electronic monitors — as well as court-mandated diversion to drug or psychiatric treatment — have converted people’s homes and neighborhoods into what legal scholar and writer Michelle Alexander, in a foreword to the text, calls “high-tech digital prisons.” 

Eye-opening and meticulously researched, Prison by Any Other Name also offers suggestions about ways to make our communities safer and more equitable, and details how transformative justice programs can make headway in righting interpersonal and political wrongs and conflicts.

Recently, Schenwar and Law spoke to me about their book, the current political moment, and the limits of reform.

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ELEANOR J. BADER: In 2015, the Coalition for Public Safety brought together such unlikely bedfellows as libertarian Charles Koch and the Center for American Progress to focus on criminal justice reform. This may sound promising, but your book makes clear that it is not.

MAYA SCHENWAR: Not all reform will move us forward. Some conservative groups like Right on Crime (rightoncrime.com) are interested in change that entrenches criminalization and white supremacy while benefiting corporations and the rich. They tend to focus on cost cutting, not ways to better serve humanity, like access to affordable housing and health care, nutritious food, mental health programs, child care, and education. Some liberal groups have also gotten on board with this “cost-cutting” principle.

VICTORIA LAW: Not all members of the Coalition for Public Safety want to challenge the idea of incarceration. They do not challenge how over-policing impacts marginalized populations. They do not address racism or white supremacy. They do not address how the United States got to the point where 2.2 million people are imprisoned. These groups are not asking why police are arresting and killing people at an alarming rate.

Instead, groups like Right on Crime focus on how prison systems can shrink spending. They’re looking at house arrest and the use of electronic monitors because they’re cheaper than brick-and-mortar prisons since even the most punitive prison system must feed people, pay for corrections officers, and pay overhead costs — things like light and water.

The idea that police and prisons are necessary is deeply ingrained in the United States. How can we begin to change this mindset?

MS: Prison abolitionists often talk about police being inside our heads and hearts, and if we are going to move beyond the current system, we have to think about this and analyze our assumptions in order to uproot them.

We know this country is violent, so the current system is not working to make us safer. We also know that police perpetrate domestic and sexual violence at high rates, and we know that prisons are inherently violent. So we have to ask ourselves: what are police and prisons for? What they’re doing is upholding systems of oppression.

VL: In the US, we tend to think of policing and prisons as the way to promote safety. But let’s imagine that I punch Maya in the face. She calls the police on me. I’m arrested and go to jail. Even though I’m now imprisoned, the harm I caused to Maya may or may not have been acknowledged and she may or may not be okay or feel safe.

If you go into communities of color, especially low- and middle-income areas, many people know that calling the police will not make them safer. In many communities, people who file restraining orders in cases of domestic violence still get hurt and sometimes killed. Policing provides a false sense of security. Relying on policing also shrinks our imagination so we don’t come together to strategize about what would actually make us safer, like getting to know neighbors who might be able to intervene if something happens.

In New York City, where I live, the Summer Youth Employment Program for this year has been cancelled, supposedly because of budget shortfalls due to coronavirus. Meanwhile, a police helicopter has been hovering in my neighborhood surveilling anti-police brutality protests all week. How does that keep anyone safe? How much does that cost? How many summer jobs for youth might have been funded with that money?

In cases of domestic violence, what does the survivor need to either flee the abuser or stop the mistreatment?

Basically, we need to reassess what safety looks like.

Many will be surprised to read that people have to pay for electronic monitoring devices and drug testing themselves. Do you see this as an additional punishment for those who are forced to incur these costs out of pocket? 

MS: The fees are an additional punishment. But making folks pay sometimes plays well politically because politicians promote it as saving taxpayer money …

We interviewed people who told us that they paid for their monitors instead of sending their child to preschool. Some told us they scrimp on groceries. They do this because for many, the penalty of nonpayment is incarceration.

As far as we know, about 200,000 people across the country are living with electronic monitors.

VL: At least two people we interviewed for the book told us they had to pay every cent owed before they would be allowed off monitoring. One woman told us that she was told that until she paid off the fees, she would continue to be monitored. Each additional month meant additional fees. This could literally mean being monitored indefinitely. The other was told that even if he was returned to jail, he’d still have to pay the fees upon his release.

The idea that someone might be sent to drug treatment or to a hospital for psychiatric care sounds humane, but again, you write that what looks like a kinder, gentler approach, is neither. Can you say more about this?

MS: Sometimes, the impulse to send someone to treatment instead of jail comes from a well-meaning place, but there’s an assumption that people must be put under some other kind of control. Often, discussions of reducing incarceration automatically assume that hospitals and drug treatment programs are viable alternatives. but these alternatives still involve confinement and coercion.

Approximately 35,000 people are in psychiatric institutions; this does not include people who are locked in mandatory drug treatment.

In addition, some liberals and conservatives propose expanding psych hospitals as prison alternatives, noting that many people in prison struggle with mental health issues. First of all, we need to understand that prisons produce mental health conditions. Prisons are traumatizing. People are put in stressful situations and are then diagnosed and sent to institutions or drug treatment. Second of all, the proposal that people should just be put in a different type of cage assumes the need to be placed somewhere outside of their community.

VL: Being given a choice between jail or going into a locked-down program is very different from someone saying, “I need counseling,” or, “I need treatment for drug or alcohol abuse.” Shoving people into institutions that tell them what to wear, what to eat, when to eat, when to sleep, and mandating that they take medication is another form of involuntary confinement.

I found your reporting about sex offender registries in Prison by Any Other Name shocking. But many assume it’s necessary to punish people convicted of these offenses by imprisoning them. Why is this a wrongful assumption?

MS: First, we need to recognize that prisons are institutions of sexual violence. People are routinely strip searched, cavity searched, raped by guards. Putting someone in prison for a sex offense does not teach them how to avoid perpetuating sexual violence.

This extends into the treatment of people convicted of sex offenses beyond prison walls. When people are placed on a sex offense registry, it limits their opportunities to find housing, jobs, and other necessities.

VL: Many acts of sexual violence are not reported. Even when they are, there is rarely a resolution. Police investigate only a portion of reported offenses, and send only a fraction of these forward for prosecution. In addition, the victim has to tell the story over and over and over. They need to get on the witness stand where they’ll be further traumatized.

Even if the person pleads guilty or is convicted, it does nothing to help him take responsibility for what happened or force him to make amends. Right now, Bill Cosby is sitting in prison and it’s unlikely that he’s thinking about how young men can be trained to understand consent. Instead, he’s likely thinking he got a bum deal.

People talk about prison as a deterrent, but it isn’t a deterrent. Brock Turner did not see the threat of prison as a deterrent. Neither did Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, R. Kelly, or Jeffrey Epstein.

You present restorative and transformative justice as models for dealing with wrongdoers. Can you explain how this works?

VL: Restorative justice is not new. It has been used in indigenous and aboriginal communities for centuries. Now, there is a lot more willingness to think differently about how to address harm, so it has come into wider usage.

Restorative justice doesn’t follow a script. It’s a process. In New York City, there’s an organization called Common Justice that works as a diversion program. The person who was harmed and the person who caused the harm must both agree to participate. It’s a year-long program with a facilitator and a set of steps that need to be completed.

For instance, a man who worked in a restaurant was mugged. After that, he began taking a cab after work every night, deeply cutting into his income. The restorative justice process focused on what the worker needed to feel and be safer. The person who caused the harm offered to teach the person he assaulted how to defend himself on the street. This wasn’t a quick and easy process; it took months to come to this resolution.

We also see transformative justice used in instances of sexual violence. Most sexual violence happens between people who know each other. The person who was hurt may not want the power of the state to fall on the person who hurt them, but they also don’t want to ignore what happened. Often, they want the person who hurt them to acknowledge what they did. Often, they want to make sure that the person doesn’t harm anyone else.

MS: In this particular time, when people are rising up against anti-Black policing, we need to listen to Black abolitionist organizers who are talking about steps forward. Reforms are insufficient; even progressive reforms typically touch only the edges of what’s needed. It’s not just about bad police officers or brutal prison guards. It’s about reimagining and creating new ways of living. And it’s not like this needs to be created entirely from scratch. We can look to abolitionist organizers — particularly Black women, trans, and nonbinary organizers who have led the movement for abolition for decades. We can also look at the ways that people are practicing abolition in their everyday lives.

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Eleanor J. Bader teaches English at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York, and writes for Lilith, Theasy.com, Truthout.orgKirkus Reviews, and other online and print publications.