Prison By Any Other Name: An Interview with Victoria Law and Maya Schenwar

By Amanda Knox with Christopher Robinson

In Prison By Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms, Victoria Law and Maya Schenwar warn criminal justice reformers against pursuing what are considered more humane forms of punitive surveillance and control ― such as electronic monitoring, house arrest, and extended probation ― as solutions to mass incarceration. Indeed, Law and Schenwar endeavor to show how these alternatives might actually exacerbate the underlying causes of criminal behavior. Instead, they lay out the abolitionist alternative, rooted in broad decriminalization and a new moral framework that incentivizes accountability and self-determination.

Amanda Knox 

Could you introduce yourselves? 

Victoria Law 

My name is Victoria Law. I am a freelance journalist and author focused on issues of incarceration, particularly the intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance. Maya and I came together back in 2015, because we started seeing that the ways in which people were proposing to reduce our dependence on mass incarceration, relied a lot on alternatives that, instead of addressing people’s underlying needs and causes of why they ended up in behind bars, actually expanded the carceral net into our homes and communities. So we both had written books previously about conditions inside prisons, and we thought that this would be a natural extension, as well as a cautionary tale for many people who are in positions to decide or advocate for policies, so that we didn’t end up with another giant system that needed to be dismantled.

Maya Schenwar 

I’m Maya Shenwar, and I’m the editor-in-chief of Truthout, a social justice news website. And I’ve been writing and editing about the prison industrial complex for a long time. And I’m also involved in prison abolitionist organizing efforts. When Vicki and I started talking about this in 2015, it was in response to a wave of prison reform efforts that were coming about on a bipartisan level. That wave has continued and morphed, and now we’re also seeing certain police reform efforts that are being championed that fit the same mold, that are replacements for the same old kind of policing, that don’t really change the system. And so, even though we started writing this book five years ago, the same issues just keep coming around and around. 

Amanda Knox

I have to admit that, going into reading your book, I had this moment of like, “I was in prison, and I would have thanked my lucky stars for the opportunity to spend that time at home as opposed to within the prison environment.” I actually wrote an article about this a while ago, where I was like, “I know that this is an imperfect solution, but goodness gracious, is it a more humane solution.” Why was I wrong?

Victoria Law  

It’s not necessarily that we’re against having people be given the option to spend time at home with their loved ones, but electronic monitoring, as well as other popular alternatives such as probation and other types of community confinement, still replicate the logic of prisons. And rather than them offering this alternative to people who have been accused of, or convicted of, what are seen as very violent and society-threatening actions, instead it usually extends to people who might not otherwise be under any sort of coercive state control at all. So instead of saying, “How do we then ensure that people who were accused of causing the death of somebody else can still be at home with their family but are under some sort of coercive correctional control that makes people feel safer?” It’s more that, “How do we make sure that this person who is accused of shoplifting men’s underwear from the local department store, or this person who continually gets caught with illegal drugs because she has an untreated substance use disorder, ends up under some sort of coercive control?” It doesn’t necessarily address any of the underlying causes as to what happened, and doesn’t necessarily decrease the prison population. One example is, during the coronavirus pandemic, the Cook County Jail in Chicago started releasing people on electronic monitors. The number of people under electronic monitoring grew from 2,400, in the early days of the pandemic, to nearly 3,500 by August. And now that Covid has kind of become our new bad normal, the county jail population has gone back up. It’s now over 5,000 people, but the number of people on electronic monitoring has remained at this all-time high. Meaning that there are more people under some form of coercive control, whether in jails or under house arrest and electronic monitoring, then there were before. So it’s not that electronic monitoring or prolonged probation or these other alternatives are used to allow people to come home and start rebuilding their lives, and addressing what happened that caused them to be arrested and swept up into the criminal legal system. Instead, it’s a way to widen the net and sweep more and more people under these forms of control and surveillance.

Amanda Knox 

Your book really seems to hinge upon this idea of real freedom. What is real freedom?

Maya Schenwar  

A lot of these reforms that we’re discussing throughout the book are Prison Lite. It’s assumed that our choices are a cage, or a less bad cage. When we think about, “What is freedom,” we’re thinking about, first of all, “What is not that?” And then second of all, “What do we want the world to look like?” One of the most interesting definitions of liberation that we found, which we cited in our book, from the sociologist Bobbie Harro, was the practice of love. So liberation is the practice of love. A very capacious, wide love that extends in all different directions and changes the face of society. What we’re advocating is a wholly different kind of society that is focused on supporting people as opposed to punishing people. It’s a society that understands that harm and violence happen in large part because of deep injustices and oppressions and lack of resources. We’re advocating for a society of abundance, where everyone has health care, housing, food, access to education, arts, and recreation, and everyone is able to actually self determine, to actually choose how they’re going to live their lives. This also courses through our discussions of treatment, drug treatments, psychiatric treatment. Treatment is not about someone else telling you, “This is how you should be behaving, and these are the choices that you should be making for your body and mind.” It’s about actually trusting people to make those choices for themselves. 

Amanda Knox 

The idea that all human beings are capable of self determination in a positive, unharmful way is not a universally believed in thing, right? Does the abolitionist position necessitate the belief that, if given the right incentive structures, human beings will always make positive decisions?

Victoria Law 

Well, we are human beings. So sometimes we make decisions that are positive and sometimes we do not. If you look at, say, affluent neighborhoods, where the kids all have very positive incentive structures, they have families that seem to be loving, they have roofs over their heads, food on their table, a wealth of opportunities, a bright shining future someplace awaiting them, and people still make choices and behave in ways that hurt themselves and others. So I think that we can’t say, “Everything will be happy and shiny.” But we also know that people who have fewer options, or feel that they have fewer options because of the way that our society is structured, often operate within those fewer options, work through those in a way that is harmful. But we also see that people who have a lot of opportunities and a lot of options also don’t necessarily behave in the best way. As abolitionists, we need to say, “What can we do to have people’s needs met?” If people’s needs for food, shelter, medical care, mental health care, meaningful opportunities in life, are met, how many of these behaviors could have been averted?

Amanda Knox 

There are these people who have the option to make good choices who don’t. For the Bernie Madoff ‘s of the world, is this an exception that proves the rule, or is Bernie Madoff also a victim of a bad incentive structure?

Maya Schenwar

That’s a good question that comes up so often in my work as an independent media organization with a very progressive audience, because there’s a deep conflict about this. On the left, there are abolitionists who say, “Actually, the criminal legal system is never the answer for anybody.” And then there are a lot of folks who are just saying, “We need to lock up the bankers, and go after people like that. The solutions to the ills of capitalism can partly be found through locking people up.” That’s still a very pervasive viewpoint. And I think one of the challenges for us as abolitionists is communicating, “If this system actually doesn’t work, then it actually is not going to help in situations in which very powerful people are incarcerated.” One thing we have to look at is the fact that that’s so rare. And when it happens, people cheer. People say, “We lock up this very rich and powerful person, that’s a triumph.” But in a sense, it lets the system off the hook. It says, “Here’s this bad apple capitalist. Here’s this person who profited so heavily off the system and broke the law doing it, and now they’re locked up.” Whereas the system itself is harming many, many more millions of people every single day, and no one’s putting capitalism on trial. The criminal legal system will never put capitalism on trial, will never put neoliberalism on trial. The system itself is harming more people than any individual person gaming the system. In addition to letting the system off the hook, it also endorses the idea that justice looks like someone being behind bars. And it brings up the question, “What is the consequence? What are the transformative impacts of locking someone up who has harmed a lot of people through exploitative capitalist systems? Is locking that person up actually going to change anything about the economic system? Is it even going to change anything about that person? Is anyone going to be less harmed as a result of that person being locked up?” And usually the answer is no. And so I think we have to challenge even the use of the word “justice,” in these situations, this idea of rich and powerful people being brought to justice. I think it would be very interesting for us to think about what real justice would look like in relation to capitalism.

Amanda Knox 

I think what maybe people find so scary about the idea of abolition in general is this idea that it necessitates absolutely no kind of social control or consequence to a person’s actions. And it’s not like you’re saying that there shouldn’t be any kind of paternal influence, but maybe talk to me about what some of those different approaches to reestablishing social function in response to social dysfunction might be?

Victoria Law

Going back to meeting people’s needs, if people are using illegal substances, asking, “Well, does this actually hurt anybody?” Maybe the answer is no. People can use drugs and not necessarily have it adversely impact themselves or others. There are other people who cannot use drugs and have it not adversely impact themselves or others, but the solution is never to just lock them up and punish them for their drug misuse. So asking, “Does their drug use actually hurt themselves or others?” And if the answer is no, then leave them alone. If the answer is yes, then, “What needs to happen to help them with their drug misuse?” One of the people we interviewed was Dr. Susan Sered, a researcher up in Boston. She worked with women who had been misusing drugs for a number of years who, after decades of drug use, quit. Not because they had gone to a court ― they had been mandated to go to a Drug Treatment Center in which they were locked down and stripped of all their possessions and yelled at. Instead, one of them found housing in an apartment building that had people who are elderly and disabled, and she, being relatively fit and younger, started running errands for them, carrying groceries for them, helping them out with things around their house that they needed help with, and they started building relationships. And then these older, disabled people, would cook for her. And it gave her a sense of purpose. And that was the thing that she used to stop misusing drugs. So it wasn’t an AA process or somebody telling her, “Stop using drugs or else we’ll send you to jail.” It was that she had something more that was going on in her life, and there was a better option than just sitting in her room by herself getting high. She really valued the work that she was doing. She valued helping people. And that was what she needed to say, “I don’t need to be tied to be substances.” So I think part of it is decriminalization, of not surveilling and controlling every single movement that people are doing that people might not agree with, and then finding out what people’s needs are, to support those. And when harm has happened, instead of having this cookie cutter model that incarcerates 2.3 million people, actually having a more individualized approach, whether it be like a restorative justice approach, or a transformative justice approach, to find out what the person or the people who are harmed, need. And what the community needs. And also, what the conditions were that enabled this harm. We talked about Bernie Madoff earlier. Capitalism enables predatory, exploitative behavior, and rewards it, and only occasionally punishes somebody who gets caught. What are the conditions that cause somebody to say, “I really want to rip off however many thousands of people,” or in the case of Harvey Weinstein, “to use my position of power to sexually exploit people left, right, and center”?

Amanda Knox 

You bring up the Hearing Voices Network, where there are these people who are experiencing schizophrenia in an utterly benign and even fulfilling way. It a little bit reminded me of this organization called Virtuous Pedophiles, where people who identify as pedophiles help each other to resist that urge. But on the other hand, there’s organizations like NAMBLA. Their proposed solution to pedophilia is to abolish age of consent laws. Does a truly free society mean that we have to embrace moral relativism, or how do we decide where we all agree to draw the lines?

Maya Schenwar  

When we talk about abolition, it’s very different than moral relativism, in that it’s a rearrangement of values that corresponds with actually confronting harm, violence, and thinking about what real safety would look like, in addition to thinking about safety being bound up with liberation. Child sexual abuse is taken very seriously within most abolitionist circles. Some of the initial strains of abolition were really confronting child sexual violence and saying, “Our criminal legal system actually does nothing to confront child sexual violence.” So instead of saying, “Anything goes,” it’s more like, “How can we respond to real harm in ways that are going to address that harm, and are also going to be liberatory?” I think that corresponds with our discussions of mental illness. A lot of times people are given these psychiatric diagnoses that have nothing to do with harm or pain. Of course, there are painful psychological experiences, but that’s very separate from things like schizophrenia, and that diagnosis in particular has a long history of racist applications. In the early 20th century, schizophrenia was mostly a diagnosis given to white people. And then, during the civil rights era, suddenly black people began to be diagnosed with schizophrenia at much higher rates. It was even called “protest psychosis.” And when someone is diagnosed with schizophrenia, they’re prescribed these very strong medications, which some people would call coercive medications. We are all for people choosing the types of things that they put in their body, so it’s not that we’re saying, “All medications are bad.” We’re advocating for kind of stepping away from this exact equation of diagnosis, with some professional having the hundred percent answer for what should be done, even if it’s a very coercive step.

Amanda Knox

You mentioned transformative justice earlier, accountability and reconciliation that requires the wrongdoer to volunteer. What is your position on if that wrongdoer did not recognize that he had committed a wrong, or that he didn’t choose to participate in that journey of reconciliation? In a society that doesn’t rely on the criminal justice system, what do we do in those instances?

Victoria Law

Right now we have a society in which people who are accused of harming other people are incentivized to continue to deny any wrongdoing. We have an adversarial legal system that says, “If you can say that you did this, then we will put you in prison, or punish you in some way.” So it is in your best interest to say, “I didn’t do it, but if I did it, it’s because this person did something to deserve it. Here were the mitigating circumstances.” The criminal legal system does not care. The police will come and arrest you, you will go to trial, and you will be dragged through the system, which never incentivizes you to take responsibility and try to repair the harm that you did. Community accountability is a way to hold space for somebody to take accountability for their actions, and figure out what the needs of the survivor are. Community accountability is, “You did this, and we’re holding the space for you to repair the harm to the survivor.” Knowing that sometimes it’s not like a broken plate where you can glue it and voila, your plate is whole again. This person will be living with perhaps trauma or long standing emotional and mental health issues if they’ve been harmed. But what can you do to help them move along their healing process? What can you do to say, “I realize I’ve done this, and now I realized that I should not do this again.” And it’s a long process. It’s not necessarily as easy as you pick up the phone, you call 911, the police come, they arrest the person, you are brought to the district attorney’s office to prepare for court, and then you go and you testify on the witness stand. It is a process in which the survivor’s needs are supported, and there’s space held for the person who has done the harm to take responsibility, to recognize the harm and the consequences, and then come to a reckoning and figure out how to make amends, or not. But also, it is not necessarily about that person being punished.

Amanda Knox

One of the things that can occur are situations when a person is accused of wrongdoing when no wrongdoing has actually occurred. In a community accountability model, what happens when there is this misconception that some kind of wrongdoing took place, but the person who is accused is actually innocent of that wrongdoing? Are we positioning innocent people to be incentivized to take accountability for things that they are actually innocent of? Or how does the community accountability and transformative justice model account for those kinds of false positive instances?

Maya Schenwar 

Thinking about transformative justice and community accountability, the way in which problems are dealt with is not linear, in the sense that it’s not just that an accusation is made and then someone has to be on trial defending themselves, and then there’s a perpetrator and a victim, and they’re at odds, and something needs to come of that. Instead, very often, in these situations, we’re seeing a community coming together to deal with a problem. And people are telling their stories. So actually getting all of these stories on the table, and all of these truths and the different sides to the story, that’s part of the process. Whereas the state response is very much one of trying to define a single narrative, and then have someone defend themselves against that. Instead, with transformative justice, people are given a chance to explain, for communities to come together. It’s not just these two entities, the victim and the perpetrator, sitting there. It’s whole communities. This level of transparency, vulnerability, and honesty is one of the things that is going to counteract some of the issues you’re bringing up. 

Amanda Knox 

The most powerful messages of your book, and maybe the note I want to end this interview on, is this idea that we shouldn’t be outsourcing social and criminal justice to the extent that we do. That we all need to be more connected and invested in each other, and we all need to take responsibility for how we are all complicit in the harms that we suffer and that we commit. What kinds of ways can people begin to do that?

Victoria Law  

That’s a really good question. Mia Mingus, co-founder of the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, which works to end child sexual abuse within an abolitionist framework, points out that you can’t take accountability for gigantic harms, such as assaulting somebody, if you consistently don’t take accountability for things like telling your roommates you’ll do the dishes, and then leaving them piled up for three days. That might seem like a weird, trivial, throwaway line, but if you think about it, we have to recondition ourselves to say, “How am I accountable to the people around me? Do I do what I say I’m going to do? And if not, how do I move myself towards that?” It’s like exercising a muscle. Also, it’s understanding that we are, like it or not, part of a community. So when you hear something happening, when you hear, perhaps, neighbors fighting, instead of saying, “It doesn’t concern me. That’s private,” say, “What are the options here?” Do you have a relationship with your neighbors already? Do you feel comfortable going and knocking on the door? Or maybe talking to them afterwards, and saying, “Is everything okay at home?” Taking that kind of responsibility we can start doing in our immediate day-to-day life.