Commentary Human Rights

‘Locked Down, Locked Out’ Puts a Face on the Criminal Justice System

Eleanor J. Bader

Maya Schenwar's book uses her family's personal experiences with incarceration as a framing device for more general statistics about how the legal system works, addressing the racism, classism, heterosexism, and misogyny at the heart of law-and-order policies.

Maya Schenwar’s Locked Down, Locked Out opens with a highly emotional story about the conflicting feelings Schenwar experienced when her sister Kayla was arrested in December 2012 for the seventh time in six years. But the personal rapidly becomes political as Schenwar—currently editor-in-chief at Truthout, a progressive, online news magazine to which I also contribute—exposes the many ways in which the criminal “justice” system fails both those who are incarcerated and the communities to which they will more than likely return when their stint in prison ends.

Details about Kayla’s evolving story are woven throughout Schenwar’s charged narrative, which effectively uses the Schenwars’ personal accounts as a framing device for more general statistics about how the legal system works, addressing the racism, classism, heterosexism, and misogyny at the heart of law-and-order policies.

Schenwar, whose interest in incarceration was undoubtedly influenced by her family history, has long written about the subject for a wide range of publications. Well-versed in the ins-and-outs of the system, Locked Down, Locked Out offers an accessible, easily readable account of the ways the system dehumanizes prisoners, making reentry into the outside world difficult for many. By merging her sister’s story with a broader, investigative report, Schenwar humanizes those we dub “offenders” and assesses how we, as a society, can do better. Rather than depressing, the book is ultimately an inspiring call to action.

Although we are not made privy to Kayla’s full history, readers learn that she had long been a heroin user when she was arrested in 2012 for shoplifting. Upon entering the prison system, a physical examination revealed that Kayla was pregnant.

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Schenwar admits that her family had reached a state of mounting frustration and fear, even wondering whether prison might be safer for Kayla at this point:

We have reached the end of our collective ropes. We don’t want her out. We don’t want to pace our kitchens agonizing over her whereabouts, wondering if she’s dead or dying; anticipating another near-overdose, another offense, another strike on her record, another trip to the joint.

Still, Schenwar retains her commitment to examining the bigger picture. For instance, because this is not just a memoir about living with a drug-dependent family member, Locked Down, Locked Out also addresses the many social problems facing those with criminal records, such as sky-high rates of unemployment.

Small wonder, she notes, that the inability to find a decent-paying job leads many probationers and former prisoners back to crime, or at least to working outside the law. “People are incarcerated for engaging in the informal or street economy, but upon release, the work available to them may well be limited to the informal economy,” she writes. “Though new policies prohibit employers from officially barring people with criminal records from applying for jobs, it’s still tough to convince an employer that they should ‘take a chance’ and hire you.” The upshot is that, according to one study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 67.8 percent of released prisoners are re-arrested within three years and more than half end up back in jail.

Schenwar’s conclusion? That at a certain point, “incarceration actually promotes crime.”

And this is before we address the damaging psychological and physical toll of imprisonment. Most scarring is pervasive sexual abuse, whether perpetrated by guards or by other inmates. Indeed, while the Schenwar family wanted to believe that Kayla would be safe in prison after her arrest, this may have been wishful thinking. In fact, Locked Down, Locked Out notes that the abuse of prisoners is more rule than exception: “One in five men experience sexual abuse in prison; the estimates for women vary quite a bit, but reach one in four in maximum security institutions.” In addition, Schenwar writes, “lesbian, gay, bisexual, gender-nonconforming, and/or trans prisoners experience overwhelmingly higher rates of assault, often by authority figures.”

Unfortunately, that’s just the tip of the spear: More mundane affronts, including verbal insults and a lack of privacy while dressing, showering, and using the toilet, are routine.

In addition to any lasting trauma that may result from these experiences, when an inmate leaves jail, they are often disconnected from family and friends, leading to isolation and uncertainty. This, combined with the aforementioned difficulty finding work, means that, as Schenwar writes, “Release does not necessarily mean freedom, and rights do not necessarily mean reality, especially for formerly incarcerated people of color.”

For Kayla, though, life after release was not her primary concern, at least at first. Months after her arrest, at five months pregnant, she was sent to the penitentiary to serve a year-long sentence for retail theft. More than one trimester later, on September 3, 2013, Kayla was taken to the hospital to deliver her daughter. “Her water hasn’t broken and she’s not having contractions,” Schenwar writes. “Yet, at the convenience of the prison, her labor has been scheduled … It will be induced.”

According to Schenwar, family members were barred from the birth and Kayla was allowed just one phone call after the baby arrived. She was then given less than 36 hours with her newborn—during which Schenwar says she was shackled to the bedposts—before she was returned to prison. Her daughter, Schenwar adds, was not allowed to accompany her.

It’s a fairly common scenario. “Four to seven percent of women entering prison are pregnant and most carry to term. No statistics exist on the availability of abortion in prison,” she writes. “While in theory, incarcerated women have to same constitutional reproductive rights as others, many incarcerated women find that a request for an abortion is met with denial, delay, or dismissal.”

In addition, Schenwar highlights the fact that two-thirds of women in prison are already mothers of children under 18. Many imprisoned women, she notes, will suffer an additional trauma if they lose custody of their offspring. “Due to long distances, visitation barriers, and extended periods of separation, lots of moms aren’t able to meet court-mandated benchmarks required for reunification with their children upon release,” she writes.

Kayla, for her part, is relatively lucky. She has family on the outside—parents and a sister and brother-in-law—who are willing and able to care for newborn Angelica. Still, Schenwar worries: What if this is not enough to forestall an attachment disorder?

Better, she argues, would be programs that allow new mothers to live outside of prison, in supervised and restricted community housing with their babies. Such programs—few and far between, in places like Chicago or Flathead County, Montana—are known to benefit both parent and child, even as they fly in the face of prevailing attitudes about clamping down on crime through imprisonment.

Schenwar not only champions such projects, she unequivocally supports other programs that generally emphasize human connectedness in lieu of punishment. Toward that end, Locked Down, Locked Out assesses the strengths and weaknesses of restorative and transformative justice programs, which bring victims and perpetrators together to discuss their lives and the choices they’ve made.

“Instead of exacting revenge,” Schenwar explains, “restorative justice [programs’] goals are to build relationships, empower victims, support them in their healing processes, help them call out the behavior of those who have harmed them, and bolster them in asking for the things they need to move on.” Restorative justice efforts typically work with police as an alternative to incarceration and sometimes require the person who has caused harm to make reparations to the victim.

It is not a guaranteed success though. “The concept of restorative justice can sometimes fall flat,” Schenwar concedes. “The word ‘restore’ may assume that there’s already a ‘store,’ a safe and healthy place to return to that can be repaired and peacefully re-inhabited. It may operate on the premise that relationships can be repaired, that they were good before they were broken, that a supportive community once existed and can now be fixed.”

Schenwar further writes that transformative justice, while similar, operates apart from the state and focuses on “transforming the social conditions that perpetuate violence” as it holds offenders accountable for that they’ve done.

Given the diversity and variety of communities, Schenwar points out that no single approach is a panacea. And indeed, wide-ranging implementations of these kinds of initiatives may be an extremely tall order, because there is little political momentum on Capitol Hill or in statehouses for new approaches to crime and punishment. Nonetheless, Schenwar remains cautiously optimistic about the future that awaits Kayla, Angelica, and the 2.3 million Americans who are presently behind bars.

Kayla is once again out of prison, Schenwar writes, and has opted to enter the recovery home at Chicago’s Women’s Treatment Center, “a publicly and donation-funded program that offers previously incarcerated mothers a chance to recover from drug problems in a safe, supportive environment, with their babies.”

So far, she and Angelica are thriving. Shouldn’t prisoners everywhere have a chance to do likewise?

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