BookShelf: Getting Smarter About Public Safety

There are nearly 2 million people in more than 1,500 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 1,510 juvenile correctional facilities, 186 immigrant detention facilities, and other types of facilities. Another 130,000 people are under house arrest. Two books published by The New Press in 2020 explore alternatives.

“What We Know: Solutions From Our Experiences in the Justice System,”edited by Vivian Nixon and Daryl Atkinson

“I observed so many amazing, brilliant women just languishing in prison,” writes one of the book’s contributors, Michelle Jones, who spent 20 years incarcerated in Indiana. She is a board member of Constructing Our Future, a re-entry option for women.

Jones writes about a former nurse who planned religious services for prisoners. She was released after 20 years and struggled to find work and housing. “She went from being a key person to someone whose gifts were subsumed under a taint of criminality.”

Another person spent six months struggling to find a place to live, despite having a job. In 10 years of incarceration, she had been a role model to gender nonconforming people in sports, choir, and education. Outside, after release, she felt that people wanted her to fail.

A woman who got her bachelor’s degree during 18 years of prison could not get a job with a living wage and benefits. It eroded her mental state and she turned to substance use, a habit she had kicked 20 years earlier.

“Our labor, creativity, and care represent the heart of what makes prisons function, and these can be deployed in the outside world as well,” Jones writes. She proposes a government employee project to help formerly incarcerated people have a safer landing as a state employee, working alongside lawmakers and other officials “who see and think of monsters when they imagine incarcerated people.”

Another chapter is written by Teresa Y. Hodge, who served a 70-month federal prison sentence that began six days before Apple introduced the first iPhone. She was overwhelmed and frustrated on the day she got out of prison, when her daughter handed her a cell phone and she had trouble figuring out how to use it to respond to family and friends congratulating her on her freedom. She vowed to be intentional about including tech in her reintegration strategy.

Hodge says there are thousands of barriers to successful integration. She co-founded R3 Score Technologies to help inmates succeed at re-entry by being allowed to learn skills in technology.

In 2018, Minnesota had more than 122,000 people under correctional control. The state’s rate of incarceration and supervision is 16th highest per capita in the country. Those are people, Hodges indicates, who are “forever at risk of being locked out of opportunity if we don’t radically intervene.”

“Prison by Any Other Name,” by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law

For long-term impact, alternatives to prison need to resolve the roots of crime, the authors write, rather than simply “have punishment at its core.” People under house arrest cannot attend school functions, go to the park or religious services, or visit friends. This does not enable them to contribute or connect with community.

To reduce crime, the authors suggest “housing access is often the most insurmountable barrier [for at-risk individuals] … housing in pressure-cooker situations is particularly difficult for those with mental health issues,” and we need to expand the safety net for families instead of putting that money into prisons and foster care systems.

Milwaukee’s Welfare Warriors program has a guaranteed child support system that keeps caregiving, post-secondary education, and basic parenting expenses covered to age 18, providing a generation of adequate health care, nutrition, housing, and education.

The authors equate transformative justice with community accountability — it is not about transforming behavior but transforming conditions that lead to violence or harm.

Since mass incarceration, mass surveillance, and mass policing clearly have not ended murder, assault, or rape, the authors write, isn’t it time to think of better ideas?