“Prison By Any Other Name”

Prisons and penitentiaries (derived from the word penitent) were considered by early Christians as a way for people to reflect on their sins in isolation and emerge obedient. Eventually, Schenwar and Law write, the mission of penitence evolved into “the need to establish racialized control."

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In “Prison by Any Other Name” (The New Press, 2020), by Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law, the foreword written by Michelle Alexander points out that we have figured out how to send things deep into space and hold a powerful computer in the palm of our hand. Still, we cannot seem to design a better system of justice. 

New technology — body cameras and surveillance — serve to enforce the carceral system. Reform ideas focus on how to lock up people “we are afraid of,” as Newt Gingrich and billionaire B. Wayne Hughes Jr. put it in an op-ed.

We do not seem as capable of investing in healing trauma so that violence is reduced. We do not seem capable of designing connections for people suffering from mental health issues and substance abuse, so we arrest them.

According to Schenwar and Law, the standards used by those who support rules of white supremacy: Where is the Somewhere Else to put people who are not like “us”? How do we create an updated version of confinement, isolation, and punishment?

The U.S. not only imprisons people at a higher rate than other countries (2.3 million), but we have tens of millions of people in immigrant detention centers, mental health facilities (56 percent of those in state prisons have been diagnosed with mental illness), on probation, on parole, and in house confinement with electronic monitors (up from 53,000 in 2005 to more than 125,000 in 2015).

The Legacy

The roots of the U.S. are in capitalism (those with the most money win), colonialism (push out those in our way), and white supremacy (one race belongs) have limited our ability to be empathetic, inclusive, creative, and collaborative.

The authors ask us to consider the genealogy of our systems of punishment.

  • Whips, stocks, and branding irons were popular for a time. The death penalty was used for burglary, counterfeiting, and stealing horses.
  • Enslaved people were tortured, mutilated, and lynched. Black people were considered, as Angela Davis put it, “lacking the soul that might be shaped and transformed by punishment.”
  • Indigenous people were considered ‘savages,’ unable to be rehabilitated, and separated from families to be retrained, or killed.
  • White women were the subjects of their husbands. Poor women were considered morally depraved and often beaten and raped.

Prisons and penitentiaries (derived from the word penitent) were considered by early Christians as a way for people to reflect on their sins in isolation and emerge obedient. Eventually, Schenwar and Law write, the mission of penitence evolved into “the need to establish racialized control.”

After slavery was abolished, incarceration was quickly deployed as a way to continue enslaving people legally. Blacks were arrested for curfew violations or loitering and forced into prison labor.

Schenwar and Law ask: “If someone robs a store as a result of chronic, generational poverty, they are classified as ‘violent’ and therefore feared. Meanwhile, the landlords that provide substandard housing or lobby against tenant protections remain undeterred, as do the politicians making policies that perpetuate socioeconomic injustice. The individual who robbed a store is cast into the ‘criminal’ box while the generational poverty goes unchallenged.”

They tell the story of Colette Payne, a Chicago mother in a low-income neighborhood who had a drug addiction. Payne’s neighborhood lacked a grocery store, requiring travel for fresh foods. “Local schools are devoid of counselors but filled with security guards and police. In these schools, the go-to strategy is suspension: punishing students and taking away resources instead of providing them.

Because of electronic monitoring restrictions, she was unable to connect with family and community, or attend parent-teacher conferences for her kids. After eight probationary periods, she was arrested on another drug-related charge and sent to prison. “Clearly neither alternative – probation nor monitoring – solved her underlying issues.”

The general intent of punishment seems to be to make people feel personally flawed and unimportant rather than supported into another path.

An Indiana woman was sentenced to house arrest, which required paying $115 over three years for her electronic monitoring system. Despite reduced access to employment, and a family of seven, her caseworker pointed out that her payments for the monitor took priority over family needs. They had no heat and no air conditioning and lost their car. She was told that putting her four-year-old in pre-school was not a necessary expense. Because she fell $1,900 behind in payments, her sentence was extended “indefinitely” until payments were made, which continued to add $115 every week.

“It doesn’t matter your behavior,” she told the authors. “It matters how much money you have available.”

A woman in California was required to spend $10 a day on monitoring. “I could have gone to therapy with that money. Maybe that would have been a really good use of my $300 a month.”

Oklahoma has the nation’s highest rate of incarceration, they write. Nearly half of its drug court participants do not complete court requirements, which leads to an average of 74 months in prison. Many of these are the result of failing a urine test or not paying a fine.


Low-wage jobs, lack of access to housing and education, restricted voting rights — especially to those who have been incarcerated — also keep people isolated.

“Pursuing real alternatives to prison,” the authors write, “must include acknowledging that harm and violence are often driven by poverty, economic injustice, and lack of access to basic necessities. Mass incarceration, mass surveillance, and mass policing have clearly not ended murder, assault, or rape. Any real effort to prevent and address violence must involve an infusion of vital resources.”

Programs and support systems — if we intend to increase public safety and not simply to feel the superiority of control — need to “be radically reimagined to meet people’s actual needs. … How would society shift if, instead of ‘housing’ millions of people in prisons, some of that money was spent on providing homes where people could truly live?”

One activist engaged with the mental health system in Chicago told Schenwar and Law: “If services weren’t dependent on income, everyone could have access to the types of treatments that are backed up by research but currently seen as luxuries.”

The authors quote sociologist Bobbie Harro, who calls true freedom and liberation “the practice of love.” In this transcendent imagining of heaven on earth, liberation is the “force that connects us all to one another as living beings — that force that is defined differently by every spiritual belief system, but which binds us by the vision that there can be a better world and we can help to create it.”

Coming up: Solutions identified in “Prison by Any Other Name” and another title by The New Press, “What We Know: Solutions From Our Experiences in the Justice System”

See also: “The New Jim Crow” book reflection questions