Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms

By Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law. The New Press, 2020. 320 pages. $26.99/hardcover; $17.99/eBook.

Prison by Any Other Name turns a critical eye on alternatives to prison. Ultimately, it is about prison abolition, not only of physical blocks of prison cells but of the variety of options given to judges as alternatives to sentencing defendants to cages, as it finds all of them overly restrictive and punitive.

The statewide organization I have volunteered with for several years has successfully lobbied to decrease the number of people in state prison by legislating greater use of sentencing alternatives, so I felt somewhat defensive while reading this book. As I read, I thought, Yes, people in these systems suffer a loss but they are not in prison. There must be sanctions for breaking the law. Otherwise, we don’t have laws; we only have suggestions.

That said, I was disturbed to learn that these alternative sanctions restrict a much larger number of people than would be sentenced to prison if there were no options; in addition, terms of confinement are often significantly longer than incarceration behind bars would be for the same offense.

Schenwar and Law show how people’s freedom is restricted by house arrest, making impossible, for example, parents attending parent–teacher conferences. Where food, housing, and medical care are provided behind bars, people on house arrest must pay for these expenses while renting electronic monitoring equipment for as much as $500 a month, often while unable to work. They tell us that the doors are often locked in drug and mental health facilities, and people required to attend mental health, drug, or alcohol programs don’t do well compared with those who attend voluntarily, when they are psychologically ready. They tell us that people on the sex offender registry have trouble renting apartments, making normal life impossible. And they show us that removal of children to foster care can sometimes seem arbitrary, and foster care can be more traumatic for children than staying with overly stressed parents.

Those receiving alternate punishments still have a criminal record and face the resulting discrimination.

I shared a draft of this review with a fellow criminal justice volunteer who is a retired judge. He thought the examples of overly harsh prison alternatives were worst cases, not typical. However, he agreed that we could do better.

When I got to the last chapter, “Beyond Alternatives,” I understood Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, when she wrote in her foreword to Prison by Any Other Name: “This book challenges us to think more deeply and carefully about what we mean by ‘justice’ and what kind of world we aim to co-create.” I found this chapter inspiring.

The authors write:

The point is not to provide an alternative to electronic monitoring, an alternative to probation, an alternative to the registry, and so on—but to look instead at the actual problems we face, and to take lessons from projects around the country that are addressing these problems in effective ways.

The point to abolishing prisons, as well as to defunding the police, is to create the kind of society that doesn’t require prisons or police. The book suggests that we have not developed skills in dealing with mentally ill people or violent situations because we think only the police can handle them. We need to learn to calm difficult situations and build community-based mediation and dispute resolution structures that hold people accountable for their actions, center the needs of victims, and provide support for both victims and perpetrators to heal.

We need to build community and to provide resources so we can all be healthy and safe. The authors give examples of communities that are already building safety outside the state systems. I don’t know if we will ever be able to completely abolish prisons and the police, but this book shows us that with communities where people can thrive, we surely will be able to move in that direction.

Patience A. Schenck is a member of Annapolis (Md.) Meeting and a resident of Friends House in Sandy Spring, Md. She is a founder of and volunteers with the Maryland Alliance for Justice Reform.

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