Books

Prison by Any Other Name

State involvement in people's lives—even "for their own good"—ends up becoming a backdoor way of policing and control.

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"Ending mass incarceration is only the beginning," write journalists Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law in Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms. The book delves into the many ways Americans are surveilled, separated from their communities, punished, and controlled by "prison alternatives" like probation, house arrest with electronic monitoring, mandatory drug treatment, and prostitution "diversion" programs. It also covers supposedly preventive measures (such as involuntary psychiatric hospitalizations and the sex offender registry) and state "care" systems such as child protective services.

As a primer on the deep reach of our prison industrial complex and a roadmap for how to reform the reforms, the book works well. It's less persuasive in its hostility toward incremental reformers; the authors seem to believe that abolishing prisons and all of the rest of it is feasible.

Most jarringly, the book suggests that America must not just abolish bad laws but tackle the very roots of poverty, racism, drug addiction, depression, lack of social cohesion, health care issues, etc.—often with heavy involvement from government.

But state involvement in people's lives—even "for their own good"—ends up becoming a backdoor way of policing and control, as the book itself nicely illustrates. If we can imagine a world in which prisons are being abolished in favor of nonstate justice, can't we also imagine one in which we tackled even bigger problems without government meddling?

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  1. Truly excellent, well written, and comprehensive overview of the physical and invisible structures that make up the modern prison nation, and the dangers of many reforms that further entrench these institutions in our society. The book uses personal stories and data to make a powerful case against prisons and policing, including the ways it shows up in schools, mental health facilities, and public spaces. When reading the chapter on the foster system, something that came up for me is that abolitionist arguments about the violence of the foster system tend to gloss over the realities of child abuse in families, and so I would have liked to see that issue tackled head-on (e.g. referring to abuse allegations as “unsubstantiated” is complicated because, on one hand, Black mothers *are* targeted and surveilled by racist neighbors who make false reports and by a system that polices and criminalizes poverty, and also: child abuse/child sexual abuse is real and not always able to be easily substantiated). The other note I have is that the book briefly references Men Can Stop Rape, which is an organization that uses a very gender essentialist, trans exclusionary and sex worker exclusionary lens to talk about masculinity, through a prohibitively expensive program. The Rethink Masculinity program, also based in Washington, DC, is an accessible and trans inclusive program created by Collective Action for Safe Spaces, the DC Rape Crisis Center, and ReThink as an alternative for masculine people to learn to build healthier relationships and healthier expressions of masculinity. I’d love to see more groups using models for programs around masculinity that are informed by trans folks and sex workers.
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  2. So the problem of too much government is more government, but the right kind this time.

    What could possibly go wrong?

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  3. State involvement in people’s lives—even “for their own good”—ends up becoming a backdoor way of policing and control.

    What? There’s no “backdoor” about it, that’s exactly what it is. Government is force, pure and simple.

    1. And s/even/especially/. There’s a quote somewhere about better to have a greedy selfish dictator than one on a mission from God for your own good.

    2. “Government is force, pure and simple.”

      And they’ll give it to you in the backdoor good and hard, doubly so if you’re in prison. Backdoor-ed by the government and backdoor-ed by other prisoners. Government is the backdoor-ing we do together.

  4. “…the book suggests that America must not just abolish bad laws but tackle the very roots of poverty, racism, drug addiction, depression, lack of social cohesion, health care issues, etc.—often with heavy involvement from government.”

    Get the fuck outa here.

  5. Absolutely! Prison is just a way to cement the recidivism. To turn one time mistakes into lifelong criminals. And those stupid non-prison programs are just ways to send people to prison for slipups. We incarcerate more people than any other country in the world, except for like North Korea, and we pretend that it’s normal and mock civilized countries that don’t.

  6. Many Bernie Sanders supporters (the predominant WhiteAntifa faction) call for defunding the justice system and opening prison gates to release violent rapists and murderers, yet some of his Stalinist campaign staffers have called for forced-labor gulags and death camps for political enemies.

    Where will they get the guard staff, kapos, and kommandantes? Looks like they have a ready supply within their ranks looking for high-paying, full-time, unionized government jobs.

    It’s a good idea to avoid the political gulag and death camp system whenever possible.

  7. Sounds like the author is fine with a large, intrusive government, but only when it suits her goals.

  8. If we can imagine a world in which prisons are being abolished in favor of nonstate justice, can’t we also imagine one in which we tackled even bigger problems without government meddling?

    Lynching dueling and vendetta, baby!

    1. Mob justice (I’m talking about the Mob, not just a bunch of meth-head yahoos looking to get their fash on) and vigilantes.

      Non-state justice sounds fine until you see it in action (look to every anarchistic shit-hole ever for examples). Small, limited government is the top of the bell curve; everything else is just a different degree of shit-hole.

      1. What, you mean that having a rich dude dress up in a silly costume and punch anyone he meets isn’t a good form of justice? I really like the fact that no one knows who he is and he answers to no one.

        No one crazy enough to do that would EVER stoop to doing things for personal gain.

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