Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law
Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms
The New Press, 2020
295 pages

Reviewed by Jaden M.B. Janak

Prison by Any Other Name masterfully unearths the inherent contradiction of popular criminal justice system reform efforts: rather than minimize the system, reform expands its bounds. Maya Schenwar, editor of the popular online publication TruthOut, and longtime prison advocate Victoria Law investigate how reforms like community oversight boards and lesser sentences for “non-violent” offenders have become a bipartisan project of prison expansion. Deeply researched, Prison by Any Other Name presents the harrowing tales of individuals trying desperately to survive after being caught in the ever-expanding matrix of state surveillance and terror. Rightfully, Schenwar and Law situate this study within a larger context of colonialism, enslavement, and genocide that is continuously unfolding within the United States and worldwide. They argue that the only way to escape the “prison nation” is through a total and complete divestment from the prison industrial complex. Prison abolition—the creative “shift toward community, healing, nurturing, celebration, and love”—must be our future. 

In Chapter One, we meet Patricia Howard, a mother of five children who is convicted for stealing her medication. Schenwar and Law detail how Howard faced a ten-year minimum prison sentence, but instead, was sentenced to house arrest. Typically heralded as a more humane form of incarceration, the authors reveal that house arrest forces those convicted to pay for their incarceration. Though those under house arrest can remain out of prison buildings, individuals like Howard, are compelled to miss their children’s sporting events, church functions, and even simple activities like going to the store. Schenwar and Law highlight how electronic monitoring serves as a visceral form of the panopticon prison model by watching and controlling everyday life. Electronic monitoring forces individuals like Howard into debt and continued incarceration if they cannot afford the monthly fees for their monitors.  

Disability advocates warn that increasing mental health access, particularly with lockdown facilities, is yet another way prison is rebranded under a new, yet just as devastating, moniker. As many have become more aware of the War on Drugs, specialized courts for handling low-level drug offenses have emerged as a primary response. Diversion programs funnel those convicted of minor drug offenses into mandated drug treatment facilities. Schenwar and Law expertly link these types of carceral facilities to prisons and also to mental health asylums. Chapter Two interweaves the stories of Stacey Thompson, a drug user sent to a mandated treatment facility, and that of Eliot Fukui, a transformative justice practitioner that spent several years of his youth confined in psychiatric facilities. These individual-based solutions to systemic realities presuppose that being neurodivergent or using drugs is inherently a bad thing—that these are problems meant to be solved. Drug users and those with mental health challenges are seen as needing ‘Somewhere Else,’ other than normative society, to go. Why does society deem those who experience the world differently as in need of correction? Schenwar and Law argue that the world needs treatment. 

Extending their argument against confinement, the authors recognize that confinement is not limited to the prison building. Instead, studies show that “probation is by far the most commonly assigned non-prison punishment” in the United States. Probation, like electronic monitoring, is funded by those sentenced to serve time. In Chapter Three, Schenwar and Law discuss the role of carceral feminism in further building the prison industrial complex. Collaborating with local police and Catholic parishes, Project ROSE is a prison diversion program dedicated to ‘saving’ sex workers. Participants in the program were required to attend six months of classes, quit their jobs, and were not allowed access to childcare. If the program’s residents did not comply, they were subject to a court process. Like the women of Project ROSE, those individuals on the sex offender registry face impossible circumstances. Branded as a predator for life, many on the registry are unable to find adequate places to live and jobs to sustain them, due to the stringent conditions placed on them. Robert Suttle, an HIV-positive Black gay man on the registry, must alert future landlords of his sex offender status and has to report any travel plans he has to the authorities. Because of the threat of extralegal violence and judgment from landlords, Suttle has been denied living accommodations. As a result of the attempts made by the registry and programs like Project ROSE to save people from harm, additional harm is caused by isolating individuals from their communities. Schenwar and Law emphasize that community cannot coincide with manipulation and isolation. 

Chapters Four and Five critique state-mandated parenting programs, the much-suggested practice of community policing, and the involvement of technology in policing. Schenwar and Law investigate how prison nurseries and state-funded programs that keep incarcerated parents with their children are a special form of torture. Originally designed to ameliorate family separation that comes with imprisonment, these facilities subject prisoners and their families to increased surveillance and painful forms of confinement. Though they remain with their children, they cannot have their older children with them, and the parents are not permitted to leave the premises with the children with whom they are confined. Likewise, Schenwar and Law articulate how community policing becomes synonymous with living inside an open-air prison. Stalked by so-called community officers, Black and Brown residents in cities like New York City are repeatedly stopped for simply gathering. The involvement of tech industries has resulted in many residents being numerically tracked by police departments in gang member registries, something the authors cite as ‘black data.’ Schenwar and Law’s careful attention to the furtive nature of surveillance reveals that punitive-rooted efforts to keep families and communities together actually rip them apart. 

Ending the main section of their book, Schenwar and Law demonstrate how public-school systems have transformed into surveillance centers that track student movement and enforce order through the use of policing measures.  The aftermath of the Parkland High School shooting anchors this chapter. The authors unveil how the “school to prison pipeline” affects Black and Brown students specifically but is a fundamental organizing feature of schooling within the United States. School is a battleground in which students must conform to expectations set for their behavior (dress, language, and body) or face physical and psychological violence. Though every student may not learn the educational material, every student leaves primary and secondary education with the knowledge of what, and more importantly, who is acceptable. 

Prison by Any Other Name is a phenomenal text that deconstructs the invisibility of the prison nation while also gesturing towards how we move forward toward abolition. In their conclusion, Schenwar and Law state that everyone has “the responsibility…to co-create, co-build, and co-dedicate ourselves to growing new ways of addressing our problems.” If popular reforms are inadequate, we must cultivate new solutions that do not further the webbing of surveillance networks. The collaborative vision of abolition is our path towards more livable lives. Joining the growing canon of twenty-first century abolitionist literature, Prison by Any Other Name is a balm in this ever-increasingly unsettling time. Schenwar and Law have written what will become a classic text for anyone seeking a new world.