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Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better, by Maya Schenwar

Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better, by Maya Schenwar

(Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2014). 214 pages, $15.00-$25.00 paperback

Book review by Gary Hunter

Few books achieve that delicate balance between being equally empathetic and educational. In Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better, the author, Maya Schenwar, invites readers to share her personal experiences with an imprisoned family member while educating them about the failed practices and policies of our nation’s prison system. As Schenwar puts it, “Incarceration serves as the default answer to many of the worst social problems plaguing this country – not because it solves them, but because it buries them ... prisons do not disappear problems, they disappear human beings.”

Schenwar’s sister has a problem with addiction that lands her in jail over and over again. In Locked Down, Locked Out, she unfolds the tangible complexities experienced by both her family and the families of those forced to deal with the plight of an incarcerated loved one. Schenwar couples her personal experience with statistical data and research materials to create a text that gives her first-hand account a firm factual foundation. Interviews with scholars, experts, prisoners and their families skillfully weave a wealth of information into a tapestry designed to touch readers on every level.

Early on in the text, Schenwar shares her conflicting feelings as she decides how much support to give her sister, Kayla, who has been locked up yet again as a result of a heroin addiction. She knows that prison will not help Kayla, but Schenwar and her parents struggle with the reality that prison is the safest place for her until real solutions are found. To add to the dilemma, Kayla is pregnant.

In sharing her sister’s carceral experience, Locked Down, Locked Out exposes a twofold problem exacerbated by the “Prison-Industrial Complex” – parenting and racism. Children with an incarcerated parent are more prone to go to prison themselves. Because blacks are imprisoned at a higher rate than whites, the U.S. has created what Schenwar refers to as “a modern version of the slave auction block.”

Parenting from prison creates a unique set of problems for both prisoners and their families. “Four to seven percent of women entering prison are pregnant.... Nearly two thirds of women in prison are mothers. One in 40 American kids have a parent in prison, and for Black kids it’s 1 in 15,” Schenwar writes.

One of the most moving questions posed by the book, “How do you parent from prison?” evokes an emotionally unsettling and particularly unsatisfying one-word answer from Danielle, an incarcerated mother: “Watching.” As in watching your children grow up without you.

The range of issues addressed in Locked Down, Locked Out are impossible to address in this brief review. Schenwar’s research offers insight into the dysfunctional way prisons deal with homophobia, solitary confinement, video visitation and exorbitant prison phone rates. She exposes the deteriorating effect that depriving prisoners access to technology has on those who are eventually released back into our tech-savvy society. Further, she notes that “the 95 percent of prisoners who are released emerge with even fewer economic opportunities and fewer human connections on the outside than before.”

Locked Down, Locked Out draws from hundreds of texts, research studies and interviews to support Schenwar’s position about the dysfunctional state of our nation’s criminal justice system. But it’s her first-hand knowledge of her sister’s incarceration that makes thisone of the most intriguing books about the prison experience you will ever read.

Maya Schenwar is the Editor-in-Chief of Truthout (, an independent social justice news website. Locked Down, Locked Out is available from Amazon, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble and Truthout.

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