What Can Replace Prison?

Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison
by Nell Bernstein
The New Press, 2014

Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better
by Maya Schenwar
Berrett-Koehler, 2014

If you have the capacity to read one book on prisons this month, which should you choose?

For many people I would say without hesitation: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2012). It is a stunning book. Or it was for me. Call me naïve, but it had never occurred to me that the cancerous growth of the prison system since the 1970s might have been a response to the success of the Civil Rights movement in the ’60s.

I knew many pieces of Alexander’s thesis—the way Republicans since Nixon have won elections with covert appeals to racism (the infamous “Southern strategy”), or the way the “war on drugs” set penalties for drugs used by blacks as much as a hundredfold higher than for those used by whites. But I hadn’t seen the picture the way Alexander—reluctantly, one should point out, as she is no conspiracy theorist—came to see it. It’s not just that I have been as clueless as most white people on the topic of race in America (though I have). Alexander, an African American lawyer, argues that the entire African American civil rights establishment for decades misunderstood the centrality of incarceration in the counterattack of white supremacists on their movement. Her book has changed that. It’s a must-read.

A few weeks back I heard another opinion about The New Jim Crow. I had recommended it to a bright young man who was recently out of prison. He has transformed his life and is eager to help others. He is hungry for books on prisons, how to stay out of them, how to recover from trauma, and how to build a radically different justice system. He found The New Jim Crow interesting but depressing, even hopeless. As he told me this, his face lost its usual shine.

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