Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the introduction to Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better, by Maya Schenwar.
“Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!” I’m crying with my mother over the phone. It’s late evening, December 25, 2012, and Kayla, my only sister and best friend, has been arrested for the seventh time in the past six years. She’s in jail again—and this time, we’re sort of hoping she’ll stay there. “If she asks,” I tell Mom, “I’m not bailing her out.”
“Well, you know we’re not,” Mom says, her voice low and far away, a weary echo of words uttered in months and years past. “If she’s in there, at least she’ll be safe.”
Jail, we agree, may be the only place that can save Kayla’s life, staving off her burning dependency on heroin. Neither of us acknowledges that regardless of whether Kayla stays clean while incarcerated, sooner or later she’ll be getting out.
“Do we know what she’s in for?” I ask Mom.
“Does it matter?”
I think of Kayla, cuffed and listless, being dragged through the doors of the Cook County Jail, catching the eyes of women she’s known before—in court, on the street, in juvenile detention, in jail, in prison. I wonder whether a part of her is relieved to be back.
Later, when I pick up the phone and hear a robotic voice announce, “You have a collect call from the Cook County Jail: press five to take the call,” I press the hang-up button and get into bed.
My attitude toward Kayla’s incarceration was born out of desperation. She had overdosed three times within two months, passing out on the street, awakening in abandoned buildings or crowded hospitals, her pulse barely ticking. Yet my wish chafed against not only my love for her, but also my politics, my ideals, my sense of justice and truth. After all, I run a social justice-based news organization and have denounced the colossus that is the prison-industrial complex for as long as I can remember. For nearly a decade, I’ve corresponded with a number of people in prison, as both interviewees and pen pals, and I’ve learned much from them about the violence and hopelessness of the system. My understandings of the power structures that create prisons have been guided by the work of people like activist and scholar Angela Davis, a staunch prison abolitionist. How could I reconcile my wholehearted opposition to the prison-industrial complex with a desire to see my own sister locked up?