Locked Down, Locked Out, Truthout Editor-in-Chief Maya Schenwar’s nonfiction book on mass incarceration arrived in the mail last week. I opened the first page and did not stop reading until the very last word. From the moment my eyes made contact with Schenwar’s gripping confession of her complex relationship with her often-incarcerated sister, I was magnetized by the writing.
To say, “I recommend this book,” is an understatement. I think every lawyer, lawmaker, judge, police officer, corrections officer, and private prison company owner and shareholder should be required to read this book. As I said in my review, Schenwar “cuts us open with the scalpel of this book, hoping to find our humanity alive.”
Two years ago, I wrote my first social protest novel, Steam Drills, a story about coal and climate change . . . and prisons. With 2.5 million Americans currently incarcerated, prison runs like an undercurrent through the psyche of our nation. Some socio-economic classes can ignore the impacts of our mass incarceration policies, but for others, the vicious cycle of lack of opportunities and imprisonment leaves deep scars upon their families and communities. As Maya Schenwar mentioned on our Occupy Radio interview, the modern American criminal justice system is “racist to the core”.
From racial profiling to higher conviction rates to longer sentences to cycles of recidivism and the impacts on the children of incarcerated parents, the criminal justice system plays out like a recurring nightmare of our nation’s long history of enslaving, persecuting, and criminalizing non-whites . . . and profiting off of the process. In my novel, Steam Drills, the ghost of John Henry haunts a coal company lawyer. The legend and ballad of this American near-mythic figure frames John Henry’s story as “man versus the machine” – a tale of human spirit during an era of modernization and mechanization. Yet, in researching the historic John Henry, I learned the uncomfortable truth: many historians believe the real John Henry had been imprisoned and forced to work on a chain gang – one of the thousands of African Americans who lost the newly gained freedom from slavery to the racist persecution that would snatch them off the streets and throw them back into shackles to supply cheap labor for the state.
That was over 150 years ago, and the story is still repeating on the concrete sidewalks of cities and towns across the United States: people of color are being swept into prisons. The statistics are staggering and the stories are heart-wrenching.
“Dates and facts on slips of paper couldn’t explain as much as a single story.” – Steam Drills.
In covering the societal and emotional impacts and human costs of our mass incarceration policies, Maya Schenwar’s book relentlessly pursues the kind of truth that doesn’t fit on charts. She reveals our humanity through her stories of human beings impacted by policies that break spirits and fracture families. The emotions, stories, and situations I wrote about in the fictional Steam Drills find their factual counterparts in Schenwar’s Locked Down, Locked Out. Reading both books together may split your heart into pieces . . . and help you understand a current oppression that’s tearing our nation apart.
Rivera Sun is the author of The Dandelion Insurrection, and Steam Drills, Treadmills, and Shooting Stars, the cohost of Occupy Radio, and the cofounder of the Love-In-Action Network. She is also the social media coordinator for Campaign Nonviolence and Pace e Bene. Sun’s essays on social justice and nonviolent movements have appeared in many journals, including Truthout and Popular Resistance. www.riverasun.com