The Feministing Five: Maya Schenwar

author-photoMaya Schenwar’s newly released book, Locked Down, Locked Outweaves together excellent political analysis with her personal perspective to demonstrate how our current prison system fails both prisoners and those on the outside.

For the past ten years, Maya’s sister has been in and out of prison while Maya has been writing for and editing one of our favorite online publications, Truthout. Her focus on the separation of prisoners and their families is particularly poignant given that Maya and her family have experienced the futility of this broken system first-hand.

In one particularly devastating chapter, Maya examines how prison’s approach to separate mothers from their newborn babies only creates more interpersonal and societal rifts. This impact is made more tangible for the reader as Maya shares how her sister was forced to give birth without any family present for support or joy and then had to return to prison in chains and without custody of her child.

Maya also includes the perspectives from her prison pen pals within Locked Down, Locked Out and reminds us all of the power of human connection through the written word.

Locked Down, Locked Out is out today and Maya will be donating book royalties to Marissa Alexander’s legal fund, so be sure to get your copy!

And now without further ado, the Feministing Five with Maya Schenwar!

Suzanna Bobadilla: Thank you so much for speaking with us today and congrats on publishing Locked Down, Locked Out. Can you share with us your inspiration for writing this book?

Maya Schenwar: For the past almost ten years, I’ve been writing, editing, and comissioning stories about the criminal legal system. Throughout that same time period, my sister has been in and out of prison, so my family has been really bound up with this issue.

The idea to write this book came to a head for me in Spring of 2012. It was in the wake of the NATO protests in Chicago. There was a lot of mobilization around these activists who had been arrested on terrorism charges. I was watching the situation play out while my sister was incarcerated, and I noticed how there were these brief moments of visibility for incarcerated people. Of course there tends to be a lot of excitement around political prisoners. Particularly when it comes to readers of publications like Truthout, narratives about political prisoners really get folks riled up.

But at that time — and things have obviously changed now — there wasn’t so much energy about the sheer volume of people who are arrested every single day. I wrote an article back in 2012 called “35,948 People Arrested Yesterday,” which was a play on the “Two People Arrested Yesterday at Such and Such Protest!” My piece got a big response from readers and in the article I asked folks to write to a pen pal in prison. I thought it was a step that everyone could take and it’s along that theme of connecting people in prison with the outside. The response to the article was really positive and I remember thinking, “This is something I want to write about — this disconnect between people who are incarcerated and families, communities, and all of society on the outside.”

SB: Some of my favorite parts of your book included your reflections on being a pen pal with current prisoners. You remark on how powerful it is for incarcerated folks to have a connection to the outside, to be listened to, and to share their stories with others. Why is letter writing so important and how can folks get involved?

MS: It’s so rare that people today write a snail mail letter to a friend, but that used to be the primary form of communication for people who were not sitting next to each other. The act of writing a letter necessitates contemplation and forethought. It evokes much deeper feelings than you would put in an email.

Of course it’s really bad that people in prison only have letter writing as their main form of communication. The thing that we can do from the outside as pen pals is to actively utilize that form of communication as a tool for organizing. Organizing by forming a human connection.

As we are coming up to the holidays, a lot of groups are sending holiday cards to people in prison. Black and Pink is a great place to find a pen pal. They frame it as an action, a type of service, and a friendship as you are two human beings writing to each other. It’s also really important to keep that in mind when you talk about incarcerated people on any level. They are not a cause, they are human beings but you are not used to seeing them in society.

SB: One of your chapters focuses on the intersection of reproductive justice and prison systems through the story of your sister’s pregnancy and birth of your niece. You point out that the system sets up families to struggle greatly because of its focus on separation. Can you share a bit more on this topic?

MS: The fact that between 4 to 10 percent of women coming into prison are pregnant sometimes gets overlooked. Pregnancy in prisons is a very real thing –especially now that the number of women in prison has increased so much in the past 30 years. I think more reproductive rights groups should be paying more attention to.

What happens is that it’s viewed in a very narrow lens. People will say, “Ok, well, we need to stop shackling of pregnancy women,” and then “Oh yeah, we’ve had a victory!” Often though the worst part is what happens after the birth. What happens after the birth in almost all cases is that babies are removed from their mothers within 24-48 hours. After that point, depending on how long the mother is in prison, that could just be it. That could be the separation that ends it all. The way that our system is structured, there really isn’t an opportunity to maintain that bond. And think about what is really best for society. Is it best for society for this mother to be separated from her baby and experience that horrible trauma? Oftentimes the baby goes into kinship care or foster care which begins this struggle of separation. Foster care is one of the biggest pipelines to prison itself.

Along with thinking about the effect on children, we should also think about the effect on mothers. The separation between a mother and a child is one of the top traumas someone could go through. The idea that suffering would be good for someone who has already had so much trauma is just really wrong-headed and founded on so many bad assumptions.

We can’t just put band aids on this issue. We have to take a step back and think, what are we doing to these women and kids? Can we think about how to deal with this problem differently?

SB: Let’s say folks read this article, buy your book, read it, finish it, and want to know what they can do to improve this system. Do you have any suggestions for them?

MS: In my opinion, the best thing to do isn’t to join some vast national organization. While it’s important to follow national issues or federal changes, I think the best organizing is happening on a local level. This work is driven by asking, “How can we do work that has an end goal of focusing on shrinking the system? What can we do instead of the system?”

For example, within the context of motherhood and prison, the goal isn’t to end shackling or to provide better maternal health care — the goal is to rethink the whole premise of incarceration these people. It’s hard to have an official, giant non-profit to be leading a movement to be so visionary. But in every city there are really awesome groups working on anti-incarceration. I would definitely encourage people to look at their communities and see what good work is already being done there.

I would also encourage people to reach out to a pen pal. Black and Pink is a great place to start for that as they are organization that is for queer and gender nonconforming prisoners. There are a lot of sites which might be problematic because they are paid, but sites like “Write a Prisoner” are very useful. Thousands and thousands of people are on these websites and they are looking for connections. I think everyone should read the pen pal section of my book before they get one so they have an idea of what to expect.

I really do think though that pen pal writing is a great place to start. It’s really easy to do activism in a way that is disconnected from the people who are working for.

SB: You’re stranded on a dessert island. You get to take with you one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you pick?

MS: If I were stranded on a dessert island, the food that had enough calories to sustain me would definitely Chicago-style pizza and it would also remind me of home. It’s such a vast food — you can never finish it! For drink, I’m conflicted because I’m tempted to take something alcoholic, but if I was on a dessert island, it might not be the best fuel. I’d probably take chocolate milkshakes forever. In terms of feminist, I would go for Angela Davis. I have idolized and worshipped her for a long time. Her work has definitely driven a lot of my ideas. Also, she just seems nice as I have had limited contact with her. I would want to be around someone who I could continue to learn from.

San Francisco, CA

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist. According to legend, she first publicly proclaimed that she was a feminist at the age of nine in her basketball teammate's mini-van. Things have obviously since escalated. After graduating from Harvard in 2013, she became a founding member of Know Your IX's ED ACT NOW. She is curious about the ways feminists continue to use technology to create social change and now lives in San Francisco. She believes that she has the sweetest gig around – asking bad-ass feminists thoughtful questions for the publication that has taught her so much. Her views, bad jokes and all, are her own. For those wondering, if she was stranded on a desert island and had to bring one food, one drink, and one feminist, she would bring chicken mole, a margarita, and her momma.

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist.

Read more about Suzanna

Join the Conversation