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Paying The Prison Bill: A Review Of Sunny Schwartz, Dreams of the Monster Factory

August 2, 2009, 5:04 pm

Sunny Schwartz with David Boodell, Dreams From The Monster Factory: A Tale Of Prison, Redemption and One Woman’s Fight To Restore Justice For All (New York: Scribners, 2009) 204 pp. Hardback 24.00.

Sunny Schwartz, co-founder of the RSVP (Resolve To Stop The Violence Project) is not only one of the freshest voices in prison reform, she is one of the few voices to speak to a popular audience about a national problem as urgent and intractable as health care: the cycle of violence that has resulted in the incarceration of 2.3 million Americans.

A proponent of what is called “restorative justice,” Schwartz is not out to be loved by either liberals or conservatives, nor does she spend much time on the issues that dominate prison reform conversations on the left: the conviction of innocent people, the high correlation between incarceration and lack of education, the effects of the war on drugs and harsh sentencing guidelines. She argues that there are people who belong in prison (something many death row attorneys agree with in my experience) and that prisons play a function in society by punishing people for harms they have inflicted. But, she also maintains, the “get tough” attitude promoted on the right for the last quarter century has done nothing to make communities safer, while increasing the national prison population to unmanageable levels. RSVP was founded in 1997 when Schwartz and her colleagues in the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department came to understand that none of us are served by prisons when they do not actively work to force prisoners to come to terms with their crimes and change their behavior. And this can’t happen unless all of us commit to that as the principle goal of incarceration.

With David Boodell, a television writer and producer, Schwartz has produced a book that lets you see inside prisons, hear the mind-bending noise of the cellblocks she has worked in, and practically smell them too. She started working in prisons as a legal intern, where she began to realize that many prisoners knew that the end of a sentence or a parole date only started the clock ticking towards the date when they would be re-incarcerated for a new crime. Interestingly, she works hard to keep the focus off herself in this book, which is hard because she’s pretty interesting — how many lesbians do you know who went to law school and passed the California bar without attending college? But it’s a brave thing to do all the same, in a literary world driven by memoir and sensational personal accounts that make it seem as of nothing of importance happens outside the self. By continually returning the spotlight to prisons, Schwartz keeps an eloquent, ethical focus on what she has devoted her career to: the guards, the prisoners and the crime victims who should all be served better by the billions of dollars spent on so-called corrections. A prison system that is expanding yearly, she argues, is not succeeding. And everyone — liberals and conservatives, do-gooders and prosecutors, prison guards and defense attorneys, victims and criminals — has a stake in prison reform that takes positive steps to reduce violent behavior and increase accountability for violent crimes.

Why am I interested in this? In part, because some of our students at Zenith have launched a prison education initiative modeled on the Bard Prison Initiative, and while one of my specialties as a historian is crime, violence and policing, that doesn’t exactly prepare you to walk into a prison and teach, nor does it help you teach students about what goes on in prisons and why. This book also underlines an important point which decarceration projects (reducing the influence of the prison-industrial complex to de-emphasize incarceration as a “solution” to crime) tend to obscure: that reforming incarceration practices to demand that prisoners take full responsibility for their own violence needs to be part of a decarceration agenda. Undergraduates in particular, whether in a course that is about prison, social justice or contemporary ethics, are going to love this book; furthermore, because you can’t categorize the politics as either liberal or conservative, it will produce a lively classroom discussion. I’m going to tell you right now — although an Amazon search will tell you there are over 90,000 titles out there, there aren’t more than a couple dozen that are as direct, frank and compellingly written as Dreams From The Monster Factory.

You’ve probably guessed by now that the “monster factory” is the prison itself, a place where violent people are, Schwartz contends, warehoused in such a way as to refine their capacity for violence and return them to society as even more dangerous people than they were when they were originally convicted. “In fact,” Schwartz argues, “everything about the system of prosecution and defense is set up so that criminals get into the habit of denying their responsibility.” As she explains, the whole system of criminal justice, and the brutality of being imprisoned with thousands of violent people like themselves, creates an atmosphere in which felons perceive themselves as victims:

After their trial, if they’re convicted, many don’t change their mind-set. Why should they? To truly confront what they’ve done requires confronting the shame and fear and reality of their situation. Few people choose to do this, because it’s difficult. …So criminals blame someone or something else — the cop who caught them or their lousy upbringing — for their circumstances and spend their time growing angrier and angrier about being treated like an animal. They are usually full of rage when they are released, and less prepared to function as citizens; the predictable products of the monster factory. (127)

Given that increasing access to higher education is not on the national agenda but that the ever-politically popular and ambiguous “getting tough on crime” is, the outcomes (that the United States has the largest prison population in the world, that there are more black men in prison than in college) are going from bad to untenable. Furthermore, according to the United States Bureau of Prisons, incarceration rates are still trending up: in 2007, 506 out of every 100,000 men were in prison. Fifty-three percent of the prisoners incarcerated in the United States are serving sentences connected to a violent crime, which is not a surprising statistic until you realize that, while violent felonies are in some ways related to expanded drug trade and drug prosecutions in the United States, only 20% of felons are incarcerated for a felony drug crime alone.

There are things about this book that make it highly teachable: one ongoing theme is what it means to create empathy between and among people who have good reason to distrust and even detest each other. At its most basic, all violence, including the violence internal to prisons, is likely when people fail, or refuse, to recognize each other’s humanity. Perhaps what I like best is that the portraits of prisoners, victims and guards are complex and well-drawn, discouraging readers from romanticizing anybody or taking refuge in the idea of pure evil. Critical features of RSVP are honest and provocative. For example, Schwartz bluntly points out that it is entirely reas
onable to want to punish someone, even to physically hurt a criminal, who has caused innocent people pain by selfish and cruel behaviors. She’s not even certain it’s a bad idea. And she doesn’t minimize the fact that human beings are capable of terrible things, or that to become the victim of violence changes a person’s life forever.

But Schwartz also believes that, by and large our system is failing, and that we need to refocus — not on “fixing” it — but simply doing better: funding rehabilitation techniques like RSVP that we know can work, rejecting forms of incarceration that we know will fail. Sometimes success and failure are illustrated in the same person: not just prisoners, victims and guards, but Schwartz herself struggles with demons that can sometimes overcome her. Glimpses of her complex private history reveal the violence and anger passed down in her own family that have given her useful insights into how damaging emotions and behaviors reproduce themselves. Alternatively, her work in prison caused her to see herself and loved ones in a new light. But this ongoing recognition and reflection about self and other re-emphasize throughout the book that the ethic of RSVP is to teach prisoners to acknowledge and take responsibility for the monster within. The more subtle point is that all of us have monsters within, and that when the law-abiding community disidentifies and permanently disassociates itself from the law-breaking community, peace and justice are not restored for anyone. Worse, when the only point of prison is to actively separate the felon from the community, Schwartz argues, it also allows the felon to separate from the consequences of what he has done and transfer the responsibility elsewhere — to a drug habit, to childhood abuse, to bad luck. Inadvertently, by employing these mitigating factors in court, defense attorneys often create a narrative that erases the victim and justifies the felon’s belief that he is, in fact, the injured party.

Schwartz doesn’t address several important topics that have become the focus of contemporary critiques of imprisonment: the privatization of prisons, the political influence of prison guards’ unions, the ways in which prisons are viewed as a source of jobs for communities that have lost their industrial manufacturing base, or the large, false convictions for capital crimes, and important debates about why so many black men spend part of their lives in prison and what the social effects of that are on our communities. It’s not that she doesn’t think these are compelling questions — she does. It’s that she is doing something else, something that works.

She’s changing people, one at a time.

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Here are reviews by Helen Eppstein in the The New York Review of Books and Eyal Press in The Nation.

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