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Do Prisons Keep Us Safe? Author Victoria Law Busts Myths About Mass Incarceration in New Book

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As the first anniversary of the police killing of George Floyd approaches, we speak with author and journalist Victoria Law, who says despite the mass movement to fight systemic racism sparked by Floyd’s death, persistent myths about policing, incarceration and the criminal justice system still hinder reform. “Why do we think prisons keep us safe? Obviously, Derek Chauvin wasn’t afraid of being arrested or imprisoned when he killed George Floyd,” says Law, who examines these issues in her new book, “'Prisons Make Us Safer': And 20 Other Myths About Mass Incarceration.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Next month will mark one year since George Floyd was killed by the white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes while ignoring pleas from Floyd that he could not breathe. He was aided in this by three other officers. Floyd’s death sparked a national discussion about defunding the police.

In the latest example of the backlash to this push, conservative Republican Senator Tom Cotton responded Tuesday to a CNN report on a rise in crime in 2020 by tweeting that the solution was to, quote, “lock them up,” and adding, quote, “We have a major under-incarceration problem in America. And it’s only getting worse,” Cotton said.

In fact, the United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate. It’s home to less than 5% of the global population, yet has nearly 25% of the world’s prisoners — more than 2 million people, a disproportionate number of them Black and Latinx. Over the past 40 years, the number of people behind bars in the United States has increased by 500%.

Much of this is addressed in a new book by journalist Victoria Law, published the same day as Senator Cotton’s misinformed tweet. Her book is called “Prisons Make Us Safer”: And 20 Other Myths About [Mass] Incarceration. Through research and interviews with incarcerated people, she identifies myths such as “incarceration is necessary to keep our society safe.” Last year, she co-authored Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms.

Victoria, welcome back to Democracy Now! Congratulations on the release of your book. We were just talking about the Derek Chauvin murder trial. He was supposedly attempting to arrest George Floyd. Your book is such a critical book when looking at the whole defund the police and abolition movement. Can you lay out its thesis and apply it to what we’re dealing with today?

VICTORIA LAW: Yes. We have the prevailing myth in the United States that we need prisons and mass incarceration to keep us safer. And after listening to the last segment, we should ask, “Why do we think prisons keep us safe?” I mean, obviously, Derek Chauvin wasn’t afraid of being arrested or imprisoned when he killed George Floyd. The officers around him were not afraid of prison when they did nothing. None of them thought that they would be held accountable, let alone imprisoned, because people do not think about imprisonment as a deterrent to crime or violence.

If we think about the ways in which we act on a daily basis, we don’t go around assaulting people, not because we are afraid of imprisonment, but because we don’t go around assaulting people. So, the book lays out myths about mass incarceration, the fact that they keep us safer, as Tom Cotton erroneously asserted, as well as some of the underlying myths about what causes mass incarceration and what the reality is behind bars.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m wondering if you could talk about the mental health aspect of the mass incarceration issue. As the United States went into deinstitutionalization of mental health patients in the ’90s, there was a corresponding increase of the prison population and this trend toward treating people with a mental problem by imprisoning them.

VICTORIA LAW: Yes. Well, what we see is that there was a deinstitutionalization movement starting in the 1970s, much of it led by people who had been institutionalized at some point in their lives, because the institutions themselves were terrible and horrific and abusive. And at the same time as the deinstitutionalization movement, we also saw some cuts starting to happen under neoliberalism and Reagan. So, the supports and assistance that people need, regardless of their mental health status, such as access to safe and affordable housing, medical care, mental healthcare, out in the communities, were also being viciously slashed.

And what we see instead is that criminalization takes its place. So people are arrested for criminalized behavior, which if you have mental illness and you are homeless, you are more likely to be arrested because you’re just out in public all the time. You are more likely to not get mental health services. And we have this idea that you get mental health treatment when you are inside jails or prisons, which is not the case. If there is mental health treatment, it is often in the form of medications. Mental health caseloads are overloaded. And people often cycle in and out of jails for petty offenses due to their mental illness and their poverty.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Victoria, the role of the mass media in creating the myth of the need for prisons and for law enforcement work? I mean, every other show on television, or even when you go to the Netflix or the other streaming services, are the glorification of police or former police or crime fighters. This is the staple of so much of American entertainment.

VICTORIA LAW: Yes. What we have is a glorification, but it’s also from very — from a young age, we are always told that police make us safer, prisons are necessary to lock away the bad guys. And there’s very little questioning of it, from the school seminars that you get in grade school and beyond of “If you are lost or you’re in danger, find a police officer,” to all of these shows that glorify police officers as the people who stop crime and stop harm and danger from happening.

But in reality, policing and imprisonment happens after something bad or something violent has happened. It usually doesn’t happen before. And as we see in the case of Derek Chauvin killing George Floyd, police officers can also bring and often do bring violence into the picture where previously there was none.

At the same time, we’re also bombarded by news segments that show crime every night, because this is what draws viewers in, is this lurid attraction to watching what looks like a human train wreck every night on the television news. And that adds to people’s fears about their personal safety and the fact that they want to feel safe. People want to feel safe, and the media feeds into that by showing them, time after time, attacks on people, shootings, killings and other types of violence.

AMY GOODMAN: Some call it “copaganda.” Your book is called “Prisons Make Us Safer”: And 20 Other Myths About Mass Incarceration. Can you go through those myths? And start with the issue of drugs. I mean, we just played in our music break DMX, who is in a coma, who was arrested many times, clearly has a major problem with drugs. Clearly, prison has not been the answer.

VICTORIA LAW: Yes. I mean, you’ve discussed on the show many times how — or you’ve had guests on the show discuss drugs and how prisons don’t address drug addiction or substance use addiction. It doesn’t address any of the underlying causes. I remember a few years ago you had Susan Burton, who I write about in the book, who was in and out of jail and prison and prison-like drug rehabs for decades of her life, none of which addressed the underlying traumas — the childhood sexual abuse she had endured and the death of her 5-year-old son when a police officer ran him over and was never held accountable for killing her son. None of this addressed that, and instead she was continually locked up. And instead of help, she just got incarceration.

And we see this so often, particularly with low-income people and Black and Brown people, is that they are criminalized for substance use instead of either having the root causes of their substance use examined, if it is a problem, or to simply say, “OK, they’re using substances, but they’re still able to function in society.” But instead, with our incarceration policies, we’ve criminalized drug use, and we treat it as a social and dangerous problem rather than a public health issue or simply somebody else’s personal use.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about the alternatives, the existing alternatives, to people who commit crimes, whether it’s probation, parole, electronic monitoring? Are they effective alternatives? Why or why not?

VICTORIA LAW: These alternatives that are very popular — electronic monitoring, probation, parole, as you just named — often expand the prison system into our homes and communities. So, instead of somebody being held in a physical jail or prison, they are instead in their homes under house arrest — which is very different than shelter at home, which we’ve all experienced this past year — where you have to get prior permission to leave your house and to go places. And if you do not, you end up, very likely, with the threat of being sent back to jail or to prison. So, there are many, many requirements that normal people don’t have to face — or, normally people don’t have to face, if they’re not under supervision. And these are not necessarily crimes that people commit when they are sent back to jail or to prison, but it could be actions like missing a meeting, coming home past curfew. Curfews could be as early as 8:00 at night. Now, tell me which adult wants to come home promptly at 7:59 every night. And these are actions that could land somebody back in prison for a violation of their electronic monitoring, probation or parole.

AMY GOODMAN: Just as we wrap, I wanted to ask you about the whole issue of violence against the Asian American community. New York police have arrested a man who viciously attacked a 65-year-old Filipino woman near Times Square as she was walking to church just a few weeks ago. Video footage shows the man kicked the woman in her stomach, then repeatedly stomped on her face while she reportedly — while he was yelling anti-Asian slurs. The assailant, who has a history of dozens of arrests for violent behavior, walked away as bystanders, including security guards at a luxury apartment building, did nothing in response. Both security guards at the luxury hotel have now been — at the luxury building have now been fired. But as an Asian American reporter, when you saw the attacks that took place in Atlanta, the murders, Victoria — immediately you had people like Mayor de Blasio saying he’s sending more cops in to protect Asian Americans — what was your response?

VICTORIA LAW: I think that what we need to remember is that when we rely on police — and solely on police — and prisons to keep us safer, we end up being complicit in what the doormen of the luxury building did, which was they did nothing. They thought, “Well, you know, somebody else will deal with it,” because it shrinks our ability to imagine ourselves as bystanders.

And at the same time, the man who assaulted the 65-year-old had a history of arrests. He also had a prior prison sentence for killing his mother when he was 19 years old. And records show that a few months before he killed his mother, police were called to his house because he was experiencing a mental health crisis. Clearly, the police did not address the mental health crisis, because they are not mental health workers. Prison did not address his violent behavior, because he came out and assaulted a 65-year-old woman. It did not address, and perhaps exacerbated, his racism, because he was yelling anti-Asian slurs. So what we need to remember is that prisons are not actually addressing any of the root causes. They don’t help people get better, and they often help make people worse.

AMY GOODMAN: Victoria Law, we want to thank you for being with us, journalist and author of the new book, “Prisons Make Us Safer”: And 20 Other Myths About Mass Incarceration.

When we come back, we will look at an historic union agreement at Rutgers University. Stay with us.

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