As the U.S. marks 50 years since President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs on June 17, 1971, we speak with journalist Maya Schenwar, editor-in-chief of the news website Truthout, whose sister Keeley died of a drug overdose in February 2020 at the age of 29. Schenwar says her sister’s death came after “a long cycle of criminalization” that made her chances of recovery much harder. “She became so afraid of being rearrested,” says Schenwar, who notes that many drug users avoid seeking medical help because of the fear of police involvement and incarceration. “Why are we supporting criminalization at the expense of people’s actual survival?” she asks. Drug overdoses have soared during the pandemic, causing over 92,000 deaths in the United States in the 12-month period ending in November — the most since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began keeping track over two decades ago. Experts say the pandemic and the increasing availability of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl have contributed to the death toll.
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today with a deadly scourge striking down people at an alarming rate. No, it’s not COVID; it’s drug overdoses. Over 92,000 people died from overdoses in the United States in the 12-month period ending in November — the most since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began keeping track over two decades ago. Many experts cite two factors for the surge in deaths: the pandemic and the increasing availability of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. This all comes as the nation marks 50 years since President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs June 17th, 1971.
We begin today’s show with someone who lost her sister to an overdose just as the pandemic was starting. Maya Schenwar joins us from Chicago, where she works as editor-in-chief of the news website Truthout. Her sister Keeley died of a drug overdose in February 2020 at the age of 29. Maya’s piece about her death is just out; it’s headlined “My Sister Died of an Overdose. Defunding the Police Might Have Saved Her.” Maya is the co-author of Prison by Any Other Name and author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better.
Maya, welcome to Democracy Now! Our condolences on the death of your sister. The story you tell is heartrending. Tell us the story of Keeley, how she lived — she is also a mother — and how she died.
MAYA SCHENWAR: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.
You know, my sister Keeley was, as you said, a wonderful mother, a writer, an animal lover and a friend. And she died last year, thanks to a long cycle of criminalization. Keeley was incarcerated for the first time when she was 15. And for the next 14 years, she was just cycling in and out of jail and prison, as well as alternatives, like electronic monitoring and drug treatment. And the things that she was arrested for were always related to her addiction, even when they weren’t drug charges. So, she would go to prison. She would become even more deeply traumatized, because that’s what prison does — it traumatizes people. And she would emerge with even fewer opportunities and options. And then she would just go back to heavily using heroin to help deal with that pain.
And I want to point out real quick: So, heroin, in a vacuum, just like any other drug, is not the problem. People, I think, can use most stigmatized drugs and be OK, you know, even the most stigmatized drugs like heroin. But people are not supported in using drugs and being OK, because they’re criminalized.
So, while Keeley was incarcerated, horrible things happened to her, like anyone who’s locked up. She experienced violence that was perpetrated by guards. She experienced the daily violence that everyone experiences of strip searches and medical neglect, and really just being called by a number instead of by your name. And also she experienced giving birth to her baby while she was incarcerated, and a prison guard was just sitting there watching her give birth.
And when Keeley returned to using heroin after her time in prison or a mandated treatment program, each time, she was at a much greater risk of overdose. And this is something I really want to emphasize. This is true for so many people who use drugs who are released from prison. So, within the first couple of weeks after being released, someone’s risk of overdose is almost 13 times higher than it is for the rest of the population. And that’s partly because your tolerance for the drug is lower, because you haven’t been using.
So, last year, my sister was in a drug treatment program, a drug court program, so a mandatory treatment, and it was based around abstinence, not using the drug, and so her tolerance was reduced. And she was also very scared of being rearrested, because she knew that that would mean returning to prison and being separated from her daughter again. And so she was avoiding seeking any kind of medical help, because it could mean police involvement. So, at that point [inaudible] —
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Maya, I wanted to ask you, in terms of —
MAYA SCHENWAR: Yeah.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: When she was out of prison, what kind of medical or therapeutic help did she receive during those periods of time? And also, you’ve said that her interactions with police made her situation worse, not better. If you could talk about that, as well?
MAYA SCHENWAR: Yeah, absolutely. So, while she was out of prison, she would occasionally receive some support. She tried to be engaged in medication-assisted treatment, which has proven to support people with heroin addictions. But so much of the treatment that she experienced was based around surveillance and policing. And this is something that we see with many, many people who are criminalized and also use drugs, because it’s inside of the criminal legal system, so we see substance use as a problem that is within the criminal system even if we’re not sending people to jail.
And so, when people are sent to a mandated drug treatment center, when treatment is mandated, the research shows that that’s not actually effective in helping people recover. And also we have to think about, ethically, you know, whether we should be putting people in a position where they’re mandated to do certain things with their bodies and their minds.
And so, Keeley was always surveilled. And she was not able to do the things that many of us are able to do to create a meaningful life. You know, she wasn’t given opportunities to pursue her interests, to be with her family in a sustained way. Many of these treatments actually separated her from her family and confined her, just like prison.
And then, the thing I mention often about policing and the role that it played in her death was she became so afraid of being rearrested. And this is a very common fear among people who use drugs, and particularly among marginalized people who use drugs — Black people, Indigenous people, trans people, people with disabilities and mental health diagnoses. You know, police are targeting them very, very heavily, so it’s a warranted fear. And so, seeking any kind of medical attention, particularly calling 911, can put you at risk for police contact, and that can lead to a return to incarceration. So, even when, in theory, there are options available and people say, “Well, why didn’t you seek help?” it’s like, “Well, you know, why would you seek help if the threat of punishment and torture and trauma is just hanging over your head every single second of the day?”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you — in 2019, Keeley was sentenced to two years in drug court. Explain what that means. And what happened to her after that?
MAYA SCHENWAR: Yeah. So, drug court is a diversion. So, the idea is that someone will be diverted either pretrial or sentenced to treatment instead of prison. And this option has grown substantially in popularity over the past few years. And it’s something that Biden has heavily promoted. It’s often a thing that generates bipartisan enthusiasm.
But what people aren’t acknowledging is it’s still criminalization. So it still involves arresting people. Just arrest is a trauma. It’s within the criminal legal system, which is built on foundations of white supremacy, and so it’s still targeting people of color, targeting Black people. It’s still operating within a mindset of surveillance, so drug testing people constantly. It’s still operating within a model of abstinence, which we know is not actually the best way to help people survive.
And so, even though we know all these things, we’re endorsing this program, I think, because — partly, because it’s so hard to break out of this punishment mindset. And we need to challenge ourselves and say, “What are we doing? Why are we supporting criminalization at the expense of people’s actual survival and ability to find support and ability to find resources?”
You know, I think one really sad thing about all the money that is going into drug policing and drug courts and all of these resources, not only are harming and killing people, but, like the defund police movement has brought up again and again, what could we have if we diverted those resources and spent even more resources, as well, on things like housing and education and noncoercive healthcare and mental healthcare and more recreational opportunities and the arts and ways for people to live meaningful and livable lives and have all kinds of options to support their survival? That’s where we should be directing our energy.
AMY GOODMAN: Maya, I’d like to go back to June 2014, when your sister, Keeley Schenwar, participated in a panel discussion in Chicago on breastfeeding and incarceration. Keeley read a poem she wrote for her baby daughter while she was incarcerated. Keeley gave birth while she was in prison, was taken away from her newborn daughter only after 24 hours with her.
KEELEY SCHENWAR: It took me over a month to start writing. It’s so hard for me to think about all I’ve already put you through. Nurses give me updates when the counselors here let me call. They say you’re almost 10 pounds, starting to feel better, and that you love your baths.
I’m not the one that holds you when you cry or the one that you look at when you open your eyes. It kills me to know that the reality is I’m not a part of your life. I brought you into a world full of great things that are surrounded with pain, that which you already know too well, and I have no choice but to let you handle it all on your own and without a mother.
I guess you’re not alone. It doesn’t make sense — or, it doesn’t matter, nothing about this feels right. Although I know you won’t remember this, I can’t help but wonder if you feel the emptiness I carry day and night without you close or anywhere in sight.
I know my handwriting is sometimes sloppy, but it’s late, and I’m writing in the background of the dim prison hallway lights. I’m about to miss your first Halloween, just as I’ve missed these last two months. I wish none of this was — I wish none of this was true, but deep inside, really underneath a whole lot, I know I need to tell you nothing but the truth, which also includes that I love you. I’ll spend the rest of my life making this up to you.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Keeley Schenwar back in 2014. I am so sorry, Maya, how difficult this is for you, which makes it all the more brave for you to have written this piece in Truthout and to tell your sister’s stories and her truths. As we talk about her baby being taken away from her so quickly, can you talk about her terror to get help because she was always afraid she’d lose her baby, that they’d take her baby from her, and what you think needs to happen now, and if Cori Bush’s new resolution, that she just introduced into Congress, the People’s Response Act, which would send unarmed, trained professionals to respond to mental health and substance abuse crises instead of police, would make a difference?
MAYA SCHENWAR: Yes. Thank you, Amy. Thank you for playing that poem. I am overwhelmed. The poem is so beautiful. But it shouldn’t have had to be written.
Tearing a mother away from her newborn baby is one of the most violent acts in the universe. And it’s perpetrated by our legal system. And I think when we think about the terror of Keeley and so many mothers and parents who use drugs and, more generally, who are criminalized, we have to think about this double punishment, the fact that not only are they under threat of being put into torture chambers — prisons — but also they’re under threat of this deep, deep, wrenching punishment of being torn away. And, of course, for Keeley, that was also the trauma of actually being pregnant and giving birth behind bars.
And when we look forward and think about, “Well, what can be done?” I think the number one thing we need to be thinking about is end criminalization and policing. And, you know, this might sound like something we’re doing away with instead of introducing, but I think it’s generative, because criminalization and incarceration are traumatizing and torturing people, and they’re also putting us in the mindset that this is all we can do, that this is our go-to solution. Well, you can’t actually administer “treatment” through a system like that. And as we’ve discussed, police are actually making it less likely that people are going to seek emergency help when they really need it.
And so, I think that, within that, we also need to look at some of the other demands that are being made by organizers working to defund the police and to defend Black lives. And I think that Cori Bush’s legislation does encompass some of that. We need to be fueling resources toward priorities that affirm life, and that includes housing, education, food, healthcare. These things would absolutely reduce overdoses, in addition to all the other many benefits they would have and the ways in which they would build toward creating a more flourishing and meaningful and equitable society. And I think creating nonpolice emergency responses is definitely something we should be funding and fueling. I believe Cori Bush’s bill actually puts funding into existing programs, which is good, and we also need to be lifting up and funding and supporting all of the mutual aid efforts and the efforts that have actually been created by people who use drugs to support people in their survival, come up with creative harm reduction techniques and actually bring those to the community.
And I think that, in addition — I just want to say real quickly — that actually legalizing drugs, and doing that in a way that’s informed by racial justice, that grants reparations to people most impacted by the drug war, that also has to happen, too, as we’re talking about all these issues with people dealing with contaminated drugs, people dealing with overdoses when they didn’t even realize what amount they were taking. So I think it’s all of these things together, with a mindset of freedom and supporting people in their survival, a mindset of healing and liberation, instead of the idea that you can confine and surveil and police people into so-called recovery.
AMY GOODMAN: Maya Schenwar, I want to thank you so much for being with us. Again, this is a conversation we will continue. Maya is editor-in-chief of Truthout. Her sister Keeley died of a drug overdose in February 2020 at the age of 29. Maya’s piece about her death is just out. We’ll link to it. It’s headlined “My Sister Died of an Overdose. Defunding the Police Might Have Saved Her.” Maya Schenwar is co-author of Prison by Any Other Name and author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better.
Next up, we’ll speak with Democratic Congressmember Nikema Williams of Georgia about her Abolition Amendment to end forced prison labor. We’ll also talk with her about voting rights and infrastructure spending. Stay with us.