Excerpted From: Evan Coleman, A Rose Is Still a Rose: Rethinking the Impact of Prison Alternatives, 44 North Carolina Central Law Review 61 (2022) (Full Document) (96 Footnotes)


EvanColeman“What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” This phrase is a popular reference to William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet argues that it does not matter that Romeo is from her family's rival house of Montague; what matters is her love for him. This reference is often used to imply that the names of things do not affect what they really are. Authors Victoria Law (Truthout editor-in-chief) and Maya Schenwar (co-founder of NYC Books Through Bars) use this same ideology with Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms. Some of today's key prison reform efforts--electronic monitoring, drug treatment centers, house arrest, mandated psychiatric treatment, and probation--are held up as kinder punishment alternatives seeking to reduce the prison population. However, many reforms actually entrap more people and create new alternatives to punishment and government control. The authors demonstrate that although advocates are usually well intentioned, not all of their work has led to progress as many of these measures replicate mass incarceration by converting homes and communities into prisons instead. Essentially, these measures are prison by any other name.

A poignant foreword by Michelle Alexander, author of the best-selling The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, situates Prison by Any Other Name in the context of criminal justice reform conversations. Alexander describes how the desperation for meaningful progress to dismantle mass incarceration can lead us to illusory solutions. She discusses how both high-tech digital prisons and lower-tech control mechanisms are often as harsh as what can be found inside traditional jails and prisons. Schenwar and Law build on this foreword skillfully and persuasively with examples of case studies, anecdotes, and scholarly research demonstrating how many of the new pathways are about control and punishment rather than rehabilitation.

There has been bipartisan support for criminal justice reform over the past few years, but as the authors correctly note, a vast majority of these plans “sound a lot like ... mass incarceration.” Many of these criminal justice reform measures that create a structure outside of prison bear “uncanny resemblances to the prison itself: control, punishment, and a constant reminder that your body is not your own.” If these “new” systems still look and feel like prison is it really “reform?” What does freedom and liberation look like? These are the questions that the authors set out to answer.

The authors combine legal, historical, and social science research to write a compelling narrative about the nature of the prison industrial complex and the “prison nation.” The prison nation describes all of the “overlapping forces that carry out the removal of people from and the destruction of their communities.” Their explanations of what happens when the net widens are chilling. For example, the authors highlight this point by describing the circumstance of a woman with an unfortunate heroin addiction named Colette. Colette, the mother of a four-year-old and six-year-old, eagerly agreed to accept the option of being released on electronic monitoring and house arrest. What Colette didn't anticipate were the extreme restrictions that came with house arrest and monitoring. Like Colette, those who avoid a physical prison cell through a plea bargain or some other protocol often end up with lengthier sentences, wear a confining ankle monitor, and endure additional years of scrutiny through probation. Many probation officers report negligibly small violations, which puts the offender back into the prison system.

The authors further illustrate that this form of punishment did not address the reason Colette had been arrested in the first place. She was not given drug treatment or financial stability and was isolated from friends and family who could have potentially acted as a support system for her. In fact, due to her feelings of isolation, she began to go “out of range” of her confinement and was later arrested on a new charge related to her addiction. As the authors state, “The severe constraints of her 'alternative to incarceration’ didn't prevent [Colette] from ending up back in a cage.” The authors assert that by isolating her from her family, friends, and community, her relapse and subsequent incarceration was nearly inevitable.

Part I of this Review addresses home confinement and electronic monitoring. Schenwar and Law use these issues to introduce its readers to the “Somewhere Else:” a concept that threads through every chapter of the book. The “Somewhere Else” is a place, other than prison, where the government places its undesirables, thus extending its reach outside of the prison walls. The “Somewhere Else” concept is used to continually reflect on society's ingrained notion that certain people are bad and must be put “somewhere.”

Part II explores the methods by which systems, such as drug treatment facilities, often overlap with and bolster the reach of the criminal legal system by ensnaring individuals in endless cycles of surveillance and criminalization.

Part III turns to probation and diversion programs. The authors explain the devastation probation's strict requirements can have and the widespread nature of the practice. The authors further discuss how probation and its draconian conditions often make it inevitable for individuals to land in prison. Finally, the authors argue that many diversion programs, particularly those meant to “help” sex workers, often unnecessarily widen the net of the criminal justice system.

Part IV considers the role that the criminal justice system plays in invading the family through various systems. The authors contend that parents, especially those who are poor, of color, or have disabilities, are regularly criminalized by the government instead of being provided with the assistance that could help them effectively care for their own children.

Part V discusses community policing. The authors argue that this practice treats some members of the community as enemy combatants while holding other members, usually white property owners, as the arbitrators of who is accepted in the community and who is not.

Part VI discusses the prison industrial complex and its role in the school-to-prison pipeline that routinely drives Black and Brown students out of school and into the criminal justice system.

Finally, Part VII weighs alternatives. The authors discuss ways in which society can move away from the violence of the prison nation to a set of systems that treat individuals entangled in the criminal justice system with respect and humanity. The authors argue that we cannot achieve true transformation by simply reallocating funds to programs and initiatives that serve to create a “Somewhere Else.” As such, the book ends by providing examples of projects and organizations around the country that are engaging in transformative action rooted in the politics of abolition. These examples are inspiring, uplifting, and a reminder that it is possible to move beyond systems of punishment and control toward movements for accountability and healing.

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In sum, Prison by Any Other Name is a necessary body of work that adds to the growing fields of criminal justice reform, mass incarceration, and prison-abolitionist theory. It is easily accessible to a wide range of readers, from those who have little knowledge of current reform efforts to those who are not fully convinced that the authors' suggested efforts are the proper approach to reforming the criminal justice system. Although Prison by Any Other Name is a vital contribution to this particular intersection of social justice work, it is also important to remember that it is a starting point for critically writing about criminal justice reform and will hopefully lead to more discussions on the topic from those with the ability to make change. Moreover, despite the often soul-crushing nature of prison-abolition work, Prison by Any Other Name has many moments that charge readers with desires to stop reading and start working. That point is really hammered home early on when the authors state, “Working for real freedom, in which no one is under any form of control, surveillance, or threat of state punishment, means resisting not only incarceration but all of its interconnected manifestations.” This book emerges at an especially opportune time and is an important reading for social justice warriors, prison abolitionists, and anyone invested in building a future with thriving communities and sustainable solutions to some of our most pressing criminal justice related problems.


Attorney, U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights.