Beyond Bars: Book Review – ‘Prisons Make Us Safer’ and 20 Other Myths About Mass Incarceration by Victoria Law

Review by Christopher Santiago 

Columbia, SC 

The United States imprisons more people than any other country. The problem has been worsened by well meaning reforms and so-called tough-on-crime policies that were based on myths and therefore failed to address  the root causes of crime. 

In her new book, “Prisons Make Us Safer” and 20 Other Myths About Mass Incarceration, journalist and author  Victoria Law debunks 21 of the most widespread misconceptions about mass incarceration in America. Her  important book uses stories, facts, and figures to educate readers about the carceral state while countering the  false narratives that drive mass incarceration. 

The book is divided into four parts. 

Part one begins with a history of American prisons that exposes the racism and penal populism at the heart of  mass incarceration. 

People of color are disproportionately imprisoned, and according to Law, “mass incarceration remains a method  of racialized social control, sweeping those who have been marginalized by societal inequities behind bars and  walls rather than addressing these issues.” 

Law then deflates the myths that prisons make us safer, that they provide rehabilitation, and that they somehow  cause offenders to take responsibility for their actions. She shows, instead, that prisons are used to warehouse  people in unsafe conditions where they are prevented from making amends for the harms they’ve caused.  Further, most prisoners are not released as rehabilitated citizens; they leave prison far worse off than when they  arrived. 

Part two challenges the myths that prisoners “jump the line” for medical care and that jails and prisons function as  safety nets that provide effective mental health services and drug treatment. The truth is, medical care for many  prisoners and detainees is either unavailable or falls so far below the standard of care that it is virtually  nonexistent, leading to “jail attributable deaths.” And rather than treating mental illnesses, prison environments  both cause and exacerbate them. In addition, most jails and prisons do not provide adequate drug treatment programs. Instead, they lock people suffering from addiction inside buildings with drugs. 

Part three shines a spotlight on people, such as women and transgender prisoners, who are often overlooked in  discussions of mass incarceration. It explains how our society’s failure to address domestic violence has created  an “abuse-to-prison pipeline” for survivors of abuse who are incarcerated for defending themselves. It also argues  that immigration detention and mass incarceration are part of the same problem and should be addressed  together. 

Let’s face it: If incarceration were an effective solution to the problem of crime, then the United States, which  locks up more people than any other nation, should have the lowest crime rate in the world. But that clearly isn’t  the case. 

So how do we end mass incarceration? The answer, Law writes in part four, is neither simply to make American  prisons more like Norwegian prisons nor to release only nonviolent offenders. Rather, we must address the social,  political, cultural, and economic problems that lead to crime while changing the way we deal with crime as a  society. 

She believes restorative and transformative justice should replace the solely punitive warehousing and execution  of offenders as our society’s response to crime. This means adopting programs that promote the healing and  support of those affected by crime while working with offenders to address the harms they’ve caused. These 

approaches would hold the person who caused the harm accountable by helping them to repair any damage done  and to make the changes necessary to ensure they do not repeat their crimes in the future. 

Law’s mythbusting abolitionist guide to mass incarceration should be required reading for anyone interested in  America’s criminal punishment system. At 227 pages, it’s a quick read. And though its chapters are interrelated,  each one addresses a particular facet of mass incarceration and can be read as an essay on its own. If you have yet  to pick up a book about mass incarceration, make this the one. 

Highly recommended. 

Christopher Santiago is a prisoner in the South Carolina Department of Corrections.