It’s no secret that the U.S. incarcerates a shocking number of its own people, primarily the poor and people of color. With 2.3 million Americans currently being held in prisons, the country has the largest prison population in the world. But even as awareness of mass incarceration grows, two crucial questions remain at the heart of the debate on prison reform: Why does the U.S. imprison so many people, and how do we change our toxic approach? These are the issues Tony Platt, author of “Beyond These Walls: Rethinking Crime and Punishment in the United States,” and Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer discuss in the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence.”
“When I started writing this book,” says Platt, a scholar at the University of California at Berkeley. “I was trying to answer the question: Why is it so difficult to make any kind of fundamental, decent, humane change in criminal justice institutions? Why are [our leaders] so resistant to this?”
Part of the reason, he argues, is that there has been a bipartisan, right-wing effort—that includes leaders from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton—to dehumanize large portions of American society, especially people of color. This demonization largely succeeded due to a penitentiary system designed to divide Americans, often along racial lines, both inside and outside of prisons.
“I think that tells us something about what’s needed in the future to have a successful reform movement, or a progressive movement. It’s going to have to have a movement that brings the people inside into a larger movement, and for people on the outside to develop those ties and relationships. A difficult thing to do; not easy, but necessary,” Platt says.
Platt believes that the country’s inability to find or implement solutions to its prison system is largely due to its unreasonable reticence to learn from other countries.
“You could go to any prison and institution in Scotland, in France, in Italy, and Germany for sure, and the Netherlands and Sweden and so on, and you’d find an effort to try to follow what the United Nations [says] prison should be, which is that prisons should approximate the conditions outside of prisons as much as possible.
“But the United States does not look to other countries to learn from them. The United States is always about exporting law and order, exporting corrections, exporting policing to other countries. Part of the foreign policy of the U.S. has been to do that, and very rarely does it stop and say, ‘Well, what should we be importing back to here?’ ”
As long as this is the case, regardless of the president or, it seems, the political party in power, the country will not be able to address the profoundly destructive issue of mass incarceration. There is, however, hope in the form of growing and widespread interest in the issue that is fueling activism across the country.
Listen to Scheer and Platt’s discussion to learn more about how a progressive movement could address the troubles plaguing our penitentiary system and ultimately put an end to mass incarceration. You can also read the transcript of this episode below the credits.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where I hasten to add the intelligence is expected to come from the guest. In this case, there’s no question about it: Tony Platt. I don’t want to exaggerate, but I think you’ve been the most important progressive voice dealing with the criminalization of a large part of the American population. And for people familiar with this debate–you know, tough love and what kind of policing is right and fair–there’s been a progressive wing, and there’s been a reactionary wing represented by James Q. Wilson. And unfortunately, the reactionary wing won; many liberals joined that crowd, including people like President Bill Clinton. And now there seems to be a swing. There’s conservatives who recognize imprisonment, incarceration, of 2.3 million people is not a great solution; it’s expensive. We have an enlightened governor of California; Gavin Newsom is really, in a matter of weeks as the new governor he’s said he’s not going to, no one’s going to be executed in California. There’s a moratorium; he’s disassembled the death penalty facility, and he seems to be talking more about rehabilitation. So let me just say, Tony Platt was a driving force in the thinking about criminology. From ‘68 to ‘75, critical years in American political life, he ran–was the driving force behind the study for criminology. And then, as is often the case in academia, you failed by succeeding. You were the most exciting teacher on this campus when I was here, functioning in Berkeley in graduate school. And then you suddenly were out of a job. You landed on your feet eventually; you ended up in the state college system. And you’re back here at Berkeley at the Center for the Study of Law and Society, the very institution that you were fired from 40 years ago or so.
Tony Platt: Sort of a sweet justice.
RS: So what has happened to this field that you study? We have the largest prison population in the world, biased in favor of blacks and browns. And what have we seen over the last half century? And you, I should hasten to add, you are the author of Beyond These Walls: Rethinking Crime and Punishment in the United States. And so, what is the gist of the book?
TP: Well, I started thinking about the book during the Obama years; I was encouraged by the new social movements that emerged during the Obama years. And I felt that was a good time to try to address some of the issues I’d thought about back in the seventies: the intractability of a repressive and racist criminal justice system, why was that the case. And it felt encouraging during the Obama years, though–because Obama set up commissions and task forces, and debated issues, and had his attorney general investigate wayward police departments and so on. But at the same time, very little changed during the Obama years. And so when I started writing this book then, I was trying to answer the question, why is it so difficult to make any kind of fundamental, decent, humane change in criminal justice institutions? Why are they so resistant to this? And then Trump came in, and we had a much more direct, up-front, law-and-order approach that recalled the old days of Nixon and law and order. And so I also had to ask the same question then, which was, how come this law and order perspective has persisted so long, been so effective, won over so many people, and is so hard to change?
RS: The cynical answer is because we regard a lot of the people who end up in prison as throwaway people. There has been a shift in the needs of the workforce; they’re an inconvenient truth. And there’s really something profoundly immoral about the functioning of America society now, that you’re just willing to lock up people, throw away the key, and in some sense of justice, they’ve had their chance. It’s amazing, because we feel superior to all these other societies in the world that lock up, even as a percentage of the population, fewer people.
TP: Well, there’s a tendency these days for people to say the United States proportionally incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. I don’t know if that’s true. I just don’t think we know what the real situation is in China and Russia, which are the big competitors in incarceration. I think the U.S. is in the ballpark; I think the U.S. is close. When you compare the U.S. with Canada or Australia or New Zealand, or France and England, then there’s no contest. There’s no other country that’s comparable to the United States in terms of its political economy that puts as many people away, that hires as many cops, and invests as much money in repression as this country does.
RS: So what does it say about the country? I mean, I want to combine it–full confession, I heard you speak the other day. And then combined with your new book, Beyond These Walls, I found one thing lacking. And that is the use of modern technology. I brought it up with you after your talk. And it seems to me the surveillance society that we’ve entered is the Orwellian society. That you can isolate people, you can do predictive policing, you can say these are the people we don’t need, they don’t have the skillset, and we’re going to lock them up and throw away the key. You have a group like Palantir, which that’s what they do. Our police force seems to have this predictive policing; it was a group started by the CIA, In-Q-Tel. And so I’m just wondering whether in fact we are moving to this Orwellian world, or is that an overused example to frighten young children?
TP: Well, I agree with you that surveillance systems are at the heart of what the carceral state does: regulates people, watches people, tracks people. Once people have been identified as being dangerous or troublesome or criminal, they sort of face a social death for the rest of their life. But this isn’t a new phenomenon. People in prisons and jails, or people arrested, have not always been expendable or just dumped into institutions. So one of the things the book does is to go back through a very long history, back to, really, after the defeat of Reconstruction in the South, to show how at different times, actually, prisons and jails play a pretty critical role in exploiting labor and using labor, killing labor and replacing labor as it did in the South in the 1880s and 1890s. And it wasn’t until really after World War II that there was a decline in the need for prison labor, and prisons and jails started to become more like dumping grounds, or places just to keep people who weren’t needed for the economy anymore. As for the technology, you like Orwell, I’m more partial to Kafka in terms of using literary references here. Orwell suggests that they know exactly what they’re doing, they’re in control, they’re tracking everybody rationally. And we know from the history of the FBI and other institutions that often they’re at odds with each other, often there’s contradictions within them; you see a lot of chaos. And I think you see that today. On the other hand, you’re right, there are surveillance systems that are in place now that we wouldn’t have imagined 20 or 30, 40 years ago. And there are global corporations, not just serving the U.S., but serving countries all over the world including China, Israel, Russia, who are coming up with ideas for how to track and surveil and control people, and are selling those products to the United States and to other governments. And also are, they’ve become like the right-wing think tanks of the world; they initiate ideas and programs and policies, and they sell those to different countries, too. The U.S. is certainly a recipient of that, but there are other countries that are recipients as well.
RS: So I want to ask you this question, though, in terms of who ends up in the jails. And we had this whole banking meltdown; I know it’s almost going to sound trite to say this. But these people did big crimes.
RS: Big. And they changed the laws, sometimes, to make them not seem like crimes, or not be crimes. But even by the standard law. And almost no one went to jail, and certainly not the people who designed the schemes that cost people their houses and so forth. I’ve recently, I went into San Quentin to interview Kevin Cooper, who’s on death row. And his point was compelling. He said, look, there’s one common denominator, even bigger than race–it’s class, on death row. And it’s true largely of the prisons. The people who couldn’t get the lawyers, who didn’t have the families who could bail them out, and so forth. So as somebody who is dealing with criminology, you get to move in a lot of different circles. Who cares and what do the others think? And is there a liberal-conservative breakdown?
TP: Well, I think a lot of people care. I think a lot of people, when given the information what’s going on, when they hear about the inhumanity of a system that has 200,000 people in it that will never get out of prison in their lifetime–200,000 lifers, which is extraordinary. There’s no other country comparable to the United States that does that. But the right has been very successful, particularly since the Nixon years–and this is a bipartisan right, including the Clinton administration–in demonizing people who are arrested and go to jail and prison, and creating ways in which they’re totally separated from us. I think if you go back, as you’ll remember, to the Civil Rights Movement, one of the extraordinary strengths of that movement was the sense that the free and the unfree were part of a common humanity. That there but for the grace of God go I. We knew people that did time, we knew people that were arrested for political reasons, we knew people in prison and jail who became politicized there and fought for their rights and fought for larger issues. And that unity of free and unfree, I think, gave a sense to a very wide swath of American people that this was a common movement. And then since the seventies, and then particularly in the eighties, when they’d been arresting people and creating these very special kinds of institutions, and separate institutions that are high-tech, and they’re far away, and also the prisoners themselves are racially divided and kept apart from one another in solitary confinement–that’s been very successful in dividing the other, dividing the people in prison from people outside. And I think that tells us something about what’s needed in the future to have a successful reform movement, or a progressive movement; it’s going to have to have a movement that brings the people inside into a larger movement, and for people on the outside to develop those ties and relationships. A difficult thing to do; not easy, but necessary.
RS: And the invisibility of the prison population is, as you suggest, by design. I mean, everybody thinks now–you know, not everybody, but democrats and so forth; it’s, California is the deep blue state. But the fact is, we have a prison-industrial complex in California that you would know anytime you go up one of the major highways. And the economy of these towns, as I understand it whenever I’ve dropped off in these places, seems to be built around the prison.
TP: Not very effectively, though, but yes, they are.
RS: Well, tell me about that. Because I mean, it’s a startling aspect of life in what, again, many people think is the most enlightened liberal state. We have a backbone in this state of prisons.
TP: California, that now does have this progressive reputation, we tend to have amnesia and forget that the last administration, the Brown administration, resisted all efforts to reduce the California prison population. And it was only through prisoners’ organizations and their lawyers that it ended up in the Supreme Court, that forced the California government to reduce the size of the prison population. It wasn’t like they welcomed that or embraced it. And the previous governor, Jerry Brown, made a long career out of advocating law and order as part of his politics. And that reflected a whole shift that took place in the Democratic Party, particularly with Bill Clinton, and really the running out of the liberal wing of the party that stood for rehabilitation and community corrections, community policings, alternative to prisons, and so on. That was driven out of the Democratic Party as the democrats tried to get back into the White House and compete with the republicans. And from that point on, on issues of race, affirmative action, crime, prisons, jails, police, they didn’t really have any disagreements at all. So when we look back to understand how we got to this place, we can’t just look at Trump, and we can’t just look at Nixon and the republicans; we have to look at the serious role that democrats played in creating this massive carceral operation.
RS: You know, that’s–again, to take Al Gore’s “inconvenient truth”–an inconvenient truth that many people I run into don’t want to consider. And I remember when Christopher Hitchens talked about his displeasure, his criticism of Bill Clinton; it was Bill Clinton rushed back to Arkansas to witness the death of a mentally retarded prisoner who didn’t even know that he wasn’t coming back to finish his pie after going to the death chamber. And I think this blind spot in the liberal consciousness is something–we’ll take a break now, but I want to visit this when we come back. [omission for station break] Tony, what I want to–Professor Platt, I should say–what I want to get at here is, you know, I look–I don’t have anything like your knowledge of this. But every time I look at this issue of crime and punishment and so forth, at least on the right-wing side of things, there’s some on the libertarian who feel this is not being done in a cost-effective way; there are also people who believe prisoners have a soul, you know. And so some of the push to have classes in prison, and rehabilitation, seems to come more from the evangelical right, particularly in the South. At least people can–you know, Gary Tyler, who got out after 44 years in Angola and had been on death row, he had a theater group. Why? He could put on the passion play. Right-wing Christians came to watch the play. The liberals have really been, I think, by and large absent. But talk to me about what happened with Bill Clinton, and his move toward this harsh law-and-order position.
TP: I think Bill Clinton represented a debate that took place within the Democratic Party. And the party at that time was very much split between the more conservative, centrist wing and the liberal wing. And the conservative wing, led by the Clintons and people that supported the Clintons, took the position that the Democratic Party needed to shift to the right on the big issues having to do with race, particularly welfare, imprisonment, jails and prisons, affirmative action. The Clintons, I think, were a part of the efforts to shift the Democratic Party to the right, a shift that they successfully achieved, and we’ve never really recovered from that. So under Clinton’s administration, the prison population expanded to a larger number than ever before. Under Clinton, 3 million impoverished families were taken off welfare, and welfare reform pretty much disappeared from the political agenda in Washington, D.C. forever. Also, under Clinton, affirmative action–what was left of it–was whittled away until it was pretty inconsequential. There was a 10-year period when affirmative action began to make a significant difference who went to university, who taught there, who got into the professions, who got the jobs at the post offices. But by the end of the Clinton administration, it was the end of the experiment of affirmative action.
RS: I want to get at the cynicism of people we’ve been close to. And again, California is kind of a good test tube. Kamala Harris may be the democratic candidate; she was attorney general, and she didn’t do much about easing these conditions or so forth. Jerry Brown is another example; you can go down the list. You’ve lived with these people, you’ve lived with liberal democrats. What do your colleagues in the universities say? How do–how do people approach this? I know where I teach, at USC, we get these daily crime reports–the iPhone was snatched, or this thing, and then you get this five-foot-ten Hispanic or six-foot-one African American, and they’re hauled off to jail. And you don’t care, or nobody seems to care, what happens to them. Who are they? Were they 18 years old? Were they 21? What kind of life did they have? We’ve lost any of that sense that these are human beings, right?
TP: It’s the sense of humanity and morality, which progressive forces have always fought for, and which we have to make strong again. I mean, it speaks to the success of the right in demonizing people that end up on the other side, and then making most people fear them and also think of them as being a different kind of human being. Which then goes back to the legacies of eugenics; Trump himself, I think, has been very fond of eugenics ideas, the notion of being a racial hierarchy, and some people being born inferior, and so on. So I think that has been compounded by a political system that has reinforced that. And also, living in a society where we’ve never had a progressive, oppositional party in national office. We’ve never had a labor party, or a socialist party, or even really a serious social democratic party at the top. So that we have no political institutions at the national level that really support progressive movements. We’ve never had a developed welfare state, which I think is a horror. And I don’t think you can talk about changing prisons and jails–which in a way is what the welfare state has become; it’s become a carceral state. We’ve never had those institutions, we’ve never had the same kinds of rights and opportunities that other post-industrial societies have all over the world. And we also have a massive operation of spending. We have more police than teachers, you know; we have five times more cops than social workers. We spend massive amounts of money, not just at the local level, but at the national level, on national security and homeland security and anti-terrorism. And that spills down to the local level, where a lot of the money and resources go. There’s no other country like the United States that puts these kinds of resources into a war economy at home. You have a war economy around the world, and we also have a war economy against people at home. I think that’s the root of the problem.
RS: You bothered to write a book. You’ve devoted your life to this issue. And then what I just got back was, OK, let’s blame the right wing, we don’t do this, we don’t do that. And I’m trying to understand, what is the difference? And why don’t we have the same parties or so that they have in much of Western Europe, that pushed for some of this? And it goes back to class, and who do you care about, it seems to me. And I just want to offer one example. You’ve got all these people now involved in the scandal of bribing so they could get their kids into school and so forth. And there was one woman, I forget what the state was, Ohio or something, she tried to get her kids into a slightly better public school by using her father’s address. She ended up doing jail time, prison time. So it’s that double standard, you know? It’s like, hey, they had their chance, he stole pizza twice, and then he went into a liquor store–three strikes, goodbye, we tried, you had your chance. So that judgmental thing that I find all the time when I talk to people–you know, “Oh, they’re in prison. Well, even if they were convicted incorrectly, they probably did ten other crimes. And they don’t really measure up. And you know, whether it’s eugenics as a philosophy or the convenience of thinking–you know, unless they happen to be your nephew or your uncle or something, then you get all concerned and worry about it–maybe they’re there because they couldn’t get proper legal counsel. Maybe they never went to a decent school. Maybe they were abused as a child until they were 17 or something. There’s none of that mentality anymore, that reformer mentality.
TP: This operation that you’re decrying, and that we’re all so concerned about now, raged about, is very longstanding. It’s very deep, and that’s one reason why it’s so hard to change it. And people need to understand that SWAT teams and military policing didn’t begin in the sixties; it began, really, when policing began in the early 20th century. Prisons and jails have always been there; racism in criminal justice has always been there. I mean, people have been killed and abandoned in jails and prisons for a long, long time. So one argument is that we need to understand the deep history of this. The second big argument is that we need to have a wide lens, and not just think about police and prisons, but we also need to look at the interrelationship between police, prisons, and welfare, and immigration courts and detentions, and expulsions. We need to also look at the history of programs like eugenics and sterilization that targeted working-class women. We need to look at the history of campaigns against gay men who were purged from jobs after World War II. We need to think much more broadly about policing to include private policing, which is even larger than public policing, and which gets very little attention. So those are the things we need to think about, and deeply. And then also, we need to understand the need for these extraordinary movements that are happening right now in the last few years–the #MeToo movement, the movement of young kids for gun control coming out of Florida. The climate change movement that is, people are demonstrating about that as we speak. The Black Lives Matter movements that are taking place in the streets against police violence. All the reform efforts to try to reduce the prison population. All of those movements tend to operate in separation from one another. And I think we need to be thinking about what it’s going to take to build an interrelated social movement that draws together those different kinds of movements. Because without that, I don’t think you can be successful in just making one change here or one change there. You get worn down, the system comes back to where it was before. But the potential of these new movements is quite extraordinary, and now we’re in a phase of history where we don’t have good models of leadership or exemplary political organizations from around the world. But I think that’s got to be built in the next period of time, and there’s got to be a sense of unity to the fight and passion that’s already there.
RS: OK. But the primer has to have one other chapter here.
TP: What’s that?
RS: And–how do you organize. And it strikes me, the alien–we live now in gated communities. Colleges are gated communities. Actually, it’s quite absurd in a place like Los Angeles or San Francisco–who’s in these tents? Who are these people dying there? It’s one manifestation of it. And then we contain it–no, they can’t be there, but they can be here. Prisons are this obvious manifestation of that containment. So I’m asking you to draw upon a half century of dealing with this issue. Now you’re, I’ve mentioned your nemesis, James Q. Wilson. He carried the day, he said, because our tough-love approach works. Right? These liberals, these lefties and everything, they’re bleeding heart, but it doesn’t work. And that’s always been the appeal. Well, I think your book would suggest that that tough love, even though it’s been around forever, hasn’t worked, or certainly doesn’t work in a social justice way. What is the hook? Somebody reading your book–what’s the hook? Is it the self-interest of the society that we have to solve this? Is it that it’s too costly? Is it that it’s inhuman? How do people get motivated on this issue? You’re a teacher. And I know there are a lot of young, lot of people out there working in this field of social justice who cite you. I run into them all the time–Tony Platt, I took Tony Platt’s class, I read Tony Platt, so forth. I’m asking you, at this sort of tail-end of your career, and you’ve written this opus–what’s the magic now? What’s the–
TP: There’s no magic. You know, I remember you once giving a talk–this was a long time ago–and somebody asked you the same question. You can tell me if my memory’s right here. But they asked you the same question, said what does it take to be an effective organizer? And I think you said, you need to be like somebody knitting. And I’ve used that metaphor a lot. The notion that you, it’s very steady work, you have to be very disciplined, you have to start very small, you have to imagine something big that’s going to happen at the end of it. And you have to be in for the long haul; you can’t just want to do this in an impatient way. Organizing is like that. And you also know well that, as we used to say, one spark can light the prairie fire. You never know when something is going to take off. I mean, we do a lot of organizing, which–where nothing happens. Even–you can have good ideas, committed to control the police, doing away with cash bail, trying to massively reduce the prison population–they’re all reasonable ideas and policies, but they don’t take off most of the time. In the same way that people who organize for joining unions, or the eight-hour day, or to end the war in Vietnam, started also very small. And so when you’re organizing and taking on these issues, you have to put out good ideas, you have to assume that people are open to hearing new ideas, and you have to be in it for the long haul. And maybe my long haul is getting to an end now as I get older, but you have to have that attitude. And you never quite know when something can happen. I mean, it was a total shock when the kids in this school in Florida started organizing against the NRA, you know, after the school shooting there. And they were so effective that they got a former Supreme Court justice to write an opinion piece calling for the abolition of the Second Amendment. I mean, that was a big deal, and totally unexpected that that happened. Or Obama inviting the Black Lives Matter organizers to come and meet in the White House with him when he was responding to all those street protests. So that’s it. It’s knitting. You just, you’ve got to do it steady and slowly, and you’ve got to have good ideas, and hope that people will respond. And one day, they will.
RS: So let me try to force an even more optimistic moment here. I would argue that there’s a widespread recognition that the system, broadly speaking, is not working. If it were working, you wouldn’t have Donald Trump be president. If it were working, you wouldn’t have so many people living in tent communities in our major cities. It’s not working even for Google hotshots who want to live in San Francisco; the city is becoming dysfunctional, as are many cities. On the other hand, the alternative of living on some island somewhere, that doesn’t work for anybody. Doesn’t work for Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg or anybody. They want to live in a city, they want to live in a country, and so forth. And I do get the feeling–and I’ll let you have the last word on this–the reason I think people should read Beyond These Walls: Rethinking Crime and Punishment in the United States. People do get killed by criminals. They do get robbed by criminals. There are real criminals. The lock ‘em up and throw away the key, the tough love, the killing of welfare, the not caring about our school system and what kids are learning–that all has failed. That has failed. I think that can be recognized, you know. And so it seems to me there’s a moment, I daresay, for beyond these walls, for thinking beyond prison, for thinking and being inspired by Tony Platt–tell me what other countries do that works. That we should be doing.
TP: Well, you can go to any country in Europe, as a I did a couple of years ago–I went around a prison in the Netherlands, and the director of the prison took me around. And as he’s taking me around and showing me, he’s asking me the questions that you’ve been asking me. Like, why does the United States incarcerate so many people? He wanted me to explain it to him; he just couldn’t understand it. And as we’re going around, he says that he has a meeting in half an hour that he has to go to, and he has to leave me. And I said, a meeting at four o’clock on Friday? He says, yes, I’m going to go and meet with all the people in solitary confinement. There are 12 of them in solitary confinement in this prison of 2,000 people, and I was the one that signed the order to put them in solitary confinement. They can’t stay there more than 14 days, but this is the weekend I want to go and meet with each one individually and see how they’re doing, to see if there’s going to be any problems on the weekend when I’m not working here, and to make sure that if there are any mental health issues, that there are people on hand to talk to them. Well, that was a total shock. And then he took me to, he said you want to see a typical cell? I said yes, I’d like to see a cell. He said, so, and then he knocked on the door of these two prisoners’ cell, and waited while they answered the door. And he said to them, would you mind very much if I have a visitor here, if he looked at your cell? And I mean, maybe that was just a public relations show for me, but then he took me into the kitchen, where the prisoners have total access to the kitchen. And they had a better set of knives than I have in my kitchen, you know, for cooking and so on. So you could go to any prison and institution in Scotland, in France, in Italy, and Germany for sure, and the Netherlands and Sweden and so on, and you’d find an effort to try to follow what the United Nations say prison should be, which is that prisons should approximate the conditions outside of prisons as much as possible. There shouldn’t be this huge difference between what people do inside. I mean, they’ve lost their freedom; they’re going to be off the streets and their homes for years or months. But the conditions of their daily life, being able to work, to read, to study, to talk, to have family members, should be as close as possible to life outside. But the United States does not look to other countries to learn from them. The United States is always about exporting law and order, exporting corrections, exporting policing to other countries. Part of the foreign policy of the U.S. has been to do that, and very rarely does it stop and say, well, what should we be importing back to here?
RS: You know, I think this last little bit was worth the price of admission. This idea that we can’t learn from others. It’s so profoundly stupid. So, tell me a little more, though. I mean, OK, you got that warden–what else works? And then we do have some examples here. As I mentioned, Gary Tyler, who had been on death row, he worked with the theater project; he did the passion play, and the rebirth of Christ, and that worked. But what do other countries do?
TP: Well, we don’t even have to go to other countries. Because one of the things I do in the book is look at the history of opposition movements within the United States, and what people have fought for and asked for. So I’ll give you a couple of examples. Here’s Eugene Debs in prison in the 1920s, the leader of the Socialist Party, a labor leader. He went to jail and prison many times. This time, he was in prison for telling people not to support the war, not support the United States entering World War I. He did a lot of time. And he wrote about that after he came out; he wrote a chapter of a book called “How I Would Manage the Prison.” And he had some really profound insights about what to do. One thing he said was that the guard and the prisoner can never be in a human relationship inside a prison. He was talking about the fundamental inhumanity of the institution–inhumanity to the guards, as well as to the prisoners. But he also made a case that most of what goes on in prison could be governed by prisoners themselves. You could set up a prisoners’ council; most of the work could be administered and done by prisoners inside. And that you’d need some specialists to come in, he said, to do certain things around health and other things. And when he got out, he said I’d be very willing to show people how to do this, and to set it up for people, and to consult people how to do it; you don’t have to pay me, I’ll do it for free with any state government that wants me to do it. And nobody took him up on that. There’s many, many different kinds of examples like that. Another example would be the Black Panther Party that we usually associate with, you know, fighting back on the streets, carrying guns, being violent, that whole image and so on. But they actually came out with a very reasoned proposal about how to reorganize and democratize policing. Police have always been militaristic; they’ve always been undemocratic. But he said, what if we recruited to the police force the kinds of people who would want to join the Peace Corps, rather than the Marines? A very different kind of person that you’d want to bring in, that would have a sense of wanting to mediate difference, support the community. Also, the Panther proposal was that police should live in the communities in which they work, and should serve those communities, and there should be elected boards. So this was a very detailed, thoughtful proposal, as was Debs’s proposal for how to reorganize the prison. We have lots of those kinds of examples, and one of the things I do in the book that people tend to forget, because if they remember any of the history they remember the struggles that took place in the sixties and seventies, you know–Malcolm X and George Jackson and the prison movement and so on. But there’s a much longer, deeper history of people who’ve done time and been on the other side of policing and so on, who’ve come up with some great ideas. And I want people to reconnect with those ideas and learn from them.
RS: You know, finally, we have Nelson Mandela. And it’s odd, you know; how does somebody survive jail? And a certain quality comes out. And so people say, well, his cause was just–well, when he was put in jail he was called a terrorist and communist and everything else, you know. And his cause was not thought to be just, even by respectable people in the U.S. Congress, most of them. But the fact is, he rose to a higher level. And you know, when you look at the prison reform movement, there are people who’ve come out of that and really have a higher consciousness about it. On the other hand, and I want to close with this, we mostly listen to people who have a very harsh, judgmental appraisal. A lot of people–well-intentioned people, at least they claim to be, particularly in the Democratic Party, but also what used to be moderate republicans–think there’s this tough love thing, it’s more realistic. And the bleeding heart is bogus, because you’re not helping anybody. There’s got to be an answer to that. That’s the argument. The argument is, you’re not doing the prisoner or our society any favor with your concern, your bleeding heart; that’s bogus. And so we go for tougher. And even now, the new surveillance movement of Palantir, they say we use technology, we use data collection, we use science, and we’re going to have win-win. And that’s the killer app now. That we, we’ll put ankle bracelets, we’ll monitor this, we’ll do predictive policing, we’ll use technology, we’ll–and it might even end up we’ll drop something in their stomach or something, that monitors–maybe it gets back to brain surgery. So it seems to me the way the debate is shaping up, it’s between your attitude that we’ve been discussing and that tough-love attitude.
TP: Well, the other side of the success of the James Q. Wilson right-wing Clinton ideas that have permeated the society for so long, the other side of that is that more than a million people bought and read Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, which is about racism in the criminal justice system; extraordinarily popular. We haven’t had a book popular like that since The Autobiography of Malcolm X, or the many books that came out in the seventies about criminalization in prisons and jails. That was a shock to her, and it was a shock that so many people wanted to read that, were hungry for an alternative view. And then you have Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, which has also been extraordinarily popular. And Angela Davis’s work on these issues is always widely read and supported. So there’s a real hunger out there for alternative ideas and alternative views. It’s the politics that’s usually the problem, the political system that has not been very hospitable to that. You know, Biden, a few weeks ago as he was preparing to think about his run for the presidency, said that he apologizes for some of the law and order policies that he supported. He said you know, we listened to the experts, and the experts got it wrong. Well that just, you know, that’s just a total lie; they knew exactly what they were doing, and Biden and the center of the Democratic Party led the law and order rush there. That would be my more positive side to what you say, the domination of right-wing ideas; there’s a profound hunger out there for people to read and to act and to do something differently. You cited Nelson Mandela as somebody who survived and came out and provided extraordinary leadership. There are many people that do that; there are a lot of other people who get destroyed doing time in solitary. They become mentally ill and broken people. So we shouldn’t romanticize it.
RS: Oh, I’m not romanticizing. I’m just saying why don’t we listen to the–
TP: We did. But you know, one of the things that Nelson Mandela said–and there are very few people who remember this; I mean, this was after he’d done all that time, and people in the African National Congress had been killed and hunted down and so on, and he became president of South Africa. He said, you know, what we’ve gone through has been an extraordinarily difficult struggle, and many people have lost their lives and sacrificed themselves, and it’s one of the most difficult things we’ve gone through. But he said, now, trying to build a multiracial democracy is going to be even harder. We have to be ready for this next stage. And I think that’s the sense of where we’re at now. We’ve got profound opposition and outrage and alienation all over the country. We have people reading and hungry for new ideas about what to do. Now we have to take on this struggle.
RS: And taking on the struggle really means becoming informed, because this can’t be barroom conversation, lock ‘em up, or cut ‘em loose, or whatever, you know, or you’re responsible for this murder or this crime. And the value of this book, Beyond These Walls: Rethinking Crime and Punishment in the United States–it’s a long history. This does not start with Trump, you know, lock ‘em up on the border, sort of thing. And the people complicit come from across the political spectrum. Thank you, Professor Tony Platt, for taking us through this history. That’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. Our engineers at KCRW are Mario Diaz and Kat Yore. Our producers are Josh Scheer and Isabel Carreon. And here at the UC [Berkeley] Graduate School of Journalism, we have Topher Ruth as our engineer doing an excellent job. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.