Note: Read or listen to part I of the interview here.
In the words of the renowned linguist and public intellectual Noam Chomsky, “the American criminal justice system is an international scandal, both in its scale and its brutality.”
The U.S. incarcerates its citizens – disproportionately those of color – at the highest rate of any nation in the world. Many of those people, including juveniles, languish in solitary confinement despite an abundance of evidence that the practice can cause devastating psychological trauma.
From Fergusson to Baltimore to South Carolina and beyond, the high profile police killings of unarmed black men have also thrust the issues of state violence and police brutality into the broader national consciousness.
As Chomsky writes in his praise for the new book, “Beyond These Walls: Rethinking Crime and Punishment in the United States,” these issues “are rooted in a much broader range of ‘social control institutions,’ matters investigated with penetrating insight and historical depth in this powerful study.”
In a two-part interview, The Globe Post spoke to the book’s author Tony Platt, a Distinguished Affiliated Scholar at the University of California Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Law & Society, about the history of mass incarceration in America, what’s missing in our current conversations about criminal justice, and how we as a society can rectify the injustices that are pervasive in our current system.
The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q. You point out throughout the book that white collar crimes are not treated the same way as other crimes are today. Is it fair to say that you view today’s criminal justice system primarily as a means of social control along racial and class lines?
Platt: I do see it operating more like a system of population control. And I would say a broader than race and class because there are also many examples in the history of the United States that show the significance of gender. So for example, the eugenics movement before and after World War II targeted primarily white working-class women and primarily women of color afterward.
And I see that the eugenics movement as a part of cultural institutions. Between the two great wars, some 60,000 women in the United States were forced into mental and other institutions on very flimsy grounds. Then as a condition of them being released, they had they or their families had to agree to them being sterilized. So this was compulsory sterilization of 60,000 people after Germany’s sterilization of millions of people in the 30s early 40s. The United States was number two in the world in terms of the extent of this kind of sterilization.
After World War II it was used differently. It was used disproportionately and primarily with Native American women, Puerto Rican women, Africa American women and Mexican-American or Chicano women in the Southwest. Women coming in to deliver babies were told that if they agreed to sterilized, they would then be able to be eligible for benefits for welfare. So they were tricked into this and this happened to literally millions of women.
If you think of today’s public Welfare, ever since the Clinton administration purged the welfare rolls of 3 million impoverished families, welfare has been turned into sort of the same criminal status. I think what welfare does to poor women is equivalent to what the prison and jail system does to poor young men of color. It’s very comparable in terms of regulating, discriminating, giving them an inferior status, making them suspects of criminal behavior constantly. In some ways, the welfare system does for poor women and children what the prison and jail system does for poor men of color and other poor men too.
So yes I would agree that there are many examples of this taking place in terms of enforcing racial and class inequality and also being used against political movements. The history of the FBI and the African American organizations would be a clear example of that but also, I think it’s it’s broader in that and also incorporates working-class women and women of color.
“There are examples of an [FBI] agent proudly reporting to his bosses that he had every single African American student at Swarthmore College under surveillance.”
Q. I wanted to ask you about the intervention of law enforcement agencies into social movements as well. From surveilling and harassing figures like Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement to the infiltration of the Black Lives Matter movement more recently, what do you think those kinds of episodes tell us about the way law enforcement agencies view their role in society?
Platt: Well I think this is a big and important issue. There’s sometimes a tendency to sort of separate the role of the federal government from what happens locally. Seeing police behavior as a local matter or police killings as a local urban matter. But one of the things I argue is there is this interrelationship between the way in which the federal government operates and the way in which local police and sheriffs get their marching orders about who’s who’s dangerous who’s who’s problematic, who needs to be watched, who needs to be regulated, who needs to be surveilled, who needs to be infiltrated and so on.
You see this in a wide variety of organizations over a long period of time. But the clearest example is the history of the national organizations – some security agencies but particularly the FBI and its role in trying to hold back the civil rights and black liberation movements. That was in part because of Hoover’s long reign in the FBI and his particular animus for racial equality of any kind and his hatred of the left.
He was very active against the left – any kind of left, Labor, socialist, social justice institution – right from the beginning of his career. So from the early days you see him issuing public pronouncements about how African Americans in the 1920s and 1930s came back from World War I too uppity – too quick to try to achieve the rights of citizenship. And so he sent out a message to his agents and local police departments that they needed to be watched.
That goes on all the way through infiltrating the Panthers. But not just the Panthers. In the early 70s a group of activists broke into an FBI office in Pennsylvania and liberated all these documents that revealed how the FBI operates. You find there are examples of an agent proudly reporting to his bosses that he had every single African American student at Swarthmore College under surveillance and was reporting on their activities. So this was a deeply invasive operation and I think it played a critical role in trying to hold back the gains of the civil rights movement.
It also happened with the Chicano movements particularly in the 1960s when the FBI went after Chicano organizations. And then locally, all over the country, quite early in the 20th century, police departments began to develop units of what we used to call Red Squads that were special units of intelligence officers that worked for the local police departments.
They took their cues from the national organizations and also went after an incredibly wide array of organizations – not just infiltrating and or killing people in gun battles and getting people in prison – but also quite sophisticated counterinsurgency operations. They were spreading propaganda and trying to get organizations to fight one another by sending anonymous notes and so on. So I see this as longstanding and systematic and a very critical part of understanding not just what federal agencies do but how local police departments decide what their priorities are.
Q. At one point the book you quote Charles Dickens after he had visited a Philadelphia prison in the mid 19th century. He described how the conditions there made prisoners feel as though they are “dead to everything.” You later say that our system now “condemns millions of prisoners to civil death.” What do you mean by that term civil death?
Platt: I’m glad you spotted the quote from Dickens. I thought that was a rather remarkable observation by him. The other thing he observed, which I think is so true for today too, is he said how reasonably and efficiently these institutions were run and how the people that ran them had incredibly good intentions about wanting to reform people. That was to put them into solitary confinement and not allow them to communicate with other prisoners.
He said that on the one hand, you had this sort of humanistic impulse and then this terrifying system of institutional control and degradation of people. I thought that was a rather remarkably brilliant insight that really speaks to the way in which solitary confinement is still used today.
By social death and civil death, it refers to the way in which, when people have been arrested and get a record and particularly when they’ve done time and come out, it’s almost impossible for them to regain any kind of normality in their life, partly because their life was interrupted. If they had any education that was interrupted, if they had jobs that were interrupted, that they now have a record that would follow them, that would make it difficult for them to get into public housing, to get welfare, to get job training, to get taken seriously by educational institutions and so on.
That was a form of civil death. Sonia Sotomayor, in her dissent, also uses this term and this also goes to reducing or eliminating people’s voting rights. There’s about 5 million people in the United States that are disqualified from voting because they had a felony conviction. In a place like Florida which is so critical to the national election, if they’d had voting rights that really would have made a massive difference in the last national election.
I think that’s what it means. To have a stigma that’s not just social and cultural but also economic and political and jobs related that that follows you through life. You can find examples of people that overcome that. Right now, Albert Woodfox did 40 years plus in solitary confinement in Angola Prison in Louisiana. He’s written this book which I’m just starting to read because I’m going to be in a conversation with him soon. I mean he survived and he wrote a book and he is now here talking about it, but these experiences mostly destroyed people in terms of public attitudes towards criminal justice matters.
“[Trump] uses that image of the animalistic nature of people that get caught up in the criminal justice system.”
Q. The current president has revived some of the tough on crime rhetoric that has been persistent throughout recent history. Why do you think people generally are so susceptible to that kind of rhetoric? And how do you think we could go about changing people’s attitudes towards matters of criminal justice?
Platt: I think this is a fundamental issue. Why a lot of people, I don’t know if it’s a majority of the country, think of people in prisons and jails as not only being dangerous and criminal and sort of marked with a sense of criminality for their whole lives but also as being a different species of humanity – sort of being a lesser, inferior, uncivilized group.
Trump is very big on this rhetoric. When he refers to young folks charged with crimes as being sort of like a wolf pack, he uses that image of the animalistic nature of people that get caught up in the criminal justice system. This is the result of not only the demonization of particularly people in prisons but also the creation since the late 1970s early 1980s of these specialized prisons called Supermaxes.
These take any kind of prisoners who are considered to be politically dangerous or who might do organizing in prison, which took place widely in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. These Supermax prisons heavily emphasize solitary confinement, seclusion, and sensory deprivation. And we put them in parts of the country that are very hard to reach so that lawyers and family members have trouble traveling down to see people and it cost a lot of money to go and visit.
Creating these out of the way, brutal kinds of institutions reinforce the views and actually create the views that these people must be incredibly dangerous and different from you and me if we need these special institutions and these special measures to keep them there.
I think a lot has to be learned for our movement today from the civil rights movement, in particular because that was a very good example of the continuities between people inside and people outside. The civil rights movement thought of itself as organizing people who were doing time as well as organizing people in impoverished communities. There was a lot of communication that went on between people who were in prison and people outside. Many people went to prison because of violations of local codes that were trumped up charges because they were political organizers.
But also tens of thousands of people inside prison like a Malcolm X or a George Jackson became politicized by that movement and started to organize themselves and move away from a life of petty crime that got him into prison or jail in the first place and to unite with that movement outside. something like Martin Luther King’s famous letter from jail that he wrote when he was in prison during the civil rights struggle – I mean that’s probably one of the most widely read and reproduced pieces of writing in the history of the United States.
And it had incredible moral authority. If you look at some of the important works that came out of people that did time in prison like Malcolm X and other people, they had widespread moral credibility. So I think today we have to learn from the lesson of how effective the right-wing movements have been at separating and demonizing people, but also learn from how during the civil rights struggles, we were able to develop units that went beyond the walls.