prison reform

The Prison System Is a Nightmare, but Not for the Reasons You Think

How it's become an agency of social control.
Inmates in Maricopa County "pup tent"
Photo by Mike Fiala from Getty Images.

Mass incarceration. Private, for-profit prisons. Laws that unfairly target minorities. Defendants being sentenced to decades for nonviolent and first-time offenses. Overcrowding. Corruption. The issues facing our correctional facilities are myriad. And, with over six million either incarcerated or on some form of community supervision, the United States has become the world's leading incarcerator. Despite recent media friendly reforms like the First Step Act, there’s still an long way to go.


In a new book, Beyond These Walls: Rethinking Crime and Punishment in the United States, out last week, Tony Platt, a professor at University of California Berkeley's Department of Justice Studies, takes a deep dive into the state of incarceration in our country, looking at the historic barriers to criminal justice and prison reform and correlating them to today. VICE talked to Platt to find out what, if anything, we can do to fix our broken criminal justice system. Here’s what he had to say.

I did time mostly in the 1990s and 2000s. When I was in there most of the guys saw the criminal justice system and Bureau of Prisons as a business. How close were they to the truth, or not?
Tony Platt: I'm not sure that I'd say that the current criminal justice system or the federal system is a business. There's lots of people in criminal justice that make money, if you think about private prisons, if you think about the contractors that build prisons, the agencies that make money off phone calls for people doing time, the companies that monopolize the sale of inflated food prices to people inside and so on. There's people making money all over the place there. But it's not a business in the way that it's been in the past.

I think the criminal justice system today is a sort of warehouse system for people that have been excluded from the economic system. There's very little profitable labor going on in the prisons. In the 19th and early-20th centuries, prison labor was extraordinarily exploited, there were factories in the prison. In the South after the defeat of Reconstruction, black prisoners were literally worked to death for private companies. That really began to end in the early 20th century because cheap labor became available and easily used all over the world. The prison labor became less and less important to industry and to corporations. They could get cheap labor outside the prison system.


From pretty early in the 20th century to the present, there's been a massive decline of the economic exploitation of prison labor. Today, I see the prison and policing systems as agencies of social control, of dealing with populations that have been marginalized by the economic system, and less as a business, less as a business model. It's not a particularly popular view by critics of the criminal justice system on the left, but I think it's a mistake to think of exploitation of prison labor as what's driving things now.

In your book, you talk about the criminal stereotype. Why do you think such stereotypes should be re-examined?
You know, a lot of activists today talk about how we need to fight criminal justice injustices at the local or state level. But I think looking at the history of what's happened, there's a real relationship, an inter-relationship between what happens nationally and what happens locally.

If you look at the history of the FBI or the development of professional policing or these regular campaigns to round up people who are seen as dangerous and in the opposition and undermining American values [it starts nationally].

For example, current campaigns against so-called terrorism gives the green light to police departments to go after progressive organizations. The FBI, under the rule of J. Edgar Hoover, for decades formulated the view that African Americans were the most dangerous people in the United States. They put out that African Americans were uppity, that they were claiming rights that they shouldn't have, that they were moving too quickly, that they were riddled with communists, and that they were trying to undermine the American system.


That set of messages that the FBI sent out around the country then gave the green light to local police departments to imagine and think of African American people as being subversive and dangerous, and always having to be on guard against them and to take preventive action. I think this inter-relationship of ideas about dangerousness and un-Americanism are a very strong feature of the history of the American criminal justice system. And it comes mostly at the national level, but then the national level influences what happens at the local level.

Beyond These Walls book cover

In the history of incarceration, how big an impact has the war on drugs had on prison systems nationwide, in your opinion?
The war on drugs has had a major impact on justifying the round-up and arrests of millions of people. But if it hadn't been drugs, it would've been something else. I don't think it's drug behavior or sale of drugs or the illegality of drugs that has driven the campaigns to crack down and arrest and incarcerate millions of people. I think drugs become one means amongst many to identify certain populations as being dangerous and in opposition to American values. Some of the diaries and exposes that have come out from the Nixon government, which was really a main promoter of the war on drugs, shows that the issue of drugs was literally just a device or a manipulation to go after populations.

We live in a society that has massive use of drugs, illegal and legal, probably more so per capita than any comparable country in the world. So it's not so much that the government has gone after drug use, illegal drug use, as it's gone after the populations that get tied to drug use. You see this historically in campaigns in the early 20th century against Mexican immigrants, associating them with illegal marijuana use. You see it in the 19th century in California where Chinese immigrants were accused in trading in opium. You could go through the whole history of the American criminal justice system to see the different ways in which the so-called war on drugs becomes an opportunity to go after populations.


What can we do to fix the system?
First of all we've got to see things realistically. There's a tendency sometimes to not want to see what's going on. And Fannie Lou Hamer, the civil rights activist, used to say, "We need to bring things into the light.” That's step one, just to look at the breadth of the problems and the issues.

Secondly, I think we need to see connections between different ways in which human beings are controlled. I see the welfare system and the immigration system as being deeply interconnected with what prisons and policing do. But too often in our movement, we separate those things.

People battle against deportations of immigrants, against the incarceration of immigrants for really petty offenses, [but] people don't see the connection between women and children on this very punitive system of welfare as having anything to do with what the police and prisons do mostly to men. [There’s a] connection between immigration issues, welfare issues, prison issues, and police issues. Our political movements for social justice get divided and segregated.

You see that particularly in the history the women’s movement and anti-racist movement, [which] has constantly battled to get people out of prison and to reduce the amount of incarceration, but the women's movement, particularly as it developed in the 60s and 70s, wanted to crack down on people to get sexual violence and rape taken seriously by the criminal justice system. There's a lot of things that we could do that are done by other countries in the world, that offer models to us. The United Nations has put out a series of recommendations about what we should do about prisons.

If we follow those recommendations to provide education and healthcare for everybody that needs it inside, to reduce the prison population by using non-carceral, non-prison techniques of resolving conflicts between people, to make life inside institutions as much as possible like life outside so that there isn't this huge divide between the way people live inside and outside, and also in terms of reforming the police. If there were democratic controls of policing so that people decided what the police should do, what policies they should follow, what communities they should be operating in, and what crimes they should try to go after—if we had something like that, it would be a profound reform and change in the way things operate.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.

Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.