The Liberal Betrayal of America’s Most Vulnerable

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Tony Platt, author of ‘Beyond These Walls: Rethinking Crime and Punishment in the United States, speaks to students, professors, and community memebrs in The Native American Forum at Humboldt State University on Feb. 14. Photo credit: T.William Wallin/The Lumberjack

It’s no secret that the U.S. incarcerates shocking swaths of its own people---with 2.3 million Americans currently being held in prisons, the country has largest prison population in the world. Today, even as awareness of mass incarceration grows, two crucial questions remain at the heart of the debate on prison reform: why is this case and how do we change our toxic approach? These are the issues that Prof. 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, “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, the scholar 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 that is 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,” posits Platt

When asked about the country’s inability to find or implement solutions to the system that’s eating away at the core of the U.S., Platt responds that it is largely due to a national 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 say 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, political party in power, the country will not truly be able to address the profoundly destructive issue of mass incarceration. There is, however, hope in the form of unexpectedly widespread interest in the issue that continues to grow and create awareness as well as fuel activism across the country.

Listen to their 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.



Joshua Scheer