TONY PLATT’S Beyond These Walls provides a relentless critique of the United States’s carceral regime, prompting us to rethink how criminal justice institutions operate. Platt questions the assumption that crime is a matter of personal choice, exposing the double standard that exempts the majority of corporate and governmental perpetrators from punishment while routinely incarcerating the poor and socially marginalized. In his words, the book serves as

a call to think in new and bolder ways about familiar issues, such as what prisons might have in common with barrios, ghettos, and reservations, and to consider the importance of unfamiliar issues, such as the central role played by private security in policing and how the public welfare system catalogs and dehumanizes poor women in ways that are similar to how the jails catalog and dehumanize poor men.

Through a mix of careful reasoning and passionate anger, Platt presents a rich, multilayered history of the labyrinth of social control that has evolved over the past several decades, highlighting the overwhelming reach and power of the state. This is no blunt polemic but rather a meticulous weaving of details into a coherent argument about the nature of social control in the contemporary United States. This control, becoming ever more extensive and refined in its jurisdiction, has yielded powerful forms of group repression, consigning an entire population — made up predominantly of people of color and poor whites — to a new kind of bondage. As Platt makes clear, sentencing laws and other reformist efforts to deal with the runaway problem haven’t really addressed the issue of mass incarceration at all, nor have they displaced the punitive ethos that dominates the criminal justice system.

Platt’s discussion doesn’t deal directly with some of the major new forms of incarceration — private prisons (which are functionally similar to state and federal ones), or the new and growing immigrant prisons, or the emerging mental-health prisons — and the disturbing ways these may chart the course of future penality. But he does focus strongly on the social policies that have locked particular groups into systems that target and monitor them. He exposes the stigma of indignity that comes from being surveilled and punished; the working classes receive the brunt of this psychological damage, adding to their other burdens of unemployment, poverty, and social marginalization. As Platt shows, the carceral state was built by liberals and conservatives working together, and this bipartisan consensus functions to immunize the system from serious scrutiny.

Platt knows whereof he speaks. An Englishman who has lived in the United States for many decades, he and some of his Berkeley colleagues in the 1970s developed a practice of “radical criminology” that explored the links between criminal “justice” and social power. His involvement with this group ultimately led to his 1976 dismissal from UC Berkeley’s School of Criminology, the oldest in the nation, after which he joined a Marxist party, which in turn also imploded, as many leftist groups did at the time. The fragility of such resistance groups was thus something Platt experienced firsthand, a fact that gives his writing about US penal policy a unique cogency. His analysis moves nimbly from past to present, making connections between Slave Codes and the events in Ferguson, Missouri, that led to the rise of Black Lives Matter, as well as exploring the links between eugenics, sterilization, Nazism, and Trump. And Platt is well aware of the perils and pitfalls of so-called criminal justice “reform,” showing how it never really escapes the sanctioned enforcement of unequal relations of power. In other words, politicians aren’t going to fix these problems; it’s up to us.

To that end, Platt’s chapter “Radical Visions” demonstrates alternatives to current penal institutions, including a deepening commitment to social justice emanating from the grass roots. Yet, a conspicuous absence from his analysis is any serious consideration of the religious roots of American penality. When religious issues are addressed, it is in passing mentions of Jehovah’s Witnesses being persecuted for their putatively deficient “Americanism” or of “religious freedom” being misappropriated to justify discrimination. It seems to me, however, that a thoroughgoing analysis of the problem of American penality has yet to grapple with the fact that the modern prison is essentially a failed Protestant (thus Christian) social experiment. Yet, it has also been a site of transformative spirituality: one thinks of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, and many others who were deeply changed by their religious experiences in prison — a topic Platt also does not address.

Of course, this is not really Platt’s project, nor does his toolkit as a political activist, cultural historian, and public intellectual allow him to grapple closely with such issues. His focus is on issues of race and social class, specifically the way penal law encodes and enforces invidious forms of discrimination. Within that scope, Beyond These Walls is a superb and sobering book.

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Jason S. Sexton is Visiting Research Fellow at UCLA’s California Center for Sustainable Communities. He recently served as the Interim California State University Associate Dean of Academic Programs. He is the Editor-at-Large of Boom California (UC Press).