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Freedom, Food, & Floods: Prisons, Dishes, and Developments Uncovered

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Beau Vondra, a chef from Sioux Falls, Rick Gion, and Molly Yeh
Beau Vondra, a chef from Sioux Falls, Rick Gion, and Molly Yeh

Show summary:

  • This month, our engaging dialogue on "Why? Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life" revolves around a provocative question: Should prisons be abolished? Join us as Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein, the host, offers an insightful preview into the complexities of this debate.
  • Dive into the heart of regional cuisine on this week's episode of "Prairie Plates" with Rick Gion, where we explore the beloved hotdish. Discover what makes this comfort food a staple in this region and uncover innovative tips to enhance your hotdish experience.
  • This summer marks a significant phase for the ambitious $3 billion FM flood diversion project, aiming for operational readiness by spring 2027. On this excerpt from "Prairie Pulse," we join host John Harris for an exclusive update, featuring a conversation with Kris Bakkegard, the project's director of engineering, on the progress and expectations for this monumental undertaking.

Transcript of interview with Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein as he previews his upcoming "Why? Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life" show that can be heard this Sunday at 5p CST on Prairie Public.

Ashley Thornberg: We are going to start today with a preview of the upcoming episode of "Why? Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life" with host Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein, a Chester Fritz distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of North Dakota. As he and his guest discuss prisons and whether or not prisons should be abolished, Jack, thanks so much for joining us today.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein: I am happy to be here, as always.

Ashley Thornberg: All right, I want to start with, do we need to set up a definition for what is a prison and what is a jail, or is it so obvious, I don't even need to ask that question?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein: I actually don't think it's obvious, although I don't know that it's that important. Prison is where people go for long-term incarceration after they have been found guilty; jail is where they are before that happens. There are also psychiatric institutions and other places, like juvenile hall, that people end up in.

Our conversation is about the whole thing. Our conversation is about any place where you are contained for any period of time and where you are subject to the power and the authority and the rules of someone else. So, in the conversation with your guest in talking about abolishing prisons and jail...

Ashley Thornberg: Is it just that simple, all of a sudden, there's no prison or jail? Or, I mean, there has to be a little bit more to the conversation than that.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein: Well, there is, but I think it's important to recognize the background because your puzzlement is actually part of the issue. He's talking to what gets called the black radical movement, people like Angela Davis and Huey P. Newton and W.E.B. Du Bois, this tradition of literature and conversations and activists who look at structural injustice in society and say we can't rescue these things. They're so bad, they're so trapped in racism, they're so trapped in cruelty that we have to get rid of them.

The problem is, like most revolutionary thinkers, they don't give us a good picture of what life is like after the revolution. Many of them are influenced by Karl Marx, and as someone who has taught Marx many times, I'll say that his criticism of capitalism and of the modern world is incredibly insightful, really powerful, worth hearing, and absolutely worth attending to, but there's no picture at all as to what a communist society is gonna look like. There's no vision of what the world looks like after the revolution. Think for a second about the Taliban, right? They take over in Afghanistan, and the first question is, who fixes the roads? Who makes sure that the electricity is still running? And they don't have that set up because revolutionaries aren't good with details. So, there is this question of what's it going to look like after, but even before that, we have to ask ourselves, is this the right solution?

And so, what Tommy is doing is trying to tone down the attack on prisons and say we can do a lot of what you want by narrowing our vision of what prisons are and by rethinking the structures. So, walk us through his main arguments. So, what he does is he takes piece by piece the arguments of, in particular, Angela Davis, and he asks, are they realistic criticisms about prisons themselves?

So, for example, he addresses her accusation about cruelty. So, for example, he will look at Angela Davis and other folks' accusation that prisons are connected and intertwined to the legacy of slavery, and he'll analyze that and say, while there are some aspects of prisons that are similar, that metaphor doesn't really work, or he'll talk about the privatization argument, which is there are lots of people who feel that having private, for-profit prisons is not consistent with justice, and that's something that the government should do. And while he is sympathetic to that notion, he also recognizes that in the modern world, someone's got to build the benches, and somebody has to cook the food, and that privatization in and of itself doesn't necessarily cause injustice.

Ashley Thornberg: Why are you talking about privatization right now?

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein: So, most of America's prisons are run and funded by the government, but there are a whole bunch, and there is a growing trend of private companies building these prisons because they claim they can be more efficient.

But what does more efficient mean? It means that people are making money off the backs of folks who are incarcerated. It means that they're going to try to cut costs and give them worse food and clean the prison less, and they're less concerned about their rights. Now, in and of itself, that may not be a problem. You could have a morally good corporation, but two things have been discovered in the last say 10 or 20 years. The first is, when the profit motive is the main concern for a prison, human rights tend to disappear; people are treated much worse, and there's much less chance of redress. But the second is that these private prison companies lobby the government to make laws stronger and make sentences longer because the government has an interest in not arresting people. The government has an interest, at least in theory, in getting people rehabilitated, getting them back on the street, having them be citizens.

A private corporation has an interest in getting as many prisoners as possible because the more prisoners they have, the more profit they make, and that runs counter to our sense of what justice is. We should not arrest people and put them in jail because we want to make money. We should arrest people and put them in jail because they committed a crime, and they need to be separated. And that's another aspect of the discussion that we have with Tommy because one of the things he argues is that the vast majority of people who are in prison, who are in prison for property crimes or drug use, probably don't need to be in prison at all. They can be in other institutions, they can be kept up at home, they can go to treatment programs, they can go to programs where they rebuild what they broke, or did civil service, and clean the streets. I don't know, I'm making stuff up.

Violent criminals, people who are a danger to themselves and others, people who caused bodily harm and serious irreversible trauma? Those may be candidates for prison. So, part of the issue is that, especially in the American system, we have the larger percentage of the population in the world that is imprisoned. The common number that gets thrown about for African-American men is 25% of African American men end up in prison for one reason or another, and most of those people don't need to be in prison for 20 years. Most of those people don't need to be separated to such an extent that they live a life of brutality, of sexual abuse, of no access to education, no access to family. That's what the discussion is about. The discussion is focused on the fact that the prison system that we have now is so broken that it is not in any way built to rehabilitate or return people back to the street. It's built to punish. It's built as a form of revenge, and it's built to take people off the streets so that we can forget about them and never think about them. How does how the United States does prison compare with other countries?

Ashley Thornberg: That is, there are hundreds of other countries.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein: Yeah, that is actually super interesting, and there are, of course, many prison systems that are worse. In North Korea, for example, when you go to prison, you are not just sent to prison, but you're sent to prison for three generations, so you go to prison, your children go to prison, and your grandchildren go to prison. That is inconceivable. At the same time, in places like Denmark, I think it's Denmark and not Norway, in Denmark, they have this incredibly forward-thinking prison system where inmates are treated with respect, where they're taught skills, where they're given education, where they're given responsibilities, and then the level of recidivism is minuscule compared to the United States' situation, that the way that they can rehabilitate and take people who either made mistakes or were broken in some way, now they have therapy, now they have a mechanism to get better and to grow.

And so, we can learn a lot from the things that other people do wrong and the things that other people do right, and what it appears to me, and this is one of the reasons why I was interested in having Tommy as a guest, it appears to me that the conversation about prisons in the United States has stalled, and that what politicians do is when they're running for re-election or for an office, they want to be hard on crime. They want to create three strikes you're outlaws. They want to do all these things, and then they don't care anymore because they're using the prison and the fear of crime and the fear of your neighbor as a mechanism to motivate people to vote for them. We should be having a countrywide, deep, and vigorous conversation about what prison is, how it should be constructed, who should go, and what the purpose of prison is, and we are not having that conversation. And so, part of why I brought Tommy on the show is not because I agree or disagree with him. I never choose guests because of that. The reason why I had Tommy on the show is because I think it's a really important conversation that we need to jumpstart, and North Dakota, in particular, but the rest of the country, needs to rethink what they're doing, what we're doing, and why we're doing it.

Ashley Thornberg: What does how the U.S. does prison, which is very much more in line with retribution instead of rehabilitation, say about this country's morals? How you punish people tells a lot about who you are.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein: This is true as parents, this is true as schools, this is true as bosses and employees. You learn a tremendous amount about one's not just morality but one's view of the world and how one sees other people. The prison system is just a large example of this. This is why the black radical movement likes to talk about slavery in conjunction with the prison discussion.

We are a country that has not resolved the legacy of slavery. We have done some very, very important and moral and wonderful things in response, and we have done other things that are not so good, and we have neglected a lot of things. If 25% of a population based on race is in a prison, something has gone wrong. It is not that 25% of African American men are irredeemable. Now, it may be poverty, it may be education, it may be cultural, but it also might be blindness to injustice. So, for example, there are lots of studies that show that a white person and a black person charged with the same crime, the black person gets a much higher sentence than a white person. This is also true, by the way, of men and women, that women get much lighter sentences than men for the same crimes.

Why? Because we have this racist history, and we have these threads in our country that we haven't fully resolved. We have this sexist history in our country, and these sexist threads that we haven't resolved. So, the very context is gonna allow us to analyze the prison system in a certain way. Also, we are a people who believe that everyone is responsible for their own actions. There are a lot of folks who think, you know, if you're poor, it's because you made a mistake; if you're poor, it's because you're lazy; if you broke a law, it's because you're a bad person; if you end up in a bad situation, it's your own fault. You should have seen it coming, and you should have stopped it. Now, our prison system works the same way.

Our prison system says we're not concerned about your background, we're not concerned about how you were raised, we're not concerned with who your parents were or your economic situation. You did this thing, and you yourself are responsible for it. So, the very individualistic spirit that governs the philosophy of the United States governs the prison system in the United States, and that makes it much harder to figure out how to rehabilitate, it makes it much harder to care for prisoners in the literal sense of the term. If everyone is responsible for their own actions, and the other things that people do have no effect on who you are, then it also follows that the people who want to help you, the people who want to heal you, the people who want to educate you, the people who want to cure you of whatever illness you might have, they don't matter either because they're not part of the equation.

It's you, and it's only you. And I'm not speaking for Tommy here, I'm answering the question from sort of figuring out the answer as I talk, but ultimately, I think that our prison system is individualistic and unbending in a way that Americans tend to be individualistic and unbending when it comes to questions of morality.

Ashley Thornberg: We're visiting today with philosopher Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein. He is the host of "Why? Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life," which airs this Sunday at 5 o'clock Central, 4 o'clock Mountain. And there is a longer podcast version available. Jack, we've mentioned your guest, but let's hear a little bit more about who he is and why you picked him.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein: So, Tommy Shelby is a professor of African American studies and of philosophy at Harvard University. He was a guest on the show in 2016. This is his second visit, where we talked about a philosophical look at black identity. And I really like Tommy because I think he's smart, and I think he's open, and I don't think he's thrown by conversations that other people might find awkward or scary. You know, I'm a white Jewish guy in North Dakota talking to an African American about black identity.
That's hard. That's, I might say the wrong thing. I might, you know, these are conversations that people are reluctant to have because they're nervous, and they don't want to be accused of racism if they have a curiosity or if they don't want to say the wrong thing and feel bad. And so, I think my role again as why in "Why Radio" is to have the hard conversations for people in a way that they can think about it and not be afraid of reflecting on the ideas.

So, I chose Tommy because I think this is a very hard and a very subtle conversation that I wanted an interlocutor who I thought was super smart and had a really clear background in the issues and who also could, who wouldn't be bothered if I said things the wrong way. There's a final question of the episode. I hem and haw because it's a weird question about the book, and I tell him I'm not sure how to ask this, and I talked about my wife, talked to it about my wife beforehand, and this, that, and the other thing, and I asked the question, and he just answered the question, right? He wasn't bothered by my nervousness or uncertainty, and so I encourage people to listen to him just because he's a voice worth listening to, and he's a voice who isn't someone who is going to make you feel guilty for whatever thoughts you might be having as you have the discussion.

Ashley Thornberg: Jack, do you and Tommy talk about ways to prevent crime? I'm thinking of, you know, The Center for American Progress talking about strengthening access to housing and calling it key to preventing, if nothing else, recidivism rates, you know, people returning to prison, and quite possibly stable housing is one of the key indicators, the key abilities to just prevent crime to begin with.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein: He doesn't discuss that particularly in this book, but his previous book, "Dark Ghettos," is very much about that, and it's about the roles of neighborhoods and community in political power and representation and advocacy and in crime prevention. And so, part of what he's trying to figure out as a project, as a career-long project, is how can we create communities and environments for people who are either victims or marginalized or not given resources, how can we create circumstances for them to flourish, and what are the deep structural issues that prevent them from flourishing, and what are the local neighborhood community issues that prevent them from flourishing.

Now, we can have the same conversation about rural white folks in Pennsylvania and meth country, and we can have the same conversation about Native Americans on the reservations, or what have you. We can have those conversations about anybody, frankly. We could have a conversation about the ultra-rich and why they all seem so bitter and why they're being so mean when they have so much money, and they have everything.

We can have that conversation about any group. Tommy is an African American studies professor who has decided that what he's going to talk about is the black experience in the United States, and he wants to respond to the black radicals because he thinks that their answers aren't nuanced enough and are maybe aren't realistic enough. Although again, I don't want to put words in his mouth.

Ashley Thornberg: We're visiting today with Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein, a Chester Fritz distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of North Dakota and the host of “Why? Philosophical Discussions About Everyday Life.” The upcoming episode airs this Sunday at 5 o'clock central, and there is also a podcast version that includes about 30 extra minutes of material. This month's theme is, should prisons be abolished? Jack, thanks so much for your time today.

Dr. Jack Russell Weinstein: Thanks for having me.

Note: this transcript was created using AI tools. The audio of the show is the official record.