What is Prison Imperialism?

AfGJ calls the system of US prison management programs “Prison Imperialism.”  We’re referring to the prison programs themselves, as well as the imperialist dynamic between the US and the affected countries. These programs exist in the context of increased police and border militarization, US military bases, neoliberal economic policies, and economic extraction from poor communities by powerful transnational interests. Prison Imperialism causes increased incarceration rates and changing cultures of incarceration.

Map of US influence in prison systems

Which countries are affected?

US Prison Management Programs of different varieties are in at least 33 countries. The exact number is uncertain because of the opacity of US government agencies that do not disclose their activities to the public, even in the most general of terms. The US is most active building and managing prisons in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. The affected countries that AfGJ has examined most closely are Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, and Colombia.

These are the countries where US prison management programs are active:

  • Afghanistan
  • Bahamas
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Brazil
  • Central African Republic
  • Colombia
  • Costa Rica
  • Democratic Republic of Congo
  • El Salvador
  • Georgia
  • Guatemala
  • Guyana
  • Haiti
  • Honduras
  • Iraq
  • Lebanon
  • Libya
  • Mali
  • Mauritania
  • Mexico
  • Morocco
  • Niger
  • Nigeria
  • Pakistan
  • Palestinian Authority in West Bank
  • Panama
  • Senegal
  • Serbia
  • South Korea
  • South Sudan
  • Suriname
  • Trinidad and Tobago
  • Tunisia

When did Prison Imperialism begin?

The first big international US prison program began in 2000 in Colombia. Before it was built, Colombians were told that La Tramacúa was a maximum security prison, and that everything about it would be both highly controlled and in accordance with international human rights standards. The US Bureau of Prisons had an office inside it when it was built. USAID funded it, and the US Bureau of Prisons built it and controlled every aspect of the design. According to the Colombian Solidarity Committee with Political Prisoners, It was modeled after Coleman Prison in Florida.

La Tramacúa is in the hottest part of Colombia – Valledupar, where afternoon temperatures are above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The water was turned off almost the whole day, even though Colombia is a country full of rivers and better design and management could have prevented this human rights crisis. The prisoners had an elaborate system for taking turns to collect enough water for the brief time it was on, which was 10 minutes. The food had fecal matter in it. Prisoners inside reported out that 70% of the population was sick with things like diarrhea, vomiting, and constant coughs. The political prisoners who were held there were tortured.

After building La Tramacúa, the US subsequently got involved in the prison systems of dozens of other countries after 2000.  The State Department decided that the prison program that produced La Tramacua was a workable model, and that they were continue developing their new concept of international prison management programs.

What US government agencies are involved?

“Prison imperialism” programs are channeled through the State Department subdivisions of the Bureau for Narcotics Law Enforcement (INL) and the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, as well as the US Bureau of Prisons. The most prominent agency is the INL. Much of the funding is provided as part of the “War on Drugs” or the “War on Terror”. We still don’t know exactly how much has been spent and where it’s been spent because international prison programs are kept highly classified.

What are US prison management program activities?

There are varying degrees of involvement in the 33 countries from very heavy to light. In almost every country that we’re involved in, the US does trainings for staff, and advises them in methods to manage and keep track of inmates. Some of this training is done by Colorado Corrections Industries (link), which is a private company. In some countries, the US has been more heavily involved, to the point where we’re paying for the construction of new prisons. The US has funded prison in Colombia, Mexico, and Honduras, countries with which we have security “agreements” to fight drugs. We’ve built prisons in Palestine and Iraq. On the other hand, out of those 33 countries, there are some where the State Department is likely involved to a much lighter degree. Like in South Korea for example, Democracy Human Rights and Labor partnered with a local NGO to do an assessment of their prison system, and this is the only involvement of which AfGJ is aware.

In the countries where the US is more heavily involved in the prisons, we’re also involved in their justice sectors, their police, and their border security. All this together costs billions of US dollars.

How have the US programs changed prison systems in other countries?

In the early 2000s, US officials said they were going to create a “new penitentiary culture” in Colombia. Since then, the culture of many countries’ prison systems has indeed changed dramatically.

How are they changing? They are becoming more like the prison system of the United States. Now all these countries are starting to give very punitive, long sentences. Prisoners can be sentenced to hundreds of years. There’s no evidence that this works as a crime deterrent. People in affected countries are starting to be detained far away from home – also a characteristic of our prison system here in the US. Often, detained individuals are put in new US-built federal prisons, rather than the local state prisons. Mexico didn’t have a federal prison system until recently, just the local state prisons. Solitary confinement is starting to become more common in affected countries, too.

In 2014, Mexico changed the part of their constitution that refers to prisons. The word “reinsercion” was replaced with “rehabilitacion”. Those words seem like synonyms, but they’re a little different in an important way. Reinsertion, is simply, going back, or going to prison in order to come back out. Rehabilitation has a different underlying meaning. It’s about what happens to you while you’re in prison. It’s a new focus on imprisonment itself. This small language change has played out on a large scale in Mexico, as the shift focuses to detaining people for very long periods rather than releasing people back into society.

Incarceration rates are increasing on a global scale, and the US is helping to facilitate increasing rates of incarceration in the countries where we operate prison management programs. The United States still is the global leader in incarceration, with about 660 per 100,000 people behind bars. In Colombia, the rate of incarceration has more than doubled since the mid-nineties, and its continuing to grow. Overcrowding also increased. In 2014 the Colombia Office of the People’s Defender reported the greatest amount of overcrowding the country has ever faced. Mexico has been steadily incarcerating more people since the US became involved in their prisons in the mid 2000s. El Salvador’s incarceration rate is now third in the world.

To learn more about how the culture of imprisonment has changed in Honduras because of US influence, check out our report for Truthout: http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/41326-how-the-us-imposes-the-worst-of-its-prison-paradigm-abroad.

Do prison management programs control crime?

Mexico, Central America, and Colombia are still facing high levels of violence and insecurity, similar to the levels before prison programs were implemented as part of international security agreements. Much of the violence is caused by the US. In Central America, it’s almost exclusively caused by the US. We flood these regions with arms and weapons; we are the drug market; we deport young gang members whose affiliations were formed in US cities. Although we do have a responsibility to these countries, because we caused many of their problems, building up their prison systems is not helping the underlying issues, and is likely making issues like impunity even worse by giving even more tools to be exploited by corrupt state officials.

What are the underlying causes of Prison Imperialism?

US foreign policy is never purely humanitarian. Despite what the State Department says, they are not driven by the desire to improve international prison conditions. As with everything the State Department does there is a perceived self-interest, and slowing the flow of drugs into the US is not it, or else they would have seen that there’s no effect and stopped long ago.

So what is the actual purpose of these programs? Besides just prisons, the US State Department is also involved in the policing systems of almost all of these 33 countries, and in many cases in border security as well. We’re also exerting influence in most of these countries’ justice systems to pressure them into concentrating on policing and prosecuting what the US most wants criminalized, like drug trafficking or the violation of US copyright laws. Prisons are just one part of a whole system that includes border security, police, and justice systems.

When we pressure countries to joining us in these security initiatives, we divert their resources to policing, too, and their politicians start rationalizing it to their citizens. Fear of crime and tough on crime policies are a good way to help maintain right-wing governments, who in turn are going to be amenable to US trade policies. We’ve seen how conservative politicians use these notions of rampant crime here in the States to push their agendas. That’s what we’re doing in Latin America as well.

But why prison management, rather than just funding police and borders? Neoliberalism, conflict, all this uproots people. In all of these 33 countries, people are moving out of rural areas and into cities, so the social fabric is undergoing some big disruptions. Inequality is increasing. Big prison systems are a way to deal with the problems brought up by neoliberalism without dealing with them at all. All around the world the welfare state is being replaced with the penal state. Governments that can’t or won’t support their people are amenable to cooperating with the US to increase the capacities of their prison systems.

Besides generally exerting US influence to get neoliberal governments in power, a secondary purpose of prison imperialism has been to directly repress social and environmental movements through political imprisonments.

How can we end Prison Imperialism?

July Henriquez is a lawyer with Lazos de Dignidad in Colombia, and she wrote that Prison Imperialism calls for a response with a “Latin Americanist, liberatory, and transformational criminology.” She is calling for separating prison away from the interests of global capital, and instead for each country to face its own the social realities. For a long time, the US has been refusing to deal with social ills, and instead deals with them by locking people up far away from their homes. Now we’re pushing Latin American countries to start doing the same thing. We need to allow Latin American people the space to confront their own problems, and to stop making these problems worse.

So how are we going to do that? For one, we can give our support to Latin American groups that fight for political prisoners and against US militarization. AfGJ partnered with Lazos de Dignidad to campaign to close La Tramacúa. They had been attempting to stop all the abuses there for years, and by 2015, it just wasn’t getting any better. So in 2015, AfGJ partnered on an international campaign to close the prison. In January 2016, a Colombian government commission examined the conditions inside the prison and ordered for it to be closed. It was a big success, and it called attention to the issue, but unfortunately La Tramacua remains open.

Beyond supporting human rights groups in other countries, a global abolitionist stance needs to be a part of the progressive agenda here in the US. We need to end the “War on Drugs” both here and everywhere in the world we wage it.