Africa and Prison Imperialism

by James Patrick Jordan

(The following piece is an updated version of a presentation for the 2020 African Liberation Day radio special by the All-African Peoples Revolutionary Party-(GC) and the Africa Awareness Association)

The United States government has invested considerable resources toward the restructuring of African prison systems. This is an example of what we, at the Alliance for Global Justice, call prison imperialism. Since the year 2000, the United States has aggressively undertaken activities to involve itself in penitentiary systems all over the world, thus spreading its model of mass incarceration. I suspect most listeners today are already aware that U.S. jails are overcrowded and cruel places, and in this time of pandemic, the large population of prisoners and lack of health care and sanitary facilities has turned prisons into a breeding ground for the novel coronavirus. We can see that especially during this difficult period, the mass incarceration model constitutes a threat to global public health.  The U.S. is involved in the prisons of well over 40 countries, all of them in the Global South except for some projects in the former Yugoslavia.

But prison imperialism is about more than building jails. It is part of the infrastructure of Empire, which includes the economic institutions of global capitalism; militarized borders; military invasions, occupations, and bases; corporate media misinformation and the “manufacture of consent”, as well as other components. The U.S. mass incarceration model is, therefore, a core aspect of expanding and instituting U.S.-NATO hegemony over the world. The spread of the model is intimately linked to the realities of economic and ecological collapse, as well as to the collapse of public health infrastructures. Prisons are being built as a kind of population control to manage the social disruptions that result in millions of displaced persons and all manner of economic, ecological, and political refugees. And they are built to punish, decimate, and destroy protest and resistance movements. Our studies so far have shown an increase in politically motivated arrests accompanying the U.S. entry into another country’s penitentiary system.

We do not have the comprehensive knowledge we need about the U.S. role in African prisons. Our capacity is limited by our small staff size. This is an area where we need help and we would love to work with other organizations and individuals around this subject. (For more information, send an email to Eduardo@AFGJ.org.) In preparation for today’s event, I spent some time looking into what’s happening on the African continent, and even with just a little a knowledge, it becomes quickly apparent that prison imperialism in Africa is, es expected, tied to U.S. and NATO efforts to consolidate regional control.

Before looking to Africa, we must look to the very European city of Stuttgart, Germany and the U.S. Army Garrison there. Kelley Barracks is the headquarters of the U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM. AFRICOM was founded on October 1, 2007. Of course, the U.S. and Europe have been plundering Africa for a long, long time. Still, we can reference this date as a significant reprioritization and reinvigoration of the hundreds of years old legacy of colonialism. Since the establishment of Africom, there has been a significant increase in U.S. military engagement, although it has not been well publicized. The veil of secrecy was partially ripped open when four U.S. soldiers were killed in Niger in October, 2017. Few in the general public had any idea that U.S. soldiers were actively engaged in Niger. The U.S. actually has more military engagements in Africa than in the Middle East. Despite its claim of a “light footprint”, the Pentagon has some 29 bases on the continent. Between 2013 and 2017, U.S. Special Forces engaged in combat in 13 African nations. In just 2017, U.S. forces carried out an average of almost 10 operations per day. Over the course of 2019, there was a record number of airstrikes in Somalia, at least one per week.

In my research, every single reference I found to U.S. prison building, and corrections advice, training, and reform in Africa, has been since the establishment of Africom. In fact, most the activities have happened since the 2011 invasion of Libya. Up until then, the previous government of Libya, under the leadership of Muammar Gaddafi, had been one of the strongest proponents of Pan-Africanism, a concept that has played a unifying role in resistance to Western neocolonialism. Africa gives us a stark picture of just to what degree prison imperialism is linked to U.S. and NATO militarism, invasion, and occupation.

The mass incarceration model in Africa has its antecedent in the use of mass incarceration to repress Black people here in the United States. Especially during this time that anti-racist uprisings are occurring across the nation, we must ask exactly what happens when the U.S. inserts itself in the interrelated police, court, and prison systems of other nations? One could argue that racism was the first product of global capitalism. It is certainly at the heart of U.S. prisons, with 40% of inmates being Black, and almost 32% being Latino. By establishing our prison model in countries that are majority people of color, the U.S. is globalizing its systematic racism.

In the midst of the chaos that still continues since the 2011 invasion of Libya, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics Law and Enforcement, or INL, along with the U.S. Institute for Peace, have been conducting trainings for Libyan prison personnel, including at the International Corrections Management Training Center in Canyon City, Colorado, as well as in Libya, and have been carrying out assessments of and restructuring Libyan prisons. However, U.S. restructuring and training programs have only appeared to reinforce an ongoing humanitarian and human rights disaster. Since the 2011 invasion of Libya, the UN has released various reports on torture in Libyan prisons, describing what has been witnessed as “appalling abuses” and “sheer horror”. Based on past experience—for instance, the Bureau of Prisons training of torturers at a CIA Black Site prison in Afghanistan—it would be foolish to assume that the training of Libyan personnel is somehow exempt from this kind of “teaching”. Similarly, AfGJ studies have found a correlation between U.S prison involvement and increases in reports of torture and human rights abuses in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Colombia, and Honduras. We consider this to be one of the hallmarks of the legacy of 20 years of U.S. Prison Imperialism efforts.

Burkina Faso experienced a U.S. and French supported overthrow of the popular and socialist leader, Thomas Sankara, in 1987. Today, Burkina Faso is undergoing its own uprisings despite brutal repression. Like Libyan prison officials, Burkina Faso’s correctional personnel have studied at the Training Center in Colorado.

In 2018, Burkina Faso’s government partnered with the INL to initiate the Colorado Network for Penitentiary Emergence in West and North Africa (French acronym RECEPAON), which includes Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, and Senegal. The private Celestar Corporation has since contracted with INL to advise, train, and otherwise assist, legal, and prison personnel in all the afore mentioned countries, as well as in Tunisia.

Haiti is a member of the African Union and certainly part of the African diaspora. The U.S., via the John McCain-led International Republican Institute (IRI), initiated and organized the 2004 coup against the elected government of Jean Bertrand Aristide. This was the second time Aristide and Haiti’s legitimate government was overthrown. The IRI provided training, material support, and a base in the Dominican Republic from which the coup was launched. Since then, the building of new prisons in Haiti, and the training and equipping of prison personnel, has gone hand in hand with border militarization and anti-immigrant policies which, as stated by an INL document, include the goal “to maintain public order and reduce the attractiveness of illegal migration….” It bears mentioning that the first inmates at the Guantanamo Bay were not people from the Middle East and Central Asia, but Haitian refugees fleeing the country following the first overthrow of Aristide in 1991. Due to a combination of these overthrows, neoliberal economics, and the disasters of earthquakes and hurricanes, many Haitians are living as refugees in their own land. The response of the U.S. has been to follow the coup with more electoral interference, border militarization, and prison construction.

In Africa, as in every place where the U.S. brings in its mass incarceration model, officials publicly state that their model will help end overcrowding and human rights abuses. What we have seen has been the opposite. For instance, in Colombia, where prison imperialism first began, in 2000, U.S. involvement led to a spike in arrests of political prisoners, and to the highest rate of overcrowding in the country’s history. We have perceived patterns that include overcrowding, political arrests, prison privatization, neglect of health care, filthy conditions, transportation of prisoners far from their home communities and support networks, increases in reports of torture, extreme isolation, and other abuses, and periods of prisoners being held incognito, without access to legal defense or family.

Of course, all this reflects similar conditions here in the United States where our nation has internalized the oppression of targeted peoples. Here at home, we hold 25% of the entire world’s prison population, with 2.3 million persons behind bars. As already mentioned, U.S. prisons disproportionately lock up people of color, especially African heritage persons. We also know that the novel coronavirus is hitting communities of color harder than the White population. Given that prisons are notorious for their high rates of infection, one could rightly argue that mass incarceration during this time of pandemic is a form of germ warfare against people of color at home and abroad.

Today as we prepare to celebrate African Liberation Day, we know that the struggle for African freedom includes the struggle against Empire and the U.S. model of mass incarceration. The response must be global resistance and renewed commitment to liberation for African peoples, for everyone. From prisons to militarized borders to occupying military bases, all the Empire’s walls must fall.