What is Prison Imperialism?

Lest we forget: a scene from Abu Ghraib, a graphic example of US Prison Imperialism

AfGJ calls the spread of the US mass incarceration model “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. In other words, prison imperialism is part of the very structure of Empire. Prison Imperialism causes increased incarceration rates and changing cultures of incarceration.

Which countries are affected?

US Prison Management Programs of different varieties are in at least 38 countries. 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 Colombia, Honduras, Mexico, and El Salvador. We don’t know every country these programs are in because the US government doesn’t publish an account of these activities in one place. We pieced our knowledge of these programs together from a few different sources.

These are some of the countries where the US is involved in or redesigning penal systems:

  • Afghanistan
  • Armenia
  • 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
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Senegal
  • Serbia
  • South Korea
  • South Sudan
  • Suriname
  • Trinidad and Tobago
  • Tunisia
  • Uruguay

When did Prison Imperialism begin?

The first big international US prison program began in 2000 in Colombia with a prison known as “La Tramacúa”. 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. It was modeled after Coleman Prison in Florida.

La Tramacúa is in one of the hottest parts of Colombia – Valledupar, where afternoon temperatures are often above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The water is 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 have an elaborate system for taking turns to collect enough water for the brief time it is on, which around 10 to 20 minutes each day. The food had been found four times by government and non-government agencies to have fecal matter in it. Political prisoners are often tortured. La Tramacúa has two different kinds of swat-team, commando style guard units to quell dissent in the jail, and have at various times brutally attacked peaceful protest by the prisoners.

After La Tramacúa was built, the detention camp in Guantanamo and the notorious Bagram (Afghanistan) and Abu Ghraib (Iraq) quickly followed. The US subsequently got involved in the prison systems of dozens of other countries after 2000. Early on, there was significant overlap between the clandestine prisons of the War on Terror and those programs where the US hands over control of facilities to host countries. The State Department decided that the prison program that produced La Tramacua was a workable model, and that they would continue developing their new concept of international prison 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 classified.

What are US international prison program activities?

There are varying degrees of involvement in the 40+ 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, a private company. Some is done by different state corrections agencies. 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 construction in Colombia, Mexico, Haiti, and Honduras, countries with which we have security “agreements” to fight drugs. We’ve also built prisons in Niger, Afghanistan and Iraq, and the US Bureau of Prisons is known to have visited CIA secret sites in Afghanistan, in violation of its mission and US law.

In the countries where the US is more heavily involved in the prisons, it is 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. More and more, prisoners around the world are given very punitive, long sentences. Sentences can be hundreds of years, like those in the US. 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. Political prisoners especially are often put in new, geographically remote, US-built prisons to isolate them from their networks of support. Solitary confinement has 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. When the US began actively redesigning Mexico’s federal prison system, there were only four federal prisons. By 2016, there were 16, the newest 12 built with US funding and design. Today, the US advisors have some activity in every level of Mexican jails, from local to state to federal systems.

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. Overcrowding also increased. In 2014 the Colombia Office of the People’s Defender reported the greatest amount of overcrowding the country has ever faced, with a more than 54% rate of overcrowding. As of 2018, many political prisoners and prisoners of war have been released as a result of the peace agreement. But the rate of overcrowding is still at an unacceptable 45%, and there has been a recent upsurge in political arrests, as the future of the peace is in question. 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.

Do prison imperialism 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 impunity even worse by putting another tool of suppression in the hands of neoliberal US-proxy regimes around the world. Meanwhile, we have seen that even when crime rates fall, prison construction and incarceration rates do not go down. This is famously true of the US model itself, which, despite decades of crimes rates dropping from those of the 60s and 70s, that the incarceration rate has grown disproportionately.

The primary justification for prison imperialism programs is to help stop the flow of illicit narcotics. But the evidence we’ve encountered does not reveal that it is effective. In a report by AfGJ’s James Jordan, he noted, in regards to Mexico, that,”Once more, the Drug War is the main reason cited for US involvement in the Mexican prison system. With a 98% impunity rate for violent crime, one must question the veracity of this justification just as we must in Colombia, Honduras and elsewhere. According to a report by the Universal Periodic Rview (EPU by its Spanish initials) of the United Nations Human Rights Council in coalition with three Mexican human rights organizations, 60% of those incarcerated in Mexico are there for minor crimes and only 12% for grave crimes such as murder, rape and violent robbery. Again, we must state the obvious: US funded and restructured prisons are about social and political control, not about drug trafficking. Federal prison construction in Mexico is the southern twin to immigrant detention centers on the US side of the border. Privately run immigrant detention centers make profits off of the misery of those uprooted by the neoliberal policies imposed by the US government and the US and Mexican oligarchy, and off of the displacement of rural communities, the vacuum of which has been filled by the proliferation of extremely violent narco-gangs.”

What are the underlying causes of Prison Imperialism?

US foreign policy is never purely humanitarian. Despite what the State Department says, they are not motivated 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 countries connected to Prison Imperialism, and in many cases in border security as well. Prisons are just one part of a whole system that includes border security, police, and justice systems.

When we pressure countries to join 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 rhetoric about rampant crime to push their agenda here in the States. That’s what we’re enabling 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 thes countries, people are moving out of rural areas and into cities, so the social fabric is undergoing some big disruptions. Inequality is increasing. Governments that can’t or won’t support their people are very amenable to cooperating with the US to increase the capacities of their prison systems. Moreover, large max-security prisons are theaters of terror, used to directly repress social movements through political imprisonments or the threat of political imprisonment.

Furthermore, we believe that prison imperialism has to do with climate injustice and threats to the ecosystem. Several studies have noted the increase in crime rates with rising temperatures, and under drought conditions. Studies also show that by 2050, the number of refugees displaced because of global warming will be over 200 million, while some predictions are as high as one billion. With the US building prisons and immigrant detention centers at home and throughout the countries most vulnerable to climate change, there can be no doubt that the US government intends to meet ecological catastrophe with brute force and the loss of freedoms, rather than deal meaningfully with the actual threats to our planet’s health.

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 people around the world the space to confront their own problems, and to stop making them worse through Prison Imperialism and the militaristic foreign policy it accompanies.

So how are we going to do that? For one, we can give our support to groups that fight for political prisoners and against all US militarization. Since 2009, AfGJ has had an ongoing campaign with Lazos de Dignidad to close La Tramacúa, and, until it is closed, to improve conditions and set free the political prisoners. They had been attempting to stop all the abuses there for years, and by 2015, it wasn’t getting any better. So in 2015, AfGJ partnered on an international campaign to close the prison. As a result, in both 2012 and 2016, Colombian government commissions examined the conditions inside the prison, and Colombia’s Constitutional Court ordered that it be closed. We saw this as a success since it called attention to the issue, but unfortunately La Tramacua remains open. Our campaign has also had important successes in getting medical attention for some prisoners, helping secure the release of some political prisoners, and increasing the access to water from around 10 minutes a day to 20.

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” and the “War on Terror” here and everywhere in the world we wage it.