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Empire abroad, prisons at home
I t is commonplace for left writers and activists to note stark contradictions between the declared objectives of United States foreign policy and the harsh imperial realities of that policy. It is difficult, we note, to take seriously the U.S. government’s statements for freedom, justice, democracy, and security and against terrorism, authoritarianism, violence, and insecurity when Uncle Sam’s policy makers:
- Fuel the global arms race and engage in reckless saber-rattling military actions and pronouncements that mock international law and threaten to produce a new global war.
- Undercut nuclear arms control agreements to advance a dangerously destabilizing Star Wars scheme as part of the agenda for the U.S.-dominated militarization of space.
- Transfer nearly unimaginable and unprecedented sums of public funds to history’s most fearsome military establishment and an evil axis of “defense” corporations
- Enforce a toxic agenda of corporate-and finance-capitalist globalization that increases political, military, and ecological instability
- Inflict violence and terror, both directly and indirectly, on masses of people the world over
- Support (fund, equip, train, etc.) authoritarian regimes that terrorize and repress significant portions of their colonized populations
- Restrict the flow of information about the consequences of U.S. overseas policies and plan an openly Orwellian disinformation agency to shape foreign perceptions of the U.S. and U.S. policy through lies and propaganda
- Maintain permanent military bases in 69 “sovereign” nations across the world,
- Announce their right to launch pre-emptive strikes against perceived enemies, contrary to basic dictates of international law and morality
- Cynically turn a terrible tragedy (September 11) into a pretext and opportunity to advance dangerous imperial politics that harm innocent foreign civilians overseas and increase the likelihood of future attacks on their own population
The Race to Incarcerate
I t is important, however, to also keep our eyes on the U.S. domestic scene, where the chasm between declared goals and harsh social realities is also great. The nation that proudly proclaims itself headquarters of world freedom now imprisons 730,000 people per year.
Between 1972 and 2000, the number of people behind bars in the United States rose from 330,000 to nearly 2 million. In the latter year, the number of adults under “correctional supervision”—behind bars, on parole or on probation—reached a new historical high point of 6.47 million, equaling one in every 32 adults. The rate of incarceration in the U.S. is 699 per 100,000. The next highest rate in the world is Russia at 644 and the American rate is six times higher than that of Britain, Canada, or France. “No other Western democratic country has ever imprisoned this proportion of its population,” says Norval Morris, a professor emeritus at University of Chicago Law School. He calls the number of people held behind bars in the United States America “appalling.”
The majority of those entering the inherently violent space of America’s prison nation, where as many as 7 percent of inmates are raped, do so for nonviolent crimes. Between 1980 and 1997, the Justice Policy Institute reports, “the number of violent offenders committed to state prison nearly doubled (up 82 percent),” but “the number of nonviolent offenders tripled (up 207 percent).” People who committed nonviolent crimes account for more than three-fourths of the nation’s increase in prisoners between 1978 and 1996.
U.S. correctional statistics and expenditures become even more appalling when broken down by race. Non-Hispanic whites accounted for 42 percent of state prison inmates in 1979 but less than a third by the end of the 20th century. Nearly 10 percent of black non-Hispanic men 25 to 29 years old were in prison in 2000 compared to 1.1 percent of whites in the same age group. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that a young black man age 16 in 1996 faces a 29 percent chance of serving time in prison during his life.
Thanks to felony disenfranchisement laws in the U.S. and to racial disparities in the criminal justice system, a remarkable one and a half million African Americans, or 13 percent of black men, do not possess the right to vote. That rate is seven times the national average and it may well have made the difference for Bush in his 2000 “election.”
In Illinois, there are nearly 20,000 more black males in the Illinois state prison system than in the state’s public universities. To house its rising number of predominantly black prisoners, Illinois has built 20 adult prisons since 1980. All are located “downstate,” where incarceration provides employment, census count, and tax dollars for thousands in predominantly white prison towns that welcome mass incarceration as the solution to local unemployment produced by the closing of factories, mines, mills, and farms.
Racially Disparate Incarceration
M ass incarceration’s elite apologists offer curious explanations for America’s great racist lockdown. They claim that mass incarceration arose as a rational response to rising crime during the 1970s and 1980s. Crime has fallen since the early 1990s, they say, because “prison works”: it locks up and deters criminals. The prison population is disproportionately black, they claim, because, as celebrated black conservative linguist John McWhorter puts it, blacks’ “proportion of the prison population neatly reflects the rate at which they commit crimes.”
While it provides comfort to the privileged, the official explanation does not explain why crime rates increased in the 1970s and the late 1980s when the incarceration rate grew at the same rate as in the 1990s. It does not tell us why mass incarceration continued through the 1990s even as crime fell. It ignores the likelihood that other factors, including the record economic expansion of the 1990s, provide better explanations than incarceration for declining crime.
The real forces behind “appalling” prison growth in the “land of the free” include the shift from indeterminate to determinant sentencing that began in the 1970s, when lawmakers began restricting the discretion of judges and parole boards to decide how long prisoners stay behind bars. Under the earlier system traditional in American criminal justice practice, judges set minimum and maximum sentences and parole boards had considerable leeway to determine when prisoners were released on the basis of “good behavior” and related evidence of rehabilitation.
As the ruling paradigm and literally stated objective of American penology shifted from rehabilitation to purely punitive incapacitation during the 1970s and 1980s, sentences grew, a development reinforced by the passage of “truth-in-sentencing” laws in the 1990s. States created new criminal offences and stiffer sentence for crimes already on the books. They also dramatically increased the number of police officers on the streets, something that led to more arrests and to more crimes being reported. They also began returning high number of parolees to prison on technical parole violations.
It’s all strongly linked to Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs, “which is in fact,” writes Mark Crispin Miller, “a race war waged by legal means.” The stiffer sentences and policy-driven arrests and prosecutions have been strongly concentrated in the drug area. The number of drug offenders in American prisons and jails increased more than 11 times (1,040 percent) between 1980 and 1997.
While nearly three-fourths of illicit drug users are of European-American ancestry and 15 percent are black, blacks make up 37 percent of those arrested on drug charges. They are more than 4 of every 10 drug offenders in federal prison and almost 60 percent of those in state prison.
Speaking Truth to Imperial Power
A s a member of a Chicago-based council of advisers seeking to reduce criminal recidivism and help ex-prisoners’ reintegrate into society, I was invited to make our constituents’ case to Matt Bettenhausen, Illinois’ Deputy Governor for Criminal Justice and Public Safety. Nine of us presented our findings and proposals in a Chicago conference room on a cold December morning.
ettenhausen, who is from a local family of accomplished racecar drivers, arrived in time for the last talk. He apologized for his lateness, explaining that he had been unavoidably meeting with the state’s Attorney General on the War Against Terrorism. His eyes beamed with pride as he told us that he has become much busier he had become since his appointment as the state’s “first-ever Homeland Security Coordinator.” He regaled us with the latest reports on the progress of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan (“wow,” a participant muttered, “he watches CNN”). Then he told us that then-Illinois governor George Ryan would not be reversing his recent decision to eliminate higher education and vocational training for prisoners from the state’s budget. These cuts, he noted, were compelled by the “post-September economic downturn”—a rather dubious dating of an overdue downturn in the business cycle. He then raced off to another meeting related to the War on Terror.
I was reminded of James Madison’s comment that “the fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defense against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers from abroad.”
T his, alas, is only one of many powerful if sometimes subtle lines of association between American imperialism and American domestic mass incarceration. Among the many dark connections, consider the following:
- Like the imperial U.S. foreign policy that produced and expanded after the September attacks, mass incarceration policy is anti-democratic, carried out without the informed engagement or consent of the majority of American citizens. Recent polling data shows that most Americans reject the imprisonment of nonviolent offenders and support rehabilitation and alternative sentencing and diversion measures over the costly and counter-productive strategy of mass incarceration.
- Like the victims of America’s incarceration regime, the targets and victims of U.S. foreign policy are very disproportionately “people of color” (i.e., non-whites). U.S. policymakers target minority “crime in the streets,” but take a mild approach to predominantly white middle- and upper-class “crime in the suites.” Likewise, those policymakers denounce Middle Eastern “terrorism” when it is carried out by Arabs, but turn a blind eye to deadlier “police actions” by the region’s one state peopled and ruled by persons of European ancestry (Israel). One could give many more examples of racial and ethnic double standards in U.S. foreign policy.
- Like the worst aspects of that policy, domestic mass incarceration is part of a vicious policy circle that feeds on itself in the fashion of a classic self-fulfilling prophecy. America’s commitment to imperial militarism and corporate-financial globalization produces instability, poverty, and violence around the world, providing endless pretexts for the illusory “corrections” provided by more U.S. empire. Domestic mass incarceration furthers the impoverishment, demoralization, and destabilization of America’s most disadvantaged communities and families, creating conditions and expanding recruits to inner-city crime and providing pretext for more destabilizing intervention on the part of the criminal punishment system.
- Like the imperial project, the domestic lock up is remarkably expensive and regressive and carries huge social-democratic opportunity costs. Both policies divert billions of dollars from social programs that might tackle endemic poverty and inequality and thereby eliminate the supposed need for punitive, vengeful, and authoritarian state intervention. Rewards go especially to a relatively small minority of private corporate contractors, leading members of the military and prison industrial complexes, who are not devoid of interlocking relationships with each other.
Both policies recruit significant rank-and-file constituencies thanks to their role in producing relatively de-concentrated local economic development and employment opportunities for lower to lower-middle- class persons. Those constituencies’ embattled economic situation in an age of de-industrialization and savage upward redistribution of wealth (class warfare from the top-down) compels them to enter dangerous high-stress positions (prison guard/infantryman, parole officer/bombadier) that people of greater means naturally tend to avoid.
Because they are both rooted in, and reflective of, the desperate, egoistic, and inherently short-term, parasitic and socially dependent (dispossessed) calculations of the soulless state-capitalist social order, the prison- and military-industrial complexes both take on toxic lives of their own. They quickly lose touch with their own purported noble objectives (peace, stability, world and community safety and the rest) and develop a vested interest in the perpetuation of the very conditions they are officially supposed to eliminate.
A powerful and inflammatory barrage of biased media coverage dangerously feeds both policies and the public confusion that encourages and permits them. This deeply reactionary coverage provides a steady flow of de-contextualized images and sound bites to the public about the savage inhumanity of dark-skinned murderers, rapists, rioters, terrorists, drug dealers, guerillas, gang-bangers, and other assorted urban and third World outlaws at home and abroad.
Both policies are fed and rationalized by the War on Drugs. Both at home and abroad, this war’s chief designers have a very special preference for targeting the weak, the “colored” and the poor (inner city black crack and marijuana users and marginal indigenous Colombian coca farmers, for example) and pardoning the rich, white, and powerful. The latter include the heads of leading offshore financial corporations and the chiefs of American tobacco corporations. The latter’s product kills and maims far more than the drug war’s officially designated devil substances cocaine and heroin, but we will never see the U.S. Airforce sweep down on the sinister tobacco fields of North Carolina and Kentucky. Without the drug war, of course, manufacture and trade of the illegal substances whose harmful consequences U.S. policymakers obsessively claim to abhor would be far less profitable at home and abroad.
Recently an advertising campaign sponsored by federally funded anti-drug organizations tried to obscure matters by a different and much weaker connection between the War on Drugs and the War on Terrorism. Avoiding the core issues, it told suburban white teenagers that they supported terrorism every time they lit up a joint, since the purchase of illicit narcotics gives money to al Qaeda and the like.
American empire and domestic American mass incarceration are both strongly related to the U.S. policy of corporate globalization. While that policy provides pretext, necessity, and rationalization for the imperial project (as noted above), it also provides essential context for American de-industrialization. The resulting loss of good jobs for people without higher educational certification is a fundamental cause of the deepening crisis of inner city life, creating fertile soil for the rise of “criminal” behavior and an urban drug trade that provides pretexts for racially disparate mass incarceration. It creates hunger for almost any kind of job growth, even that provided by mass incarceration, in predominantly white “downstate” (Illinois) or alternately “upstate” (as in New York or Michigan) prison communities. Those communities have turned to the criminalized urban “underclass” as the raw material that provides the ticket to their little piece of the American dream/nightmare.
R ecently, the merged domestic and imperial/global images of the Evil Other—came together briefly in the figure of Jose Padilla. A supposed convert to extremist Islam, Padilla is a Puerto Rican veteran of Chicago’s street gangs and the Illinois Department of Correction. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Padilla was a purported former member of Chicago’s dreaded Latin Kings and current member of al-Qaeda. Padilla was seized at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport last Spring as he exited a flight from Pakistan, ostentatiously accused by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft of plotting to make a radioactive bomb to be exploded on American soil in the name of Islamic Jihad.
Another example where the dark global and domestic connections coming together is found in Guantanamo Bay, where the Pentagon’s department of corrections keeps sadistic guard over dark-skinned prisoners transported from the impoverished global ghetto known as Afghanistan. They are held for indeterminately sentenced limbo on the American-owned tip of Cuba, a nation that dared in 1959 to break from the world’s great white masters. According to a recent story in the New York Times, the most effective handlers of the displaced Arab “terrorists” are found among personnel whose normal occupation is corrections officer—an apparently widespread job among the military reservists on the island.
The inmates of the Guantanamo Correctional Facility are prisoners of a domestic ex-offender and current global offender named George W. Bush, personal beneficiary of a criminal justice adjustment desperately needed by, but denied to, millions of American ex-felons (expunge- ment of a minor narcotics offense from his record). Bush owes his position at the head of the world’s most powerful street gang to the electoral disenfranchisement of black prisoners and ex-felons in the state run by his brother just 90 miles to the north. That brother is father to a repeat narcotics offender who would be behind bars if she were black and poor, like most prisoners in the War on Drugs.
There are many more connections that could be made between and among these and other factors that feed and further both resurgent U.S. imperialism and the domestic prison craze. These are enough, however, to suggest how perfect it is that the figurehead of imperial expansion, George W. Bush, had only recently, as Governor of Texas, come to oversee “the largest prison system on the planet earth” (Molly Ivins). As Madison knew, there is an intimate, dialectically inseparable relationship between prisons and repression at home and empire abroad. Concerned Americans owe it to themselves and their brothers and sisters around the world to make and act upon the dark connections.
Paul Street is a social policy researcher and freelance writer in Chicago. His articles have appeared in Z Magazine, Monthly Review, In These Times, the Journal of Social History, Opportunity , and Dissent .
Z Magazine Archive
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; firstname.lastname@example.org; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; email@example.com; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.