[Pnews] How the United States is Spreading Mass Incarceration around the World -Empire of Prisons

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri Jun 6 07:49:12 EDT 2014

June 05, 2014

*How the United States is Spreading Mass Incarceration around the World*

  Empire of Prisons


/This article explains how the United States is exporting its model of 
mass incarceration and social and political control to at least 25 
countries.  This "prison imperialism" is rooted in the Program for the 
Improvement of the Colombian Prison System signed in March, 2000 by the 
US Embassy and Colombia's Ministry of Justice.  That program coincided 
with a rapid increase in Colombia's prison population including a rise 
in political arrests and the militarization of the prison system. Other 
aspects of this experience are worsened overcrowding, human rights 
abuses and unhealthy conditions.  Nevertheless, the US-Colombia 
collaboration has become the standard for prison imperialism around the 
world with Colombian training programs forming a major component.  US 
involvement in international prison systems is carried out by several 
government agencies including the Bureau of Prisons, the United States 
Agency for International Development (USAID), the Pentagon, and the US 
State Department's Bureaus of International Narcotics and Law 
Enforcement (INL), Democracy, Human Rights and Law Enforcement (DRL) and 
Consular Affairs, as well as state penal systems. This article provides 
close-ups of prison imperialism in Colombia, Mexico and Honduras and 
ends with a discussion of international resistance to the US model by 
Prisoners of Empire and their allies. The author especially wishes to 
thank the Colombian human rights group, //Lazos de Dignidad (Links of 
Dignity)/ <http://fundacionlazosdedignidad.org/>/ for their invaluable 
help in researching and developing the ideas presented herein, and for 
their tireless advocacy for Colombia's political prisoners. This article 
is a result of an ongoing joint effort between Lazos and the Alliance 
for Global Justice (AfGJ) in exposing and resisting the Empire of 
Prisons, and in standing up for its antidote: peace with justice and 
real, participatory democracy.)/

*Prison Imperialism: an Overview *

The United States, which leads the world in imprisonment rates, is 
exporting its model of mass incarceration to developing countries around 
the world.  This "prison imperialism" is one of the foundational 
components to the infrastructure of Empire.  Along with the 
militarization of police forces and borders, mass incarceration enables 
neoliberal economies to manage by force and intimidation the inevitable 
consequences of global capitalism:  widespread social disruption and 
rising political dissent. (Neoliberalism is a system including free 
trade agreements, austerity programs and other measures that assure 
profitability is treasured above any other social value, and in the 
developing countries of the US Empire, it is backed up by the US 
military and its allies.)

Since 2000, there has been an explosion in US efforts to augment and 
restructure international penitentiary systems, providing training for 
prison personnel and/or building new jails in at least 25 different 
countries. The first of these efforts was the Program for the 
Improvement of the Colombian Prison System 
<http://www.colectivodeabogados.org/IMG/pdf/APENDICE_11.pdf>, signed by 
the US Embassy and the Colombian Department of Justice on March 31, 
2000.  The program was funded as part of the $9 billion the US has 
invested since 1999 in Plan Colombia mostly to benefit the military and 
law enforcement.

By 2002 in Afghanistan, and 2003 and 2004 in Iraq, the US was building 
and managing prisons as part of the invasion and occupation of those 
countries.  These programs were connected from the start with the 
so-called "Global War on Terrorism" as well as the "Drug War", through 
which many prison efforts have been funded.  Closely related was the 
establishment of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp in January 2002. Many 
have heard the horror stories of abuses in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and 
the Bagram military detention camps.  What most are unaware of is that 
US involvement in foreign jails has become a worldwide affair and is not 
just associated with direct military occupations.

*The Foundation is Laid in Colombia *

Virtually unreported in the US media were the appalling conditions that 
resulted from the initial US-Colombia collaboration that laid the 
foundation for future international programs.  Funding began with an 
initial grant from the US of $4.5 million.  The first prison built was* 
*the penitentiary in Valledupar, commonly known as Tramacúa 
completed in November, 2000. Conditions at Tramacúa 
<http://www.narconews.com/Issue66/article4177.html> are so bad that 
prisoners have access to clean water for only an average 10 minutes a 
day, sanitary facilities rarely work, torture is common, neglect of 
health care is systemic and UN and Colombian authorities and 
international observers have on three different occasions documented the 
presence of fecal matter in prison food.

Alleviation of overcrowding and improvement of prison conditions were 
cited as reasons for the Colombian restructuring program.  However, the 
accord itself more explicitly links the project to the War on Drugs.  
The document states that, "Within the objective of the program of 
narcotics control, the project...seeks to consolidate strategies aimed 
at controlling illicit actions committed from the interior of the 
prisons by persons that belong to groups on the margin of the law and 
that are related to the [narcotics] traffic and crimes against humanity."

The document goes on to declare that, "The financial support of the 
United States government to the Ministry of Justice and Law -- INPEC 
[Colombian Bureau of Prisons], will be supplied under this Appendix of 
the Supplement to Plan Colombia and with annual allocations from the 
Department of State/ Bureau of International Narcotics and Law 
Enforcement (INL)...."

The reality is that this program has little to do with narcotrafficking 
or "crimes against humanity". This is shown by the double standard 
applied in Colombian prisons.  Right-wing paramilitaries and 
narcotrafficking gangs are often one and the same, and paramilitary 
organizations and the military have been responsible for 70 to 80% of 
political violence and atrocities during the more than 50 years of the 
Colombian Civil War. Yet paramilitaries, big narcotraffickers and their 
associates regularly enjoy privileges and favors far beyond what is 
available to common prisoners.  Of course, most rarely if ever see the 
inside of a jail.  Murderers of unionists and human rights defenders 
enjoy a 98% impunity rate for their crimes and many who are convicted 
are awarded with house arrest--rarely an option for Colombia's political 

A 2008 article by the Colombian weekly La Semana 
*exposed how at the Itaguí maximum security prison, paramilitary 
prisoners were using cell phones to arrange murders and other violent 
operations.  In a common area near paramilitary leaders' cells, security 
cameras were not functioning, and a search found a pistol, grenade and 
money hidden inside books.  La Semana questioned prison Director Yolanda 
Rodriguez about this, to which she responded that whenever she tried to 
do anything about paramilitary privileges, she found her "hands tied".  
She said that on a daily basis she received communications from high 
government officials, including the Regional and General Directors of 
INPEC and the Minister of Justice, ordering rule changes in favor of 
paramilitary prisoners.

The experience is very different for the general populace and especially 
for the political prisoners.  Indeed, Colombian prisons have been 
converted into theaters of war.  While common prisoners already must 
deal with overcrowding, neglect and abuse, these are multiplied greatly 
for political prisoners and prisoners of war for whom direct attacks and 
torture are common occurrences. Prison professionals are being replaced 
with current and ex-members of the Colombian Armed Forces, including 
several instances of School of the Americas graduates put in charge of 
penitentiaries. <http://www.narconews.com/Issue67/article4200.html>

Part of the legacy of US involvement has been the formation of GRI 
(Immediate Reaction Groups) and CORES (Operative Commandos with Special 
Reference to Security) in the prisons.  These SWAT-style special 
operations units have on multiple occasions launched assaults on 
political prisoners and prisoners of war, especially those participating 
in hunger strikes and other forms of nonviolent protest. Raquel Mogollón 
visited Tramacúa prison representing the Alliance for Global Justice 
(AfGJ) shortly after an attack by the GRI and CORES against striking 
prisoners in June, 2011.  Many of the inmates had suspended themselves 
in protest from makeshift hammocks and harnesses attached to railings up 
to 5 floors high. In an AfGJ article about Mogollon's visit, she reports 

    "'The GRI took these little nasty mats they had, about two inches
    thick, and put them on the floors. When they would start to cut down
    prisoners* *from their harnesses and hammocks, they would hope they
    hit the mats. Some did, some didn't. One prisoner after another
    reported they counted as many as 50 to 60 times that projectiles
    were fired.

    Prisoner Wilson Rodriguez said that he had been thrown from the
    fourth floor. He was one of five prisoners carried unconscious from
    the prison and hospitalized. He was later locked away and given
    access to water only five minutes each day. Osvaldo Guzman Toro, had
    fallen three floors. Rodriguez added, "They put out these little
    mattresses, pretending to use them for safety, but some of the
    people were being cut down from the fifth floor."'

Mogollón described the GRI, the guards who undertook the attacks, saying 
that they '...look like SWAT teams, with shields, helmets and all. 
Several of the prisoners said they pleaded with the GRI not to attack, 
saying that the GRI shouldn't be there, that the strike was peaceful. 
But the GRI responded that they were following orders, that they 
couldn't back down. Specifically, the inmates said the GRI told them 
that they had been "ordered by the Minister and the General...."

Mogollón reported that, 'At least three inmates told me that guards 
stripped them naked and shot tear gas cans at their genitals. They said 
that during the attacks the guards were using "pimienta, pata y palos", 
or, "peppers, kicks and batons". Prisoners reported that some of the 
canisters they were shooting were the size of their forearms--about a 
foot long.'"

What have been the general results of the US-Colombia prison improvement 
program?  With regards to overcrowding, the problem has not been 
alleviated but has gotten worse.  According to the Office of the 
People's Defender, the rate of overcrowding is 58%, the worst rate ever 
reported and some jails are overcrowded by as much as 400%.  In 1998, 
two years before the program began, the Colombian prison population, 
according to INPEC figures, was 51,633.   By 2007, the population had 
risen to 63,603.  By December 2013, the number of prisoners had reached 

Torture has become widespread.  INPEC's office for internal disciplinary 
control documented 79 cases of physical or verbal abuse against 
prisoners during the first six months of 2008.  These included beatings, 
broken bones, denial of medical care, death threats, sexual harassment 
and hog-tying prisoners with both hands and feet handcuffed.  In a 2008 
survey of 230 prisoners 
54% of respondents answered they had been tortured in jail---46% did not 
answer the question at all, possibly for fear of reprisals.  
Psychological torture was reported by 86% of those who did answer, 
including isolation, threats to relatives and simulated executions.

Another feature of the Colombian model has been massive relocation of 
prisoners far from family and friends.  For poor families, these 
transfers make it virtually impossible to maintain contact with loved 
ones.  When family members are able to visit, they are frequently 
subjected to humiliating treatment and sudden policy changes that often 
result in denial of the visitor's entry into penal institutions.

The rate of increase of political prisoners has gone up considerably as 
well.  In a meeting with Colombia's MOVICE (the Movement of Victims of 
State Crimes) <http://www.movimientodevictimas.org/>  in 2009, the 
Alliance for Global Justice (AfGJ) <http://afgj.org/> was told that 
between 1992 and 2002, there were some 2,000 provably arbitrary 
political arrests later thrown out of courts. Between 2002 and 2006, 
there were 8,000 such arrests.  Detainees were usually charged with 
"rebellion" based on falsified evidence and the testimony of paid 
informers. Charges were usually dropped after "suspects" had served an 
average two to three years in jail.  Thousands of prisoners of 
conscience and those jailed as a result of frame-ups for nonviolent 
political activities do not have their cases dismissed  and are 
condemned to spend long years in prison.  Prisoners of war, who make up 
a minority of the political prisoners, are treated the worst of all.  
The social and political context to their imprisonment has been largely 
unrecognized or denied, although the current peace process will likely 
address their situation as part of the negotiations, provided it is not 
derailed by Colombia's extreme right wing.

Exact statistics are not currently available regarding rates of 
political arrests today.  However, based on the experience of the AfGJ 
and what we are hearing from our partners and contacts in* *Colombia, 
all indications are that the rate has not diminished but risen, 
especially since the installation of the Marcha Patriótica (Patriotic 
March) <http://www.marchapatriotica.org/> popular movement for a just 
peace.  Marcha Patriótica leaders and members have been specifically 
targeted for repression.  The state is especially targeting leaders of 
farmers strikes and union officers for arrest 

*Honduras *

Colombia has provided the pattern for US involvement in international 
prison systems, including the institutionalization of abuses that are 
now being exported globally.  Especially, the Colombian model has been 
applied to Mexico and Central America where the US (and Colombia) have 
been involved in prison programs since 2009.  Once again, these have 
been funded and overseen as part of the Drug War via the Central America 
Regional Security Initiative (CARSI).  Of great concern has been the 
support the US has given to Honduras following the 2009 coup.  Since 
that time, reports of human rights abuses have skyrocketed.  In 2012, 
Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement 
Affairs William Brownfield visited Central American countries offering 
funds from a $200 million package 
earmarked to fight drug trafficking by reinforcing police departments, 
borders, courts and prisons.

In his March, 2012 visit to Honduras, Brownfield designated an 
additional $1.75 million for Honduras to spend on prison, police and 
border and port security.  In his announcement, Brownfield heaped praise 
on the Honduran coup government and Armed Forces.  A State Department 
spokesman said of the visit that ""By partnering with Honduran law 
enforcement agencies, the United States aims to boost anti-drug 
trafficking efforts, promote citizen safety, and help young people find 
alternatives to joining gangs." By May, 2012 the US government had 
authorized another $50 million for security aid to Honduras. 

The 2014 Human Rights Watch report on Honduras, maintains,

    "Honduras suffers from rampant crime and impunity for human rights
    abuses. The murder rate, which has risen consistently over the last
    decade, was the highest in the world in 2013. Perpetrators of
    killings and other violent crimes are rarely brought to justice. The
    institutions responsible for providing public security continue to
    prove largely ineffective and remain marred by corruption and abuse,
    while efforts to reform them have made little progress.

    Journalists, peasant activists, and LGBTI individuals are
    particularly vulnerable to attacks, yet the government routinely
    fails to prosecute those responsible and provide protection for
    those at risk....

    Impunity for serious police abuses is a chronic problem. Police
    killed 149 civilians from January 2011 to November 2012, including
    18 individuals under age 19, according to a report by Honduras's
    National Autonomous University. Then-Commissioner of the Preventive
    Police Alex Villanueva affirmed the report's findings and said there
    were likely many more killings by police that were never reported...."

Specifically in regards to prisons, a February 13, 2014 report by Marcos 
Rodriguez of the HRN radio network informs us that,

    "The investigations of HRN reveal that overcrowding in the country's
    jails has soared by 300%....Presently apprehensions by the police
    increased 35% according to official statistics....It is calculated
    that by the end of 2014, the penitentiary population in Honduras
    could exceed 19,000 inmates....In these instances the 24 jails of
    the country are occupied by almost 13,000 inmates, however the
    system only has capacity for 8,500 prisoners, signifying a [rate of]
    overcrowding of approximately 49%."

*Mexico *

In Mexico, the US is funding the construction of up to 16 new federal 
prisons and is advising an overall prison "reform" based on the US and 
Colombian models.  The Federal Center for Social Readaptation (CEFERESO) 
#11 in Hermosillo, Sonora is the first Mexican prison built with private 
investment and will be managed by a for-profit company for the next 20 
years.  True to form, the opening of Ceferso #11 was occasioned with the 
massive transfer of 1,849 prisoners from all over Mexico. Five months 
after the transfer, prisoners were still being denied access to family 
and legal defense teams. <http://notiley.com.mx/?p=3403#more-3403>

Mexico's National Commission for  Human Rights (CNDH) visited CEFERESO 
#11 in October, 2013 a year after its installation to investigate 
conditions in Mexico's for-profit prison and reported that  the 
institution had "...even graver deficiencies than those found in other 
jails of the Republic of Mexico without private capital."  The abuses 
noted by the CNDH included arbitrary and sudden transfers, being held 
for long periods incommunicado, being kept in cells for excessively long 
periods, no classification system for prisoners, insufficient food, poor 
quality of health services, lack of sports, recreation and cultural 
activities, lack of work and job training, and insufficient personnel.  
In only 4 months, the CNDH received 47 complaints regarding sudden 
transfers to CEFERSO #11 without warning or notice either to families or 
legal reps.

And while exact figures are not readily available, reports from a number 
of sectors in Mexico indicate a significant increase in politically 
motivated arrests since US involvement, including notable political 
detentions of labor and indigenous leaders.

Once more, the Drug War is the main reason cited for US involvement in 
the Mexican prison system.  But in a country that has been itself 
described as a "Narco-state" 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 Review (EPU by its Spanish initials) 
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.

*Colombia as Partner in Prison Imperialism *

In Mexico, Central America and elsewhere, the US has drafted Colombia as 
a major partner in prison imperialism.  Both in collaboration with the 
US and independently, Colombia operates its own international training 
programs. Between 2009 and 2013, Colombia had given training to 21,949 
international students 
including military, police, court and prison officials. Half of those 
trained are from Mexico.  Honduras, Guatemala and Panama are the other 
leading recipients of this training.

An earlier April 14, 2012 US Department of State Fact Sheet on the 
Colombia Strategic Development Initiative (CSDI) 
<http://www.state.gov/p/wha/rls/fs/2012/187926.htm> reported that 
Colombia had trained over 11,000 police officers in 20 Latin American 
and African countries, as well as in Afghanistan.  It reported that 
"Colombia has trained more than 6,000 Mexican federal and state law 
enforcement personnel, over 500 prospectors and judicial personnel and 
24 helicopter pilots.  Prison guards and officials are included among 
the "law enforcement personnel".

General John Kelly who oversees the US Southern Command, told a House 
hearing on April 29, 2014 

    "The beauty of having a Colombia -- they're such good partners,
    particularly in the military realm, they're such good partners with
    us. When we ask them to go somewhere else and train the Mexicans,
    the Hondurans, the Guatemalans, the Panamanians, they will do it
    almost without asking. And they'll do it on their own. They're so
    appreciative of what we did for them. And what we did for them was,
    really, to encourage them for 20 years and they've done such a
    magnificent job.

    But that's why it's important for them to go, because I'm--at least
    on the military side--restricted from working with some of these
    countries because of limitations that are, that are really based on
    past sins. And I'll let it go at that."

*Prison Imperialism Around the World *

According to a Report on International Prison Conditions 
<http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/210160.pdf> released by the 
Department of State's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Law 
Enforcement (DRL), the US has been involved in prison programs in at 
least 25 countries since 2000.  State Department agencies participating 
in international prison programs besides the DRL include the Bureaus of 
International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) and Consular Affairs. 
   The report also refers to participation of the United States Agency 
for International Development (USAID), the US Bureau of Prisons and 
state prison systems.

In 2003, the INL along with the Department of Justice and International 
Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP) led efforts 
by the US government to reestablish Iraq's national security system. The 
INL is now funding 23 programs overseas in partnership with federal and 
state agencies.    The report also tells us that "In South Sudan, for 
example, INL has obligated $6.5 million since 2010 in support of the 
country's first prison training center for corrections officers, the 
Lologo training academy." Similarly, since 2010, the DRL has spent $5 
million in programs around the globe, including in Iraq, Morocco and 
South Korea.

What this document downplays is perhaps more telling than anything.  In 
the whole report, Colombia only bears the following mention:  "In Haiti, 
Colombia, El Salvador, and Guatemala, USAID Missions have worked to 
address prison overcrowding through the reform of penal codes and by 
improving processes such as alternative dispute resolution to reduce the 
amount of time individuals spend in pre-trial detention." An appendix 
states that "...prison and detention facility conditions in the 
following 25 countries whose governments receive United States 
assistance raise serious human rights or humanitarian concerns...." 
Nowhere on that list is Colombia.

Likewise, the report downplays the role of the US Bureau of Prisons, 
letting us know that "The Federal Bureau of Prisons...has also provided 
prison reform assistance to 17 countries.  This assistance is primarily 
comprised of visits by foreign delegations to BOP institutions and 
briefings by BOP staff on issues ranging from inmate and staff 
management to prisoners' rights and correctional services." What they 
don't let us hear is anything about the major construction projects 
carried out with BOP supervision in Colombia and Mexico, nor the extent 
of BOP advice, direction and accreditation in restructuring those 
countries' prison systems.

Also unmentioned are US military detention centers.  It is with military 
oversight that the transitions of these centers to civilian institutions 
is undertaken.  We have already seen the example of the INL and other 
agencies that in the midst of the invasion and occupation of Iraq were 
tasked with setting up a new prison system.  US prison imperialism is 
one of many threads that weave together the US government's civilian and 
military branches.

*In Conclusion -- and in Resistance*

For us in the United States it is important that we remember that US 
international prison programs are reflections and extensions of our own 
internal situation.  The US has the highest overall rate of 
incarceration in the world.  This rate has almost quadrupled since 1980 
despite falling crime rates. In 1980 the rate was 221 per 100,000 
US residents. Today the rate is 716 prisoners per 100,000 
The number of US federal prisoners has risen by 790% since 1980. 
Thus we can see that this expansion overseas parallels what is happening 
at home. To further put this matter in perspective, the US has 700,000 
more prisoners than China, even though China has four times our population.

The US prison system has over 80,000 persons in solitary confinement.  
In 2012 the Justice Department estimated that that year alone there had 
been 216,000 victims of prison rape. We have more political prisoners 
than many know of or care to admit, and our basic rights to protest and 
dissent are being undermined and even criminalized on an almost daily 
basis.  Overcrowding, denial of health services, physical abuse and 
torture, lack of safety, lack of job training and rehabilitation 
services, forced relocation far from home communities and family and 
denial of access to visitors and legal counsel for long periods of time 
are all features of prison imperialism that are rooted in the policies 
and practices of the US penal system.  It almost goes without saying 
that the beginning of resistance to prison imperialism must therefore 
begin at home.

But it must not stop there.  We must link our struggles with 
international struggles.  We have seen how the experiment  that began in 
2000 in Colombia has spread to Afghanistan, Iraq, Mexico, Honduras, 
South Sudan and across the planet.  By looking specifically at the 
examples of Colombia, Mexico and Honduras, we start to see the kinds of 
results and concerns we must look for as we examine prison imperialism 
in other countries.

The US government is clearly spreading an Empire of Prisons around the 
world.  And just as clearly, around the world Prisoners of Empire are 
resisting abuses. On July 25, 2013, the AfGJ reported on a prison hunger 
strike in Colombia that, without planning, was happening at the same 
time similar hunger strikes were happening in California and elsewhere, 
noting that,

    "Prisoners in the Doña Juana Penitentiary in Colombia are halfway
    through the third week of a hunger strike to demand better
    conditions. Located in La Dorada, Caldas, the prison is one of the
    jails built with US funding and advice as part of the 'New
    Penitentiary Culture
    Typical of such prisons are overcrowding, lack of medical treatment,
    a concentration of political prisoners, and beatings and other forms
    of torture by prison guards...It is no coincidence that prisoners at
    Doña Juana and prisoners in the California prison system began
    hunger strikes
    on the same day. Strikes are or have been also underway in
    and Afghanistan. From California to Colombia, all are protesting US
    'Prison Imperialism
    that jails the population at high rates and uses inhumane practices
    such as solitary confinement, torture and denial of services to
    dehumanize the incarcerated."

Shortly after the above statement was released, AfGJ also learned of 
hunger strikes happening in immigration detention centers in Arizona.

The international awareness and linking together of each others' 
struggles is something that is just starting to happen and grow.  We are 
seeing these struggles come together spontaneously and by accident.  
These movements resist not only the US model of mass incarceration:  
they resist the Empire itself.  If these movements can become more 
cognizant of each other and interconnected through shared international 
solidarity, it may be more than just the prisons that are liberated.

/*James Jordan* is an organizer with Alliance for Global Justice./

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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