Empire abroad, prisons at home


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”

  • 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

  • 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


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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.”

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


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.”

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

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.”

Dark Connections


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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Coming Together


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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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