A Culture of Denial: Criminalization in the US
by Aly Wane

“Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages.”  – Angela Davis

“You can Jail the Resisters, but you can’t Jail the Resistance” – School of the Americas Watch slogan

The prison-industrial complex: bad for the community, good for Wall
Street. Image: www.usprisonculture.com

With over two million people incarcerated, the United States has the largest prison population in the world, far ahead of even China (with about 1.5 million people in jail). Those who are incarcerated are disproportionately poor and often are people of color. There is an element of  social violence to this fact. The US’s brutal imperialistic policies are intimately connected to its punitive domestic policies. A society that increasingly “disappears” its social problems instead of dealing with them is a society that lives in denial.

Crime and Profit: Denying the Immigration Crisis
There is a humanitarian crisis in the US: approximately 12 million undocumented people live here in the shadows, terrified of making their presence known. Instead of addressing this growing crisis head-on by passing comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) at the federal level that would include an earned path to citizenship for these individuals, the US has been selectively detaining and deporting them. According to the Detention Watch Network: “The US Government detained approximately 380,000 people in 2009 in a hodgepodge of about 350 facilities at an annual cost of $1.7 billion. All this despite the fact that being present in the country without documentation is a civil offense, not a criminal one. It costs about $122 per day to incarcerate each one of these detainees. About half of immigrant detainees in these facilities have no criminal record or have already served time and are re-incarcerated for immigration purposes only. In addition, Homeland Security contracts with over 312 county and city prisons nationwide.

But the scariest aspect of this growing problem is the increasing privatization of the prison industry. Groups such as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and the GEO Group are profiting from the incarceration of an ever-growing immigrant detainee population. CCA’s President and CEO John Ferguson ominously declared in 2006: “We’ve never seen the wind in our backs like it is today,” speaking of the record profits his company was making. He had the right to gloat. According to the New York Times, CCA’s annual revenue tops $1.69 billion and the GEO group rakes in about $1.17 billion. To these CEOs and their stockholders, the painful family separations which are all too common in immigrant families is seen as a “growth opportunity.” To add insult to injury, the contracts between private detention centers and the government are actually taxpayer guaranteed.

And it gets worse. Throughout 2005 and up to December 2006 the prison industry spent over 6 million dollars in lobbying the US Congress. The results were fruitful. According to a recent National Public Radio report, the notorious Arizona immigration law, SB 1070 was written, at least in part, by members of the private prison industry.  This law mandated that police officers detain anyone who looks “reasonably suspicious” enough to be an illegal immigrant. Fortunately, and thanks to tremendous grassroots activist pressure, the most egregious aspects of the law were struck down and deemed unconstitutional. However, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer is fighting the ruling in court. Not surprisingly, some of her top advisors, including her spokesman Paul Spenseman, and her campaign manager, Chuck Coughlin, are former prison industry lobbyists.

The vast majority of undocumented workers are not criminals. Ignoring or persecuting them is not a long-term solution. With every year that passes the immigration crisis grows, bringing with it fear, xenophobia, racism and division in American society. I agree with the governor of Arizona in one respect: we cannot deny that we have a problem anymore. We must pass CIR.

Criminal Citizens: Denying Dissent
Despite President Obama’s promises of more government transparency, he has largely kept intact the Bush-era erosion of civil liberties. Under the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program, the federal government can legally monitor the international emails and phone calls of citizens. US citizens are all potential suspects in the War on Terror (WOT), especially if they happen to have friends who live abroad.

Peace activists have long been criminalized by US authorities. Nonviolently addressing issues of social justice has been a suspicious activity throughout US history. The WOT has intensified this trend. The US mainstream media has not covered it well, but there has been a tremendous amount of popular opposition to the WOT. Antiwar rallies and protests have been a consistent part of the US political landscape since the onset of the Afghanistan conflict. The Iraq War was preceded by the largest demonstration in world history, which occurred on February 15, 2003. It is estimated that a minimum of 6 million people protested worldwide, many of them US citizens, but George Bush infamously dismissed the event as a “focus group.”

It has been an essential aspect of the WOT to keep a lid on citizens who actively oppose it. This suppression of dissent is a bipartisan one. Organizers of the Democratic National Convention decided not to allow in the Convention Center anyone who was wearing anti-war paraphernalia. Nonviolent groups such as the Raging Grannies were placed under surveillance. A report obtained in September 2010 by the American Civil Liberties Union confirmed that the FBI has been spying on citizens ever since the beginning of the WOT.  These efforts represent a growing authoritarian, quasi-fascist tendency in the US body politic. Anyone disagreeing with the will of the state must be “purged” from the homeland. Authoritarian governments thrive on secrecy and denial of social problems.

Image: William Upski Wimsatt

Justice, Not Jails
The US government is addicted to violence, be it literal or social. There is great brutality in the fact that our immigration system has been re-shaped to turn a profit for private corporations. No amount of jails will solve our immigration crisis.

Donald Rumsfeld famously remarked in 2002, “I don’t do body counts.” But the US cannot hide the fact that its policies in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in a tremendous number of civilian deaths. The most conservative estimates of civilian casualties in those conflicts hover around 400,000 deaths, with some methodologies claiming that over one million have died. But the US, like an addict, hides it shame by criminalizing dissent and attempting to silence its critics.

Fortunately, prisons cannot jail the truth. And the painful truth is that the US is an empire in decline. The official unemployment level is at about ten percent, which means that the real unemployment level is probably closer to sixteen percent (the official unemployment level does not count those who have given up looking for work). More and more US citizens are frequenting food pantries. In the meantime, local governments are slashing social services around the country in a time of great social need. Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist at the World Bank has estimated the Iraq War (not including Afghanistan) will cost about three trillion dollars. The US can either acknowledge that it can’t afford its current WOT or bankrupt itself.

A more humble approach to foreign policy, one that rejects the notion that the US has to go to war with an entire country in order to root out its “terrorists” could free up the funds needed to fuel a social rebirth. In order to rebuild our cities, we will have to aggressively make the connection between our out-of-control military spending and the collapse of our social infrastructure. This will require people in the US to refuse to be complicit in the denial game. It is time to open our eyes and roll up our sleeves.


Aly, originally from Senegal, is an organizer with the Syracuse Peace Council and the Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse.