Prison camps, here and over there

by padraigcolman

This article was published in the Sri Lanka newspaper The Nation on November 27 2011.


Even today, one of the things that the USA has on its list of bad things about Sri Lanka is prison camps. I will not go into that subject in detail here. I have dealt with it before on The Agonist.
see et seq


Suffice to say, we are in mote and beam territory here again. How many people are there in Sri Lankan IDP camps today? The IDMC said there were 220,000 in May this year. How many are there in US prisons today? That would be more than 2.3 million, more than any other nation on earth, a half million more than China, which has a population five times greater than the US.

In 1950, whites made up about 65% of all inmates. Today, 35% of the prison population is white. About half of prison inmates are black when they are only 13% of the population; one in ten black men is in prison. Nationally, 39% of black men in their 20s are in prison, on probation or on parole. Prisoners don’t have jobs, pay taxes or care for their children at home, and, because many states bar felons from voting, at least one in seven American black men will have lost the right to vote.

Less population, more prisoners

The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population, but a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Crime has gone down but the prison population has increased. Americans are locked up for crimes reminiscent of Dickensian times – from writing bad cheques to using drugs – that would rarely produce prison sentences elsewhere. Clinton’s three-strikes policy meant people getting long sentences for stealing a slice of pizza. Seventy per cent of those being sentenced under the three strikes law in California, which requires mandatory sentences of 25 years to life, are people of colour. Once convicted, they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.

There have been some horrific articles in the New York Review of Books by David Kaiser and Lovisa Stanmow about what life is like in US prisons. More than 200,000 youths are tried as adults in the US every year, and on any given day, 8,500 kids under 18 are confined in adult prisons. Only 34% of those in juvenile detention are there for violent crimes; many are confined for running away from abuse at home. A survey showed that one in eight been sexually abused at their current facility during the preceding year.


Prison rape seems to be an acceptable subject for humour in the American popular media. See Kathy Knegchtges’s discussion of this on Open Salon:




Although the jokes seem mainly to focus on big black men raping helpless little white men, Kaiser and Stanmow write about white-supremacists engaging in punitive gang rapes to maintain their dominance of the
prison turf.

Abuse in prisons


A report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) provides grim reading. 64,500 of the inmates who were in a state or federal prison on the day of the latest survey had been sexually abused at their current facility within the previous year, as had 24,000 of those who were in a county jail that day – a total of 88,500 people. Of white jail inmates, 1.8% reported sexual abuse by another inmate, whereas 1.3 % of black inmates did. However, when considering staff-on-inmate abuse, 1.5% of white inmates reported such incidents, but 2.1 % of black inmates did. Overall, a black inmate is more likely to suffer sexual abuse in detention than a white one – 3.2 % to 2.9 %.


Rates of HIV/AIDS are several times higher inside US prisons than outside, just as they are now much higher among black Americans than white. Incarceration for trivial offences in the US can amount to an unadjudicated death sentence.


James Whitman, a specialist in comparative law at Yale, who has studied Tocqueville’s work on American penitentiaries, was asked what accounted for America’s booming prison population. “Unfortunately, a lot of the answer is democracy – just what Tocqueville was talking about,” he said. “We have a highly politicised criminal justice system.”
Prison industry


Commerce also has something to do with it. Echoing Eisenhower’s warning about the US succumbing to the military-industrial complex, the term “prison-industrial complex” has been coined. “The private contracting of prisoners for work fosters incentives to lock people up. Prisons depend on this income. Corporate stockholders, who make money off prisoners’ work, lobby for longer sentences to expand their workforce. The system feeds itself,” says a study by the Progressive Labour Party, which accuses the prison industry of being “an imitation of Nazi Germany with respect to forced slave labour and concentration camps.” According to the Left Business Observer, the federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens.


At least 37 states have legalised the contracting of prison labour by private corporations, including Microsoft and IBM, to operate inside state prisons. Prisoners in private prisons tripled between 1987 and 2007. By 2007, there were 264 such prison facilities, housing almost 99,000 adult prisoners. Prison bonds provide a lucrative return for capitalist investors such as Merrill-Lynch, Shearson Lehman, American Express and Allstate. Prisoners are traded from one state to another for profit.


There are over 600 prison camps in the United States, all fully operational and ready to receive prisoners. They are all staffed and even surrounded by full-time guards, but they are all empty. These camps are to be operated by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) should Martial Law need to be implemented in the United States.


Land of the free!