Guilty by Definition

October 2, 2013

Beyond Walls and Cages brings together 36 writers, academics, and activists to explore the interaction between the prison and immigration industries in the United States. Most of the contributors argue that these industries not only dehumanize the individuals caught in their respective webs, but also that the criminalization and militarization emanating from these institutions reinforce traditional inequalities and normalize everyday violence and punitive policing. The book is divided into six parts, beginning with a historical analysis of the global roots of the prison and immigration crisis. Editors Loyd, Mitchelson, and Burridge then narrow the focus to the United States, with Part IV specifically focusing on Arizona, as a laboratory for security policy and for the struggles against the criminalization and policing of immigrants.

The book opens by situating these issues in the context of global capitalism. The first contributor, geographer Joseph Nevins, begins his piece by describing anti-migrant violence in contemporary—post-apartheid—South Africa. He pans out from localized atrocities to develop the concept of global apartheid, or a set of policies that make migrating to “rich” countries extremely difficult, thus serving “to maintain a system of international inequality.” This conceptual framing challenges readers to recognize the contradictions in viewing their own country’s borders as anything more legitimate than what occurred under South African apartheid. Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of the work is the “abolitionist” perspective many of the writers take in regard to international borders. Borders, they argue, are systems of exclusion that enforce a separation “that comes about by accident of birth.”

Anne Bonds, in the piece “Building Prisons, Building Poverty,” examines the ways increased policing and criminalization institutionalize inequalities in the United States, most obviously through the expansion of unwinnable and indefinable “wars”—the War on Crime and the War on Drugs. Instead of working to address the social and economic inequalities that undermine community stability, the state has chosen instead to take a punitive approach focused on the supply end of the economic chain while ignoring the demand that drives drug distribution. Consequently, the Drug War within the United States has “focused its attention on street-level dealers and not suburban consumers.” Increased penalties for the possession of relatively small amounts of drugs, as well as policies such as the “three-strikes law” that institute life sentences after a third felony conviction, have resulted in the United States now leading the world in incarceration rates, despite no real changes in drug consumption. As Bonds notes, “between 1980 and 1996, the rate of drug arrests rose by 250%, even though rates of drug use were not increasing.”

“While drug use is equal across racial lines,” writes Laura McTighe, there has been a huge expansion in the incarcerated population, overwhelmingly consisting of people of color and the economically disadvantaged. Indeed, people of color are arrested, convicted, and sentenced at dramatically higher rates than whites, with some 35% of black men between the ages of 25 and 34 “currently imprisoned, on probation, or on parole.”

Vote-garnering tactics have been used to situate immigration as a focus of criminalization in the United States. Politicians have found that espousing a “tough on immigration” approach can be just as politically expedient as a “tough on crime” stance. The rhetoric and accompanying policy increased dramatically after 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror as the government justified further border policing and criminalization to assuage fears of the “other” threatening the United States. Deportations and detentions have jumped to record numbers in recent years. During President Obama’s first presidential term, 1.5 million immigrants were deported, with a record 409,849 in 2012 alone—roughly the same number of people held in immigration detention that same year.

The editors are determined to show that both the criminal and immigration “justice” systems have resulted in a massive criminalization of whole communities, “further institutionalizing the structures of racism and classism already woven into the fabric of U.S. society and history.” Those who find themselves in cages find it harder to function in the necessary roles so important to us as social creatures—as siblings, workers, parents, children, partners, or students. Time is not suspended while one moves through these punitive institutions, and even when released, once-incarcerated individuals often no longer fit into the world they knew before incarceration. Furthermore, the absence of a breadwinner can often plunge a family deeper into poverty. Children are deprived of parents and parents of children. The criminalization of individuals not only affects one person, but whole families and communities.

One of the most insidious aspects of pervasive criminalization, argue the authors, is the way privatization of many of the functions of policing and imprisonment has strengthened the profit incentive that ends up perpetuating the very problems these agencies were once established to resolve. If crime and immigration are not actually increasing, the state can criminalize a portion of the existing population in order to expand these industries. As with the disconnect between rates of drug use and rates of drug enforcement, writes McTighe, “mass incarceration has occurred even as violent crime rates have declined.” This has been accomplished, in part, by criminalizing immigration infractions that in the past were only civil violations. This has resulted in more people than ever before now being swept up into the prison system through increased border militarization and workplace raids. This has ensured the viability of the security and policing agencies because of the increased demand for their services.

The book concludes with two sections highlighting the political movements against walls and cages. These contributions both encourage and dishearten the reader with their complexity. At the heart of the struggle is the tension between reformist and radical approaches to immigration and prison organizing. The book, in the words of its editors, claims to “develop an abolitionist analytic practice which can connect movements against state violence, and to see the challenging of prisons and border walls as a central dimension in struggles against colonialism, capitalism, white supremacy, and heteropatriarchy within and beyond the United States.” What this means in practice is not easy to define.

The interviews included in the collection perhaps provide the most coherent approaches to grappling with these issues. As organizer Amy Gottlieb says in an interview conducted by Jenna Loyd “we work toward a fundamental change of attitudes simultaneously with other shorter-term organizing work.” However, she reveals the hard choices the movement must make, which she illustrates with the stance of her organization, the American Friends Service Committee, against hate crime legislation. While these laws are established to protect traditionally marginalized groups, Gottlieb argues that this legislation does not address “underlying causes” and “[g]iven that we challenge the penalty system as it currently stands, we cannot support anything that expands or gives more power to that system.” Loyd again touches on these issues in her interview with Gael Guevara, an activist working with the low-income transgender community through the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP). In the article “Immigrant Justice From a Trans Perspective,” Guevara comments that although they take an abolitionist stance, “when we choose to work to make reforms within the prison system, it is with the purpose of improving the living conditions and wellness of our clients, to make it more tolerable during the time they are incarcerated.”

As the editors note, “The work of building and maintaining borders and prison walls is also about creating and policing social difference.” Beyond Walls and Cages challenges the notion that the power granted to the state to enforce social separation is something natural and eternal. Mass incarceration and pervasive policing through both the prison and immigration industries are social constructs, and, as the editors assert, “if societies can be militarized, they can also be demilitarized.”



Kyle Barron graduated with an MA in comparative politics from New York University and is the Outreach Administrator for the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at NYU.



Read the rest of NACLA's Fall 2013 issue: "Chile 40 Years Later: The Politics of Memory and the Memory of Politics"



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