places have a population of several million, mostly dark-skinned people.
In both places, those who are able to find work can only obtain poverty
wages under conditions that differ from slavery only in name. The
right of the people to vote is not respected. The lights only stay
on for a few hours a day. People are often raped, beaten, and even
killed with impunity. Those who manage to get out of either place
are usually apprehended by the authorities and returned, regardless
of whether or not their return is warranted. One is the country of
Haiti. The other is the U.S. prison-industrial complex. At first glance,
the U.S. government's policy of black mass incarceration and its policy
of undermining democracy in Haiti don't seem to have much in common,
but on a basic level, they have nearly everything in common.
once said, "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged
by entering its prisons." If this is true, the United States suffers
from a great civilization deficit. Over two million people are in
jail or prison in the U.S., and the whole correctional population
(including those on parole or probation) is almost seven million.
When civil unrest was sweeping across the Haitian countryside earlier
in the year, preparations were made to interdict upward of 50,000
refugees in the infamous Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba, where
Arab inmates have made numerous charges of physical abuse and torture.
Incarcerating people of color would seem to be one of the few things
the U.S. government does with any efficiency.
the recent and unfortunate death of Frank "Big Black" Smith, it is
an appropriate time to be talking about prisons. Smith was one of
the leaders of the 1971 rebellion in Attica prison, during which inmates
took control of the prison and held the guards hostage. The prisoners
made several demands of the government which involved job training,
education, health care, and religious freedom, among other things.
Most of the demands were modest reforms that would allow the prisoners
to be treated as human beings. The standoff ended when Governor Nelson
Rockefeller had a thousand troopers storm the prison, killing 29 inmates
and 10 guards in the process.
it wasn't enough for the guards to simply retake the prison. The inmates
had forced the nation to recognize their humanity for those brief
moments during the rebellion, and it was important to snatch that
humanity away from them as soon as possible. Otherwise, Attica could
have been the first of many rebellions. Big Black later described
the torture he and his comrades endured at the hands of the guards
was very, very barbaric; you know, very, very cruel. They ripped our
clothes off. They made us crawl on the ground like we were animals.
And they snatched me. And they lay me on a table and beat me in my
testicles. And they burned me with cigarettes and dropped hot shells
on me and put a football up under my throat and they kept telling
me that if it dropped, they were going to kill me ... It just hurt.
You see one human being treating another human being this way and
they really hurt me. I never thought it would happen. I never thought
so many would be treated like animals."
later, not much has changed. According to Human Rights Watch, "In
recent years, U.S. prison inmates have been beaten with fists and
batons, stomped on, kicked, shot, stunned with electronic devices,
doused with chemical sprays, choked, and slammed face first onto concrete
floors by the officers whose job it is to guard them." Prison rape
is an epidemic. According to a study in The Prison Journal, one in
five male inmates reported a pressured or forced sex incident while
incarcerated. The United States also exports its culture of prison
terror to the rest of the world, the most recent example being the
Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where teenagers were tortured, women were
impregnated through rape, and detainees were subjected to now familiar
forms of sexual humiliation and abuse.
reasons are often cited for the growth of the prison-industrial complex
in America. One is that the prison industry provides jobs and a Keynesian
stimulus to the economy. Another is that prisons provide cheap labor
for American corporations. While these are certainly factors, they
actually provide very little economic benefit to the ruling class.
To them, the real utility of prisons lies in their use as a form of
social control. They help contain the (darker) more troublesome segments
of the population while frightening the rest of the (whiter) population
into submission. Prisons have been a remarkably effective tool in
keeping America's prevailing race and class divisions in place.
C.L.R. James pointed out in 1943, "The contrasts between their situation
and the privileges enjoyed by those around them have always made the
Negroes that section of American society most receptive to revolutionary
ideas and the radical solution of social problems." This is what President
Nixon was talking about when he said, according to an aide, "the whole
problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes
this while not appearing to." The system he came up with was the racially-charged
"War on Drugs." After the civil rights and black power movements brought
down America's formal apartheid, the prison-industrial complex took
its place as the new means of maintaining white supremacy and undermining
the momentum of black political movements.
reasons are likewise cited for the U.S. government's support of the
recent coup in Haiti, such as access to cheap sweatshop labor, control
of the windward passage leading to the Panama Canal, policy differences
with the Aristide government, and others. The main reason, however,
is the same reason our country is littered with so many prisons. Much
like African Americans are a threat to the domestic order of things,
Haiti is a threat to the international order of things. This explains
the eagerness of other rich, white countries such as France and Canada
to play an active role in such a dirty affair. If a poor, black nation
such as Haiti were to succeed in establishing a stable democracy and
an economic system that benefits its own people rather than multinational
corporations, then other poor countries would follow suit. Therefore
it was necessary to send a message to dark-skinned people across the
world: know your place, or suffer the consequences.
post-coup Haiti, prisons that once held thieves, murderers, and rapists
now hold journalists, activists, and teachers. The former were set
free by the rebel forces, the latter rounded up by the puppet government
for their political views. Rooms designed to hold ten people now have
a hundred prisoners packed in like sardines. A journalist for Radyo
Timoun that had been arrested reported that the drinking water for
prisoners was their own previously used bath water. In Les Cayes,
prison conditions are so bad that epidemics have broken out.
of the United States solution to this crisis was sending Terry Stewart
and John Nielsen to help "reform" Haiti's prisons and police units.
Stewart is the same consultant who was sent to "reform" the Abu Ghraib
prison in Iraq. He is also the former director of Arizona's prison
system, where the U.S. Justice Department sued the state's Department
of Corrections for allowing an environment in which female inmates
were raped and sodomized by guards. Nielsen, who will be making a
"mid-six-figure salary," formerly worked in Albany, where the Coalition
for Accountable Police and Government urged that he be fired, "on
the grounds that his leadership has resulted in a climate of distrust
both within the police department and between the police department
and the community."
this is simply the next chapter in a 200-year-old economic, political,
and cultural assault on Haiti's well-being. As Frederick Douglass
explained in 1893, "Haiti is black, and we have not yet forgiven Haiti
for being black or forgiven the Almighty for making her black ...
While slavery existed amongst us, her example was a sharp thorn in
our side and a source of alarm and terror. She came into the sisterhood
of nations through blood ... She was a startling and frightful surprise
and a threat to all slave-holders throughout the world, and the slave-holding
world has had its questioning eye upon her career ever since." Back
then, Haiti posed the same threat that it does now: the threat of
a good example.
is no wonder then that Haiti is the country the world powers choose
to make their own example of. Two-hundred years ago black slaves outwitted
and outfought the mighty army of Napoleon Bonaparte. It was one of
those hitherto rare moments in history where justice rolled down,
not like water, but like lava from an exploding volcano. Jean-Jacques
Dessalines, the revolutionary leader who bore the marks of his former
master's whip on his back, would proclaim after his victory, "I have
given the French cannibals blood for blood," and that, "nothing shall
prevent us from punishing the murderers who have taken pleasure in
bathing their hands in the blood of the sons of Hayti." What was once
a very profitable colony for foreign powers now rang with slogans
such as "Hayti for the Haytians."
resilience of the Haitian people even impressed their foes. Lemmonier-Delafosse
was a pro-slavery officer in Napoleon's army. Years after the revolution,
he wrote in his memoirs, "But what men these blacks are! How they
fight and how they die! One has to make war against them to know their
reckless courage in braving danger when they can no longer have recourse
to stratagem. I have seen a solid column, torn by grape-shot from
four pieces of cannon, advance without making a retrograde step. The
more they fell, the greater seemed to be the courage of the rest.
They advanced singing, for the Negro sings everywhere, makes songs
on everything ... One must have seen this bravery to have any conception
same spirit of courage and resistance can be seen today as young Haitian
activists defiantly hold five fingers -- signifying the five-year
mandate of President Aristide -- in the faces of American occupying
forces with total disregard for the loaded machine guns trained on
their bodies. It can be seen in the recent Lavalas demonstrations
held in Cap Haitien, despite the fact that the armed paramilitaries
still control that area of the country. And it can be seen in the
words of Annette Auguste, who when speaking from her prison cell said,
"They may imprison my body but they will never imprison the truth
I know in my soul. I will continue to fight for justice and truth
in Haiti until I draw my last breath."
Felux is a writer and activist based in San Antonio, Texas. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org