It’s Not Just Immigrant Detention Centers; There Are Thousands of Concentration Camps in the U.S.
They’re called prisons and jails and they are in every city, county, and state in our union.
When I worked as a criminal defense attorney, I referred to the criminal courtroom as the gates of hell. Here was a place that swallowed men whole. People entered it, sometimes as free men, and left in chains, perhaps never to be seen again. I thought of this when I heard, with a sickening recognition, of the heinous treatment of the immigrant families by the US government; when I heard that small children were being denied sufficient food, medical care, and basic human contact; when I heard children were being drugged involuntarily; and when I saw the videos of traumatized children, their eyes vacant and their faces hard, being reunited with their parents after weeks in detention. The horrors visited upon the detained immigrant children are not foreign or new; they are the same horrors our system has been practicing for years on the bodies of millions of incarcerated people, in the hell-on-earth known as America’s criminal justice system.
Most people who have their freedom taken from them by our criminal system — even temporarily — will face unspeakable tortures. They will be stripped and prodded. They may be restrained. They may be beaten. They may be raped. They will certainly fear all those things. They will face daily humiliations large and small: having to use the toilet and bathe publicly and wear shapeless, uncomfortable uniforms. They will be assigned a number. They will eat inedible food. They will sleep on a hard cot with a thin blanket. They will hear people screaming in the night. They will be afraid.
As an attorney, I have visited clients in many different types of facilities. I’ve been to a federal prison in Texas and a state prison in Alabama. In California, I’ve been to state prisons, juvenile detention centers, and more local jails in more counties than I can count. I have been inside crumbling behemoths built during the Gold Rush, and shining, new facilities equipped with all the state-of-the-art developments in carceral technologies, beacons of our dystopian present. But no matter the type of facility, one thing always remains the same: the smell. Every prison and jail in the United States has the same smell. It is a mix of industrial cleaning supplies and human suffering. Urine, sweat, fear, and lemon pledge. It is a smell I will never forget if I never step inside of another jail for the rest of my life. It is the smell of American freedom.
But you needn’t be a criminal defense attorney to learn about the true nature of our criminal justice system. Tune in to any of the seemingly endless reality TV shows on jails and prisons and you will be sure to witness shocking images of the harshness and cruelty of our prison system. You can watch people be hog-tied, beaten, tased, and drugged with almost no time or effort. This is how desensitized our society is to the most horrific violence and torture. You can watch it on normal TV, prime time, basic cable, with barely a parental warning to caution you of the brutality to follow.
The horrific treatment of the immigrant children that has so captivated and sickened many in our country over the last three months is perfectly in line with standard conditions and procedures in prisons and jails throughout our country. Forced druggings, as the children have been subjected to, are common in prisons and jails. Prisoners, including juveniles, are routinely placed in solitary confinement and denied all physical contact, sometimes for months and years at a time. Insufficient medical care is common. It is also routine for incarcerated persons to be charged exorbitant fees by the government and their corporate contractors for basic services such as phone calls, medical care, ankle monitoring upon release, and to obtain their own freedom, as the immigrant parents are now experiencing in trying to regain custody of their own children.
But unlike the (appropriately horrified) reaction to the detention of immigrant children, the ongoing torture of millions of our fellow Americans has largely been met with indifference, if not fervent support, by the American people. The prison industrial complex in the United States has grown significantly over the last 40 years, even while crime rates have declined. The prison population in the U.S. has increased nearly 500 percent from 1980, while the entire population of the U.S. has increased by less than 50 percent. Although societal support for draconian criminal justice policies has finally begun to decline in recent years, the effects of such policies remain: there are 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in the United States; we have the highest number of people incarcerated and the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. We lock up more children and we dole out longer sentences, than most, if not all, other countries.
And locking people up in cages is big business: the private prison industry has exploded, with revenues of 4.8 billion in 2014. And plenty of private businesses profit from contracts with our publicly held prisons as well. (The U.S. Prison phone industry alone, which charges inmates and their families exorbitant rates for phone calls, is a $1.2 billion industry.) Under Obama, some speculated that if criminal justice reform continued, a decreasing prison population could spell financial disaster for the rapidly increasing private prison industry. Upon Trump’s election, that concern immediately evaporated and private prison stocks soared. It was not only the likelihood that the prison population would increase under Trump (thanks to Attorney General Sessions’ revitalization of the war on drugs) that caused private prison stock to skyrocket, but the likelihood that immigrant detention would increase as well. Meanwhile, the militarization of the local, state, and federal police forces has been a boon for the weapons industry, with tanks, SWAT teams, and military grade assault rifles all commonplace in local police stations. For example, in a report entitled “War Comes Home,” the ACLU estimated that 500 law enforcement agencies possess Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, which are built to withstand armor-piercing roadside bombs.
Of course, one might argue that people who are incarcerated have committed a crime that has resulted in their incarceration, and so it is hyperbole, if not flatly false, to compare jails and prisons to concentration camps. In an interview with Quartz for an article entitled Is it fair to call the US’s migrant child detention centers “concentration camps”?, Andrea Pitzer, author of One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, explained that the term “concentration camp” historically refers to the detention of civilians without trial, particularly on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, citizenship or political affiliation. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution similarly delineates criminal convicts as unworthy of the protections against enslavement granted all other persons in the United States. Society, one might say, has determined that convicts are different when it comes to the morality of detaining large numbers of persons in inhumane conditions. (Notably, I’m not the first person to refer to jails and prisons in the United States as concentration camps — Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County and current candidate for U.S. Senate, who was pardoned by Trump for his federal conviction for disobeying a court order to stop racially profiling Latino people, proudly referred to his infamous outdoor jail, where inmates were held with little shelter or water in 115-degree Arizona summer heat, as a “concentration camp.”)
I would argue that those who have committed terrible crimes still deserve to be treated with basic dignity and given the right to life and the pursuit of happiness, even if society has determined their right to liberty must be curtailed. The mass torture of convicted criminals remains torture, whatever moral and legal fiction a society might devise to justify its conduct. But this argument notwithstanding, many people who are arrested and sent to jail in the United States have not been charged and may never be charged with any crime. Over 500,000 people are incarcerated every day in our country who have not yet been convicted of any crime. Moreover, this number is misleading. While “only” 500,000 people without convictions are in jail on a given day, we sent people to jail over 10.6 million times in a single year. Although the same person may be sent to jail more than once in a given year, one study estimated that nearly 9 million separate persons were sent to jail in one year. Moreover, significant numbers of people are sent to jail and prison for crimes that do not warrant incarceration, such as driving without a license or drug charges. Well under half of the entire jail and prison population has been convicted of an alleged violent crime. Of course, some people who are sentenced to jail or prison are innocent and are the victims of wrongful convictions; some even plead guilty to crimes they did not commit.
Being innocent will not necessarily save you from the horrors of the American prison industrial complex, especially if you’re black or a person of color. Sandra Bland had committed no crime when she died alone, in a cold jail cell. Kalief Browder had committed no crime when he was sent to Rikers Island as a minor and subjected to years of torture, including 2 years in solitary confinement. Kalief was never even brought to trial, let alone convicted, yet he was subjected to the same solitary confinement that has been deemed torture by the psychiatric community due to the intense and long-lasting psychological trauma it causes. What crimes did the poor souls whose bones were recently found buried in Sugar Land, Texas commit? What crime so terrible to justify a lifetime of forced labor? My wager is none.
Although it is not members of a single race, ethnicity or religion who are incarcerated in the United States, race plays a significant factor in the likelihood of being caught in the unrelenting web of the American prison system. A black man born in 2001 has a 1 in 3 chance of being incarcerated in his lifetime, compared to 1 in 17 for white males and 1 in 6 for Latinos. Black youth are 5 times more likely to be incarcerated in the juvenile justice system than their white counterparts. Of the 48,043 juveniles in detention in the United States in October of 2015, 44 percent were black, although black people only comprise 16 percent of the youth in the United States. The national rate of incarceration for youth is 152 for every 100,000 people. Even this is higher than the overall incarceration rates for most countries, including Spain, China, Canada, France and Germany. But for black youth, the number jumps to 433 for every 100,000 people. This is higher than the overall incarceration rate of both Russia and Brazil; only 13 countries out of 222 in the world have a higher overall incarceration rate than the rate at which we lock up black kids.
Mental illness is another contributing factor in whether one finds oneself swallowed up by the system: 73 percent of women and 55 percent of men in state prisons have at least one mental illness. Poverty, of course, may be the most significant factor in whether one ends up in the criminal justice system: a boy born to a family in the bottom 10% of households is twenty times more likely than a boy born in the top 10% to end up incarcerated. The criminal justice system is also used as a mechanism to crush nascent uprisings and silence dissent, as was exhibited in the response to Occupy and the Standing Rock / Dakota Access Pipeline protests. Notably, during the Holocaust, the Nazis not only sent Jewish people to concentration camps, they also arrested, detained, and murdered many other categories of people, including Roma, Slavs, people with disabilities, LGBTQ, leftists, communists, trade unionists, and people with mental health conditions. If it is only the allegations of criminality that differentiates the American criminal justice system from concentration camps than it is only the belief in the justness of our laws and the fairness of our legal system that allows for such differentiation. Considering the effect that race, mental health, and poverty has on the likelihood of one being incarcerated, it is difficult to consider our laws just or our system fair.
Although the term concentration camp has been rendered almost unusable by the unparalleled violence of the Nazi death camps, it remains a necessary linguistic tool to identify the dangerous mass detainment of innocent people, which can so quickly devolve into mass torture and murder. As Andrea Pitzer explains, a further risk in the treatment of the immigrant children is “we are institutionalizing dangerous practices that typically serve as the basis and legal authority for much worse camps later.” And this has already been proven true: the creation of the prison industrial complex and mass torture of millions of our fellow Americans (whether accurately deemed criminals or not) laid the groundwork for much more shocking atrocities in the future, like the mass detention and torture of migrant children we have just witnessed. A quote generally attributed to the inimitable Mark Twain seems applicable: history never repeats itself, but it does rhyme.
Over the last four decades, the expansion of the prison industrial complex and the militarization of the police at the city, county, state and federal levels have been allowed to proceed nearly unchecked, despite the constant warnings and alarms given by prison reform advocates. Today, we have a police force unrivaled in technology or firepower, and a network of detention facilities unparalleled throughout the world. This brutal system has already been used routinely to terrorize, murder and assault people of color. It is used to suppress activism and dissent and to crush uprisings. It is used to punish the poor and make money for the rich. Yet the American people have remained largely silent as their most critical constitutional rights have been increasingly confined, violated, and destroyed. The American people must finally recognize that they have sanctioned and funded the construction of a vast network of concentration camps equipped with the leading technology available for the detainment and torture of millions of people. If and when the political climate finally shifts, we must find every opportunity and means for reforming and dismantling the criminal justice system. But for now, this terrifying system of nearly unlimited state power is under the control, at least in part, of the most totalitarian, arbitrary, and frightening administration this country has ever seen. Trump has chosen to turn its brutality on innocent children, but there is no reason why any of us should believe we are safe. The lesson we all must learn from looking at images of children in cages is that this cruel system could be turned on any of us, at any time. This is what prison advocates have always feared. Now, this is what we must all fear.