“Banking on Bondage” Beyond U.S. Borders

About Cole Parke

ceceThis week, we celebrated CeCe McDonald’s long-overdue release from a men’s prison, where she was incarcerated for 19 months following a violent encounter with a group of intoxicated white bar patrons.  The June 2011 confrontation began with a slew of racist and transphobic slurs addressed toward McDonald, a black transgender woman, and her friends. In the fight that ensued, one of the attackers, Dean Schmitz, was killed. McDonald, who was also severely injured in the fight, ultimately plead guilty to second-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 41 months in prison.

Since 2011, advocates in Minneapolis and around the world have organized in support of McDonald under the rallying cry of “Free CeCe!” Now, as CeCe is finally free from the confines of incarceration, we must be reminded and re-energized to fight not only to free CeCe, but also to expose and dismantle an enormous, oppressive, and deeply entrenched system of mass incarceration.  It is a system that—as CeCe’s case so painfully illustrates—disproportionately affects people of color, poor people, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ people, and it is a system that labels millions of people as disposable, only to then exploit them for profit.

And so the work must continue.  As Fannie Lou Hamer once declared, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

The United States is home to less than five percent of the world’s population, but accounts for nearly a quarter of the world’s prison population. More than 2.2 million people are currently locked up in the U.S., and an additional 4.6 million people live under some form of correctional supervision (e.g. probation or parole). Moreover, on any given day, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) cages approximately 34,000 men, women, and children in jails across the country as it pursues their deportation. All together, that’s almost 7 million people.

Even as crime rates dropped over the last 30 years, the prison population skyrocketed, due in part to “tough on crime” laws stemming from the Richard Nixon-initiated “War on Drugs” and George W. Bush-initiated “War on Terrorism.  Tearing apart families, draining the resources of governments and communities, and failing even in its ostensible aim to increase public safety, mass incarceration has become a 21st century American horror story. As Michelle Alexander explains in her highly acclaimed book, The New Jim Crow, “The United States today uses an extensive and unprecedented form of imprisonment and policing as social control of its most marginalized communities. It is a unique culture of incarceration: no other country locks up their population to the same degree that we do, nor has so perfected imprisonment as a tool of innocuously perpetuating racial division.”

Meanwhile, who benefits? For one, the private prison industry. As documented in the ACLU’s 2011 report, Banking on Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration, the for-profit prison industry emerged during the 1980s and has grown exponentially in the subsequent three decades. In a 2013 report, In the Public Interest exposed how private prison corporations use occupancy guarantees in their contracts (ranging from 80 to 100 percent) to ensure that profits—and recidivism rates—remain high.

More recently, the privatization of prisons has begun to expand around the world. The GEO Group, America’s second largest prison corporation, boasts that it is the world’s leading provider of correctional, detention, and community reentry services. It has facilities in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and South Africa, and earned 14% of its revenue in 2012 from international services. Kutama-Sinthumule Correctional Centre in South Africa is one of the facilities operated by The GEO Group, and despite a shrinking prison population nationwide, Kutama-Sinthumule remains full.

In Colombia, under the Program for the Improvement of the Colombian Prison System (PICPS), USAID and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons has helped fund the remodeling of 16 prisons, five of which are now being run by graduates of the notorious School of the Americas (renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2000). Since the PICPS was signed in 2000, Colombia’s prison population has grown by more than 57 percent.

The globalization of U.S.-style culture wars has led to increased attacks against LGBTQ people and women’s reproductive autonomy all around the world.  Now, it seems that our “culture of incarceration” is also expanding far beyond our national borders.

Cole Parke, research analyst at PRA, studied theology at Texas Lutheran University, earned their Master’s in Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, and has been working at the intersections of faith, gender, and sexuality as an activist, organizer, and scholar for more than a decade. Their research and writing examines the infrastructure, mechanisms, strategies, and effects of the Religious Right on LGBTQ people and reproductive rights, both domestically and internationally, always with an eye toward collective liberation.