Both 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.
Dostoevsky 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.
After 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.
But 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 afterwards:
“It 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.”
Decades 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.
Many 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.
As 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.
Many 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.
In 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.
Part 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.”
All 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.
It 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.”
The 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 of it.”
The 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.”
JUSTIN FELUX is a writer and activist based in San Antonio, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org