The Shifting Purpose of Prisons
How the war on drugs is spreading mass incarceration to Mexico and beyond.
The supply room of the Cafe Comité Cerezo at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) was stacked to the ceilings with boxes of cup lids, sugar, and coffee beans. Baristas periodically came in to restock supplies. Light poured in through a single high window. Standing by a chalkboard on the wall, Antonio Cerezo Contreras of the Comité Cerezo held forth to our small delegation.
The Comité Cerezo is a small organization led by three previously incarcerated brothers that tracks political imprisonment in Mexico. The organization receives some funding from a German grantor, but the brothers mainly get by on the proceeds of their small coffee counter. As his son ran underfoot, Antonio told the small group of US and Colombia-based activists, “The purpose of the Mexican prison system changed to become punitive in 2011.” In a legislative act, the word “reintegración” (reintegration) was replaced with “rehabilitación” (rehabilitation) to describe the prison system’s purpose. In both English and Spanish, the two words are practically synonymous, but the word reintegration emphasizes the transition out. Rehabilitation is a more inward word, focusing on what happens to a person behind bars.
Antonio explained that the direction of this minute language shift, largely unrelated to any actual reintegration or rehabilitation, is magnified in real life. It signifies a stronger emphasis on imprisonment itself as the new focus and purpose of the Mexican prison system. Since 2011, people move through the judicial system in a different way. Sentences are sometimes hundreds of years, and people are placed far away from home in the newly built federal prisons. This shift, Antonio told us, “is very North American.”
Antonio was referring to the prison system of the United States. As Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, and others have brought to light, our prison system functions as a tool of social control, designed to psychologically privilege white people while preemptively stifling black and brown dissent. After Reagan declared the War on Drugs in US cities across the country and along international supply routes, the US prison system grew massively in size. In the subsequent years, first in Colombia, then in Mexico, and then in the countries of Central America, the US style of imprisonment was thrust onto our international allies in this war.