Throughout the tour I had a gnawing feeling in my stomach; I was deeply troubled. Although I don't have any knowledge of the prison system in South Africa, all I have heard people say is that they are grossly overcrowded. With the unemployment rate at 43%, I wouldn't be surprised if the South African situation bore some similarities to the USA's increasing criminalization of the poor over the past 30 years. In the United States, the prison is not a historical artifact. Rather, it is a modern reality, a tool of power through which the state exploits and systematically is working to disenfranchise poor folks and people of color (from what I've read, particularly Blacks and Latinos). White supremacy is alive and thriving -- and in the case of prisons in the US, white supremacy's effects are growing and shifting. For instance, immigration detention centers and Guantanamo Bay detention center -- located on a military base in Cuba where detainees essentially have no rights -- are mirrors witnessing the United States' abuse of people living through conditions of exploitation. As Colorlines writes,
"America's immigration detention centers are in the business of warehousing men and women who have suffered trauma--the sorts of people whom reasonable governments should aim to protect, and indeed whom the U.S. has laws to protect. Instead, they are locked up, thrown into these legal purgatories and traded as pawns in a political and financial game. The Obama administration has deported more people in each of its first three years than any previous year--almost 1.2 million in the last three years--and it needs more space to lock those people up. The detention business is now booming. Unlike people held on criminal charges, immigrant detainees are not afforded the Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel. Since deportation is not formally considered a punishment, but an administrative consequence for violating a civil law--crossing the border--they have no right to an attorney. Only 16 percent of detainees have legal representation... in the legal system they retain few of the rights that we expect of the criminal justice system." *
Seeing Robben Island provided a chilling reminder of not only the dangers of political repression but also the real need for outspoken organizing regarding prisoners' and detainees' rights. Furthermore, the ways in which resources for education are disproportionately divested away from low-income communities and communities of color are crucially intertwined with the rates of incarceration affecting those communities. Robben Island therefore re-affirmed my drive for organizing in my own city rather than seeking to bring my own uninformed ideas of change to entire other countries. However, the growth of global and international studies within our own University at the expense of departments like Chicano, Asian-American, American Indian, and African-American and African studies is not accidental and reflects larger problems within the types of knowledge valued. We have a responsibility to ask -- who is our University educating? Why? How? Toward what goals is the imagined 'community' of the University supposed to be striving?
We read Ivan Illich's incisive and truth-filled piece to Hell with Good Intentions as a perfect grounding for soon exiting South Africa and re-entering the USA. Even the best of intentions can bear severe damaging consequences, unless we listen to peoples' stories and inquire humbly.
* See Colorlines' story on immigration jails.