Prison Certification: Another Example of US Interventionism?

Last August, 50 women in the Atlacholoaya Social Rehabilitation Center in Morelos, Mexico, went on a hunger strike to protest mistreatment and the tightening of the security measures in the prison. The protest unfolded in the context of the certification that the American Correctional Association (ACA) is pushing.

The protest measure, which barely received a footnote in the local newspapers, suggests that a broader process that is occurring across the country —importing the U.S. model of punitive incarcerations — in the name of security and governance.

As part of the so-called Merida Initiative, the United States has donated $14 million to “support” the Mexican prison system at both the federal and state levels. The initiative, which began in December 2008, lays the groundwork for a program of cooperation between the U.S. and Mexican governments whose point of departure is to ensure justice is served and expand international bilateral cooperation under the guise of fighting crime.

The Merida Initiative (also known as “Plan Mexico” for its similarity to Plan Colombia) has been widely criticized because of its interventionist nature, its punitive approach in addressing the production, trafficking and use of drugs, and its failure to include prevention strategies. Despite the broad criticism of U.S. interventionism under Plan Mexico, little has been said about the global implications of a state-sponsored incarceration model that promotes the expansion of infrastructure under the prison industry — at the same time as a legal framework legitimizing the criminalization of poverty and political dissent is being created.

Investment to build new prison complexes, coupled with the ACA’s meddling in the definition of how such structures should be used, demonstrates there is a process of standardization (in the name of “modernizing infrastructure” and human rights) to impose an incarceration model in which security and control of the population become more important than social reinsertion. Rehabilitation centers are coming to be seen as “correctional.”

Paradoxically, of the ACA’s 138 quality standards, which include modernization of prison infrastructure, staff training, the establishment of strict controls and discipline, and improvements in financial and human resources administration, it is the disciplinary measures and the “governance” which are usually implemented first, given the lack of resources to improve physical infrastructure.

While waiting for the financing to set up libraries and TV rooms, or to improve drainage, female prisoners at the Atlacholoaya Social Rehabilitation Center for Women, which is undergoing a certification process, had to get rid of the well-stocked libraries and televisions which are prohibited under the new regulations, and continue facing the putrid odors that permeate the cells from the drainage system.

We are importing a prison model that has been broadly criticized as dehumanizing and racist. An abundant literature about the prison-industrial complex in the U.S. reveals the dangers inherent in a penitentiary system whose goal is profit — not social reinsertion.

With 2 million detainees — excluding the 5 million people on detention — the U.S. has the largest number of incarcerations. With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25 percent of the world’s inmates.

Incarceration has become a profitable business through the development of the prison-industrial complex, which is now the U.S. government’s principal response to social conflict. This is the model the U.S. wants to export through the Merida Initiative and its certification process.

To date, eight of 16 Mexican federal prisons have been certified by the ACA, together with six state prisons (five in Chihuahua and one in Baja California). It is important to determine whether standardization is improving inmates’ human rights, or if it is just another example of U.S. interventionism.

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