On Monday, 4 January 2021, British Judge Vanessa Baraitser blocked Julian Assange’s extradition, acknowledging that, were he to be held in the deplorable conditions of an American prison, he would be at risk of killing himself due to his worsening mental health.
Cited in the verdict, ironically, was the case of Jeffrey Epstein, who is alleged to have committed suicide by hanging himself with paper-thin bedsheets in a Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, NY, just hours after getting off of suicide watch.
Contrasting Assange and Epstein:
The juxtaposition between Assange and Epstein could not be clearer— one represents the democratic value of a truly free press and how such a press contributes to all peoples’ human right to self-determine, and the other emblematizes oppression and the associated ugliness that resides in secrecy. Perhaps the most notorious pedophile in recent history, the former billionaire received support from many of the entities whose assaults on human rights Assange exposed. It is alarming that sympathy for prisoners is being raised around the world due to the alleged suicide of one of the most morally and spiritually corrupt Americans in recent years.
The Significance of The Contrast:
In both the case of Assange and the observation about Epstein’s alleged suicide, it is clear that mainstream authorities only take issue with the deplorable conditions in which incarcerated people exist when the victims of those conditions are white and in the public eye. And this is indicated beyond the scope of Epstein and Assange.
As a result of an almost too-surreal-to-be-true tweet by podcast TrueAnon, I was made aware of a press release authored by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) calling for Epstein’s partner in sex trafficking, Ghislaine Maxwell, to receive the vegan meals she has requested as she is being held in Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, NY.
Not mentioned in this press release by PETA, an organization known for freeing caged animals in the name of compassion for them, is the fact that over 2 million people are being held in cages around the United States right now. An overwhelming majority of them are Black and Brown, and unlike Ghislaine Maxwell, many of them are there simply because they cannot afford to be released to receive genuine rehabilitation that leads to a better life.
When Judge Baraitser blocked Assange’s extradition, her citation of Epstein’s alleged suicide, instead of the countless cases of cruelty against US prisoners in recent years, distracts attention away from a systemic problem within the United States prison system. Sentencing mentally ill people (a huge sub-population within American prisons) to any amount of time behind bars entails far more than just a “risk” to these peoples’ lives. It is almost always a certainty that if incarceration does not literally kill them, it will destroy their lives in so many other ways. To incarcerate someone anywhere, but especially in America, home of the Prison Industrial Complex, is inhumane. Period.
Reviewing “The Prison Industrial Complex:”
In order to better understand why Assange was considered too vulnerable a candidate for the American prison system, it is important to contextualize the American prison system’s significance as a long-standing monolithic instrument of generational devastation, torture, and an immoral exercise in revoking the rights of marginalized peoples.
The “Prison Industrial Complex” (PIC), a term coined by Communist activist Angela Davis in 1998, describes a system in which the interests of the government overlap with industries that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social, and political issues. The practices associated with the term predate the coinage, initially manifesting when the first colonizers arrived in America.
The system of slavery was the basis of strength for America’s economy until 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the subsequent passing of the 13th amendment 2 years later indicated slavery to be unconstitutional except as a punishment for crime. It would take the US government roughly a century to fully realize the extent to which they could take advantage of this stipulation.
Slave labor became the basis of America’s nascent economy, as unpaid and involuntary laborers, either indigenous to America or abducted and trafficked from Africa, cultivated tobacco and cotton on American plantations.
Despite The Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, racism persisted. In roughly a century, the American establishment managed to restore slavery as a method for economic growth. Exploiting the stipulation of slavery as a constitutionally accepted practice as punishment for a crime, the United States government recreated slavery in prisons, while it still maintained the virtual absence of it within the overtly public sphere.
Criminalization of Black People and The Left (often one and the same):
When the civil rights era broke out in the early fifties, incarceration rates for Black people exploded— and it only went up from there. Legal segregation was formally repealed (although I, alongside many people, would say segregation is still a very real problem) in 1954, after the Supreme Court in Brown v. The Board of Education ruled it unconstitutional. Despite Brown, racism remained a systemic problem. Americans had managed to ignore the reality of racism in America.
Recognizing “separate but equal” practices as a constitutionally permitted method for handling racial tensions, the Supreme Court in Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896) fueled such ignorance, giving mainstream America the impression that such tensions had been dissolved. Under Plessy, the Supreme Court rejected a challenge to segregation in public facilities, ruling that such segregation was constitutionally acceptable, as long as the facilities were equal in quality.
As the 1960s raged on, protests against the Vietnam war, demonstrations for the rights of Black people, and other rallies against the United States’ racist, imperialist war machine became increasingly confrontational with police. Political dissidents like The Black Panthers emerged on the scene as a result.
The American machine took issue with two facets of The Black Panther Party: (1) its practice of Communist thought, a source of severe anxiety across much of America; and, (2) its appearance of militarism, as suggested by the practice of carrying weapons and wearing clothing suggestive of violent dissidence. Apparently it was okay for police to don guns and riot gear, but when the people being beaten by them did the same, those victims were criminalized.
Throughout the 20th century, mainstream America has suppressed Communists’ constitutional rights to freedom of expression, press, assembly, and petition. This only worsened during the movement against The Vietnam War, as the U.S. responded to civil unrest related to racial injustice, characterized by the intermarriage, either perceived or actual, of Black and Communist activism.
Naturally, President Richard Nixon demonized these dissidents and characterized them as terrorists. Thus, the Left and Black America became the obvious target of violent suppression by American authorities. As evidenced by the extreme sense of paranoia that guided his presidency, President Nixon felt threatened by the calls for drastic social change, and so he relied on law enforcement to protect the “silent majority’s” America. His 1971 declaration that drug abuse was “public enemy number one” only deepened racial tensions between Black and Brown communities and the state.
Running for reelection in 1972, President Nixon asserted that he would restore law and order to America in the wake of the unprecedented levels of violence that spread across the United States in the late 60s. To do so, he bombastically condemned the so-called “perpetrators” of this unrest, wrongly assigning full culpability for all violence that had spread across America to the Left and to Black people. In an ever-increasing way, President Nixon relied upon and celebrated law enforcement, which he had tasked with securing and advancing his abusive agenda and that of his circle.
The War on Drugs as Ruse for Racism:
In the wake of President Nixon’s declaration of “The War on Drugs,” police forces descended into low-income neighborhoods en masse. As a result of historically common methods of oppression, these neighborhoods have tended to be comprised of Black and Brown people. Within this socio-economic context, racism and classism led cops to go after people with more affordable illicit substances, such as heroin, marijuana, and freebase (crack) cocaine.
In an interview conducted by journalist Dan Baum for his 1996 book Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure, President Nixon’s counsel and assistant for domestic affairs, John Ehrlichman, admits:
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
And it is with this vile line of thinking that police forces were further empowered by the state to rip apart families and violently disrupt the lives of marginalized people only looking for a better life. And law enforcement officials were able to do so with impunity, as a result of President Nixon’s policies.
The Nixon Administration mobilized against radicals, both Black and White. The tactic articulated by Ehrlichman served as a clever way to circumvent constitutionally guaranteed protections for the kinds of activities in which the left and minorities were involved. And of course the objective of this circumvention was aimed at stamping out the threat the Nixon Administration claimed these entities represented.
As prisons began to fill beyond capacity, a new industry was formed in the 1980s— that of privatized prisons. It became clear that money could be made by integrating the prison system more deeply into the capitalistic framework of American culture. Interested in packing prisons as tightly as possible in order to maximize the profit the incarceration of any given prisoner entailed, Presidents from Nixon thru Trump were complicit in targeting the most vulnerable communities, the communities least likely to resist and overcome incarceration as a result of their historical deprivation of access to resources by which they could protect the rights all people deserve.
In part, “The CIA-Contra-Crack Cocaine Controversy,” involving the CIA’s willful saturation of low-income black communities with crack cocaine, was meant to facilitate over-crowding of prisons in the interest of maximizing profit; drug possession has almost always served as a convenient reason to arrest the members of these communities. And again, given the historically low access to resources within such communities, which would otherwise facilitate meaningful resistance to and victory over racist law enforcement and carceral systems, it makes sense that the CIA would choose to target such communities.
To put it simply, the confluence of racism, classism, and capitalism has led to the over-representation of Black people in American prisons, an over-population intentionally strategized by members of the White American establishment. In other words, minorities have become commodities that make prisons profitable.
Profitability of Prisons:
Private prisons are corporations that our government authorizes to incarcerate people. But where is the money in this? Why would a business want to profit off of something that has destroyed the lives of millions? How did the 13th Amendment go from being a constitutional bar on slavery to a cog in the machine of creating opportunities for private corporations to cash in on a prolonged hatred against radical leftists and Black and Brown people? The answer is an amalgamation of racism, classism, and capitalism.
Government stipends serve as the foundation upon which the profitability of prisons rests. It is the first means by which prisons receive money. Within this system, each participating prison receives $100-150 per prisoner per day from the federal government. In possession of the money, each prison is permitted to decide how the stipend is spent, which means it is not an issue whether or not the stipend goes to maintaining prison facilities. To maximize profits, just as any other corporation would typically do, prisons cut corners, sacrificing prisoners’ well-being for the sake of maximizing carceral profitability.
The results of such choices are illustrated in the cold landscape of American prisons today. Unhealthy food, often tainted with contagions, is overwhelmingly common. Pay-per-minute phone calls create a financial impediment to staying in contact with family and friends. Such a financial impediment is guaranteed by how poorly compensated prison jobs are, typically providing an hourly wage of mere pennies or not resulting in any compensation whatsoever. Occasionally offered tablet computers for rental, and often then having to pay costly per-minute or per-day Wi-Fi fees to read books they must also pay to download, prisoners almost always have no opportunity to learn. It is also entirely the case that illiteracy remains a disproportionate problem in prisons, creating an additional hurdle to consuming information. And despite often working life-threatening jobs for $1.45/day, prisoners often face the inability to qualify for such jobs once they are released.
But how draconian American prisons are goes beyond the already described atrocious environments. United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer has concluded that the common practice of solitary confinement constitutes torture. According to a statement by the United Nations, this practice, characterized by the confinement of prisoners in solitude for 22 to 23 hours a day, causes excruciating agony, very possibly resulting in chronic and permanent mental illness. Such a practice is often the penalty prisoners that advocate for themselves face when they challenge their oppression.
In regards to the Assange case, let’s point out that he has been kept in solitary confinement for long periods of time during his incarceration at Belmarsh Prison, and it has been shown that such confinement has contributed to the rapid decline of his health. It wasn’t until fellow prisoners engaged in civil disobedience to protest the abuse of Assange that he was reintegrated into general population. Despite scientific evidence and although the United Nations has consistently condemned the practice as inhumane, Assange will likely face up to 175 years of it, if the appellate review of Baraitser’s blockage results in the United Kingdom granting the United States government’s request. Let’s re-emphasize, however, that massive amounts of incarcerated people rot in such confinement already, and they have done so for far longer than those that control prisoners would ever likely admit.
Given the United States’ extensive record when it comes to ignoring human rights, it comes as no surprise that the penal system was deemed dangerous to the mental health of Assange. It is in the interest of profit that prisons are intended to destroy people, increasing the likelihood of recidivism and re-incarceration. Integrated so severely into America’s capitalistic system, prisons are not restorative, correctional, or rehabilitative. No transformative justice is facilitated by our prison system. Interference with familial intimacy, ransoms in the form of cash bail, and slave labor for corporate profits: these are the fundamental and irrefutable qualities of penal institutions in the United States.
When Judge Vanessa Baraitser blocked Assange’s extradition on the grounds of concern for his mental health, which has been rapidly disintegrating while he has been under the care of Belmarsh Prison, she likely did not mean to indict the US prison system as a coldhearted place where people are dehumanized. Nevertheless, her decision served as such an indictment.
While it is in no way the intention of this article to undermine the need for respecting the safety and rights of a heroic journalist such as Assange, it cannot be ignored that Assange, like Epstein and Maxwell, is a white and well-educated person. As focus on the Prison Industrial Complex continues, it cannot be forgotten that the damage done in American prisons has been felt most in minority communities across the United States. It is up to the advocates for Assange and the abolitionists of the world to seize upon Baraitser’s ruling. They need to illustrate that prisons in America are inhumane. They must do so for everyone, and not just high-profile journalists that challenge American imperialism.
By Leah R. Levine @leah_levine_
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