The first conversations I had about mass incarceration were in high school spaces focused on students of color. Prison and incarceration, the idea of criminality, and the suddenly, empirically clear fact of racism in this country entered my mind suggesting that my understanding of the world was deeply out of touch. Counter to appearances, in about sixteen years of life nothing I had learned suggested the degree to which an unjust, racist, classist, and ruthlessly profit-driven ideology shaped not only the way our country is run but the way many of us see it. For me, more than many but less than others, beginning to see this phenomenon was a deep kind of unlearning. I’ll pause here to say that today, much of my motivation to getting involved in prison divestment work as well other advocacy and organizing I've been doing is motivated by the deep sense that I belong to a culture whose blindness to its own injustice and hypocrisy is at the heart of a system that perpetuates inequality and marginalization of the poorest people. The recognition of this blindness began at that time in high school, and though I will always wish I had known what was happening around me sooner, I take solace in the fact that I am learning more each day.
As I began to see the truths of racism and capitalism, things that I had always known began to take on new meaning. The fact that many of my relatives (including my father) had overstayed their travel visas from Pakistan to the U.S. took on a very different meaning for me; they had arrived in this country having exposed themselves to unreasonably large risks and had held the very same undocumented status that has led to thousands of criminal convictions, detentions, and separation of families. The knowledge I had of illegitimate detention in Guantanamo of Muslims like myself was suddenly contextualized within a modern history of detention of immigrants and incarceration of Black and Latino men. And I realized the fact that my family today has citizenship and and had a good degree of financial success by the time I was born had been enough to hide all of that for me. As far as I had understood it, the struggles and risks faced were part of the uphill battle that immigrants must fight, and it was a reality they accepted. What wasn’t made clear was that for many people simply accepting it and fighting through it had led to much difficulty, and that many, many, many people were faced greater challenges than my parents ever did.
As I learned about how detention and deportation of immigrants really worked, I began to involve myself in immigration rights advocacy, with much of my passion and motivation hinging upon this personal connection I had begun to understand. But that personal connection only took me so far into things. Since nobody in my family had been detained (though some deported) and certainly none incarcerated for drug crimes or gang affiliation, I quickly was working in an area beyond that with which I could identify and talk about. Moreover, the circumstances under which South Asian Muslims like myself experience racial discrimination are fewer and less systematic than the experiences of Blacks and Latinos, although they are still deeply painful and alienating. In that sense, what pushes me forward in my work isn’t that I know that under some circumstances my life would be radically different because of immigration laws but rather that I never knew any of this was happening. The hidden truth of injustice and the difficulty of my process of uncovering it angers me deeply.
The way I see it, by failing to condemn such activity I was supporting its continued success. Criminalization of low income people of color depends on perceptions of such people as criminal, and continuing to subscribe to an ideology that supports that is contributing to this phenomenon. Karl Marx put it rather plainly in Capital, Vol. 1: “they do not know it, but they are doing it.” I was (and, given that I’m not really that separate from the kind of society, am still) ‘doing it.’ We perpetuate our reality by failing to make the most upsetting facts about it explicit, and our blindness, collectively enforced, allows it to continue.
At Columbia University, where I’m an undergrad, we have a campaign to get the University to divest from private prisons. Naturally, they’re resistant. Despite the fact that these private prison companies are deeply sinister, Columbia remains committed to its investment portfolio. For them, it only matters that the private prison industry is lucrative; one such company, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is a Fortune 500 company.
Private prison companies are run with the goal of profit, not only mistreating inmates in various cost-saving maneuvers but actively lobbying the government to pass laws that increase rates of incarceration and detention in this country. CCA and GEO Group, the other major private prison corporation, were both involved in the passage of Arizona's SB 1070. That involvement is not the exception but rather the rule; these large corporations have financial connections that run deep and it is not hard to follow the cash back to campaign donations and political organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that link corporations to politicians.
What I’ve begun to understand is that private prisons benefit from the public perception that being “tough on crime" is good; a belief that is reinforced by exactly the kind of of blindness that inspired me to join the campaign in the first place. Every time a suggestion is made that we increase border security, do more to deal with the “immigrant problem” and continue the “war on drugs,” GEO and CCA are there trying to make that suggestion a reality, and make sure that such a reality is profitable for their shareholders. They thrive on a naivety that is reinforced through almost every conversation around politics that surrounds us. Unlearning for me has given me the motivation to work against CCA and GEO Group. Today I am proud to say I’m a part of a campaign to take away the thing that gives them their power and the thing that is most dear to them: their money. I hope you can find it in yourself to do the same.