Is Incarceration in the Global South Still Part of the Colonial Legacy?

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Incarceration has always been a powerful tool in the hands of those who want to remain in power and silence or subdue anyone who has a different opinion. With the advent of colonialism, incarceration became a much more powerful tool than weapons, and its misuse and abuse increased significantly throughout the colonised world. The workshop titled ‘The colonialities of incarceration in the Global South’ organised by SOAS’s new initiative Carceral Policy, Policing and Race, focused on the global south and how, even today, incarceration follows very clearly and neatly laid down colonial patterns. Following the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, there has been fresh debate about race’s role in policing and prisons. However, this has not resulted in a sustained conversation about the worldwide realities of Black, brown, and Indigenous incarceration.

The first speaker was Dr Stella Nyanzi, a Ugandan human rights activist, medical anthropologist, and poet who has been a victim of unfair incarceration multiple times.

 

She has been detained close to twenty-two times, mainly because of her outspoken criticism of Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni. She talked about her own experience at the Luzira Maximum Security Prison. She connected that to the larger issues of gender, policing, and healthcare widespread in Uganda prisons. As a prisoner, especially a female prisoner, she was not allowed to write or publish her work. The British colonisers set this precedent that a woman would be mentally ill if she spoke out and wrote against the existing government. Dr Nyanzi was forced to undergo medical checkups to see if she was of stable mind.

Dr Nyanzi entered and lived through prison as a dissident writer. She was prohibited from accessing news or reading newspapers. When she could not save enough material to write on, she wrote with her faeces on the walls. However, she had allies and friends who smuggled her writings and poems from the prison. She wrote about the everyday life of the prison, the conditions the prisoners had to undergo, and all the people who visited the prison, including priests, personnel, family and friends. She would also engage in conversation with her fellow prisoners and mention their experiences through her work. While recalling her experience, Dr Nyanzi also talked about how health care workers were specifically deployed to remove any evidence of torture from the prison cells. Human rights and access to health care were often denied or violated for the prisoners.

The next speaker was Dr Dylan Kerrigan, who spoke about the prison system in Guyana. Throughout Guyana, the prison estates still exist in the same buildings that the colonisers established. Even the prison rules and regulations from the times of colonialism are still followed. The prison systems in Guyana are built upon the idea of psychological confinement and dehumanising the prisoners and inmates that reside there. Mental abuse, substance disorders and torture are all an everyday routine for the prisoners in the prisons of Guyana.

According to Dr Kerrigan, prisons have become institutions to suppress any minority community, especially those who must fight to earn the very basic ounce of respect from the majoritarian governments and policies. Anyone studying the institution of prison and policing would come across three key themes – enslavement, management of labour and the failure of reform efforts.

The final segment of the workshop was taken by Dr Wangui Kimari and Dr Annie Pfingst, wherein they discussed their paper titled “Carcerality and legacies of settler colonialism in Nairobi”. Kenyans were criminalised by the British from the beginning of their colonial rule in the country. The British criminalised Kenyans from the beginning of their colonial rule in the country. Colonial punishments like jail, closure, interrogation, curfew, confiscation, separation, displacement and detention without trial are still deeply embedded in the geographical and ideological structures of post-colonial Kenya. The post-colonial period normalised colonial modes of prosecution and punishment rather than signalling a rupture with them. The authors have used ethnographic research methods to engage and confront five interconnected mechanisms – settler colonialism, violence, racism, colonial corporeality, and capitalism. Dr Kimari and Dr Pfingst also discussed the ongoing brutality and cruelty in the same areas that were colonial siege targets and connected settler colonialism’s carceral practices to Nairobi’s poor communities’ everyday post-colonial administration.

This workshop is part of the SOAS Project for Carceral Policy, Policing and Race, launched by Rt Hon David Lammy MP. The series aims to provide a knowledge exchange network to recalibrate a US-centric discussion of the relationship between race and carcerality and explore culturally specific and relevant reforms. Join the next online workshop, ‘Bordering, Detention and Deportation,’ on 20 May 2022.

Surabhi Sanghi is a SOAS Digital Ambassador, pursuing a master’s degree in South Asian Studies and Intensive Language (which also means she gets to be in London for one whole extra year). She has a background in history and is interested in the religions of South Asia. She is a dog person and her only wish is to be able to pet all the dogs in London.

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