Carceral colonialism

On the United Kingdom’s attempts to finance the construction of large-scale prison facilities in former colonies, to where it wants to deport undocumented migrants.

Image credit Hernán Piñera via Flickr CC.

Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison in Lagos, Nigeria was originally constructed during the colonial era. Today, the prison is a notoriously overcrowded facility, incarcerating more than 5,000 people in a prison originally designed to hold eight hundred. A 2017 investigation of the facility found evidence of “extrajudicial executions, torture, gross overcrowding and poor basic facilities.” According to the newly renamed Nigerian Correctional Service, more than two-thirds of incarcerated people in the country, including many held at Kiri Kiri, have not been convicted a crime and are awaiting trial.

In March 2018, then foreign secretary Boris Johnson (now Prime Minister) announced the United Kingdom would invest £700,000 to construct a new 112-bed extension of Kiri Kiri. But a recent Freedom of Information request to the British Foreign Office reveals, “the UK has decided not to proceed with the proposed construction project,” citing “challenges associated with design and cost.”

The Kiri Kiri Prison expansion is the second prison construct project in former British colonies to be cancelled in recent years. In 2015, UK authorities announced plans to construct a larger prison in Jamaica, intended to hold 1,500 people. The British government offered Jamaica £25 million to build the prison as part of a £300 million aid package. The Jamaican government ultimately rejected the aid package, and with it the construction of a new mega-prison.

Both prison projects were intended to facilitate and expand the UK’s capacity to deport incarcerated Jamaican and Nigerian foreign nationals—many of whom have lived their entire lives in the UK. Under prison transfer agreements with the United Kingdom, incarcerated foreign nationals are subject to deportation and can be made to serve the remainder of their sentences in prison facilities in their “countries of origin.” The UK government, however, has faced difficulties making use of these agreements in both Jamaica and Nigeria due to the conditions of their domestic prisons, which do not meet UN minimum standards and have been flagged by human rights observers for extreme overcrowding—and in the case of Nigeria, extrajudicial killings.

Tope, a British-Nigerian community organizer based in London notes “if they build a prison for deportees, they will have to deport people.” She adds: [Nigerian] communities are already heavily policed and criminalized [in the United Kingdom]. Creating the infrastructure to deport people into Nigerian prisons would make that environment even more prominent.” Tope is appalled by the evidence that, “the [British] government is still trying finding ways to punish Nigerian people and imprison Nigerian people [decades after the end of the colonial era]. It’s shocking.”

Though plans to build deportation and prison infrastructure in ex-British colonies have been rejected, their proposals are a reflection of continued British investment in carceral colonialism. The UK’s contemporary investment in deportation infrastructure replicates historical deportation practices of anti-colonial dissidents and agitators, expelled from Lagos by the British colonial regime for challenging imperial rule within the metropole. In 1941, for instance, the President of the Nigerian Union of Railwaymen, Michael Imoudu, was deported from Lagos to his hometown in the Benin Province and labeled a “potential threat to national security” for his labor organizing. The British have long used practices of deportation and incarceration to control the movement and political resistance of Nigerian colonial and post-colonial subjects.

Researcher Connor Woodman notes that for hundreds of years the British colonies served as laboratories for the production of British policing and incarceration tactics. The existing Kiri Kiri prison in Nigeria, for instance, was built under British colonial rule. The British also built at least three of Jamaica’s seven adult prisons. The contemporary dehumanizing and overcrowded conditions of these prisons reflect the violent British carceral practices under which they were initially built.

For instance, contemporary Nigerian laws permitting both the death penalty and the criminalization of homosexuality were introduced by British colonial governments. Today, Nigerians can be sentenced to prison in overcrowded colonial facilities under colonial laws, and subject to violent colonial punishments. But, the UK’s immigration regime extends no obligation or accountability to people who flee this ongoing colonial injustice. Instead the government invests in their deportation from the empire’s territorial center.

The UK’s attempts to (re)invest in deportation infrastructure designed to incarcerate immigrants from former colonies is evidence it has no plans to account for the continued displacement of people in this post-colonial era. On the contrary, these proposed prisons are evidence the British empire is reinvesting in the machinery of deportation, colonial violence, and erasure.

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