Prison relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.
— Angela Davis
Operation Streamline embodies this quotation. I saw it in action today in a courtroom in Tucson. Operation Streamline resulted from the creation of a “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, in which people entering the US for the first time without documentation are charged in criminal court with a misdemeanor, and people entering for the second (or third or fourth) are charged with the felony of reentry after deportation. The “Streamline” part of the Operation is that 70 people are tried and sentenced in the space of 2 hours, in the same courtroom, within days of being detained. If that doesn’t sound constitutional to you, well, it doesn’t to me, either. Apparently the courts that have addressed the constitutional question have said effectively, “no harm, no foul, let Operation Streamline continue.” The Supreme Court hasn’t said anything about it. Yet.
“Special proceedings” like Streamline happen in a large courtroom. There is an eerie sterile nature to the courtroom. Hand sanitizer pumps are all over the room, on every table. The ceiling is brightly colored because someone thought that would be appropriate for a desert courtroom. I sit in the back corner with the other Border Studiers. The people on trial that day sit in the gallery and in the jury box, the chains at their wrists and ankles clinking as they shift in their seats. Between the vaulting ceilings and the muffled whisper of the Spanish/English interpreter speaking into her microphone, the judge’s words are lost. I can’t really hear him, though I do notice that he calls the defendants, “gentlemen and lady.”
He calls groups of eight forwards. They are chained at the wrists and ankles, wearing the same clothes they were detained in, earphones for the Spanish interpretation dangling from their ears.
The process is fast: they say “sí, sí, no, no, culpable, no,” affirming their names, giving up their rights, admitting their guilt, and away they are led, through a door, but not before their attorneys pull the earphones out of their ears, because most can’t reach, thanks to the chains. Most are sentenced to time already served. They will be deported. Others are sentenced for any number of days: 30, 60, 100. Afterwards, they’ll be deported.
At one point, the prosecutor speaks up. “Your honor, this defendant has past charges; the state requests that he be sentenced to five days in a correctional facility.” The judge grants the request.
Why? Why bother? What does five days in a jail matter? Or 100, for that matter? What’s the mentality behind sentencing these people to prison or deportation for entering the country illegally? These people aren’t coming to play a sneaky trick on the citizens of the United States. They’re walking through the desert for days to find jobs to feed their families, because it’s the only way to have some hope of survival, thanks to the US decimation of the Mexican economy. Incarceration doesn’t solve the problems of economic policies like NAFTA allowing the US to flood the Mexican market with subsidized corn, outcompeting Mexican farmers and leaving them with no means of income.
Operation Streamline meets no logical end to an actual problem. Instead, what it does is feed the prisons – prisons owned by for-profit, public corporations, which depend on the US government paying them millions of dollars per month to hold inmates. These corporations can build huge correctional facilities and then lobby for new legislation that fill their beds. The legislation is popular because it “fights crime” and builds the economy. The southwest economy is built on border militarization. Prisons and law enforcement agencies and the US Marshall create jobs. Jobs that rely on racist and dehumanizing operations like Streamline.