Book Review: Julie De Dardel’s Exporter la prison américaine. Le système carceral colombien à l’ère du tournant punitif

After four years of negotiations, at the end of November 2016 the Colombian Congress finally ratified a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC-EP). Around the same time, right-wing populist Donald Trump was about to be elected as the 45th American president. Given his promises to reopen secret CIA prisons and the worldwide influence of US foreign politics, questioning carceral practices has become an urgent task. Julie de Dardel’s Exporter la prison américaine provides enlightening proof.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky once wrote that ‘the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.’ In this sense, Exporting the American Prison offers a double perspective: not only does de Dardel’s book take us through the Colombian carceral system, but it also brilliantly unveils the relationship of the latter with its US counterpart. The book reveals an unexplored aspect of the ‘Colombian Plan,’ namely the exportation of the US prison model, which followed an agreement between the Colombian and the US governments set up with the objective of defeating drug trafficking. In her book, de Dardel focuses on three main questions: Through which circuits, actors and institutions is the US prison model exported worldwide? Under which modalities and geo-political stakes have this model transferred to Colombia? How did the detainees react to the implementation of the new architectural and disciplinary standards?

Over a two-year period, the geographer visited twenty prisons all over Colombia: ten that operate according to the ‘old’ Colombian model known as criolla prisons, and ten that follow the carceral model stemming from US exportation. Thanks to her engagement within a Colombian NGO working with political prisoners, de Dardel was able to approach the world behind bars intimately, establishing relationships of trust with many prisoners. As a result, she gained a deeper understanding of the practices and the logic that bind female and male detainees and guards together in such a difficult environment. De Dardel provides the reader with an exhaustive picture of how the US model has been implanted, as her interviews and observations range in space and time. Her interviews were with mostly political Colombian prisoners, guards and other supervisors of the different institutions, as well as with US architects and entrepreneurs of the US carceral industry.

At the beginning of her book, de Dardel introduces the reader to the violent history of Colombia, a country that, at least according to official narratives, is moving toward peace after half a century of internal armed conflict between government and leftist guerrillas, and which has witnessed yet another escalation of violence when, from the 1980s, drug trafficking has unfortunately tainted the country’s reputation the world over. De Dardel also depicts the role of the paramilitaries and their relationship with Colombian politics, particularly under the presidency of Alvaro Uribe. It was under his double mandate from 2002 to 2010 that the aforementioned ‘Colombian Plan’ reached its peak. Under the guise of a global war against terror, it was in these years that the US intervention on Colombian soil materialized in billions of dollars invested in military operations meant to obliterate cocaine trafficking. As de Dardel shows, neither the war against terror or drugs, nor the importation of the US carceral complex have been particularly successful.

Before coming to the US model, de Dardel describes the ‘criolla’ prison and defines four distinguishing features. The first is the organization of the everyday life of the prisoners and their activities, which are mostly collective and carried out in common spaces. The second feature is the abundance of spaces of autonomy, that is, the actual places where the prisoners organize their own ‘illegal’ businesses (a fruit shop, a hairdresser, etc.), or simply their freedom to decorate their cell or keep their own clothes and habits. Thirdly, the criolla prison is open towards the exterior – the visits from relatives and friends are regular and the prisoners benefit from a certain degree of intimacy. The fourth feature is accessibility – the prisons have been built in the urban environment and are thus generally accessible by public transport in a relatively short time. Eventually, de Dardel’s ethnography provides proof that the criolla prison could have been appreciated on the international scene as an archetype for prisons as places of reintegration rather than exclusion.

The book shows how the culture of control takes over in the 21st century. De Dardel scrupulously illustrates how the exportation of the US carceral complex travels on a binary level: through the reproduction of a regulated model based on discipline and supported by politics of ultra-punishment, and through the duplication of a predefined architectural model. In the second part of this book the reader is taken behind the scenes of the prison-industrial complex. The interviews that de Dardel carries out with various US architects and entrepreneurs are crucial to understanding the logic driving an industry that, by their own admission, is worth billions of dollars. Here, we discover how security and control have become the biggest objectives of a carceral system that has completely abandoned any goal of social reintegration. In fact, the new institutions base their control on indirect rather than direct supervision – prisons are built so as to reduce the contact between guards and prisoners, as well as among prisoners, to the minimum. Human relationships and any contact with the external world are deterred, as the prisons are built in very remote areas. Still, this is the carceral model being exported to Colombia. As de Dardel clarifies, this exportation did not simply imply the transfer of an architectural model, but was accompanied by a true cultural revolution in Colombian carceral practices. An American team from the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) was sent to Colombia to instruct the penitentiary personnel on the new logic and practices of surveillance, eventually leading to a militarization of the carceral sector. Conversely, in 2005 the US government changed its foreign policies and ended its interventions, leaving Colombia’s new institutions to be slowly overtaken by the ‘old creole practices.’

In the conclusive chapters, de Dardel’s clarifies her theoretical framework, which draws on Erving Goffman and Giorgio Agamben, and shows how the new Colombian prisons have become places of coercion, dispossession, and control, as well as of many-sided resistance. In the third and final part of the book, voice is given to the detainees, who denounce their struggle for every basic need and for the maintenance of their personal integrity – be it through the possibility of wearing their own clothes, decorating their cells, or accessing the external world, all things forbidden in the new carceral culture. Nevertheless, de Dardel’s ethnography demonstrates how every prisoner has a form of agency that can be displayed through the conquest of small territories of freedom – a table or the use of make-up. The new carceral environment is particularly hostile towards women, for whom cultivating an external appearance is sometimes a strategy for preserving a sense of womanhood in this context. Intriguingly, even behind the bars of the new institutions, prisoners and guards negotiate their habits, thus preserving contradictory behaviors inherited from the criolla prison, which makes the exportation of the US penitentiary complex a multifaceted failure that deserves to be studied.

Exporting the American Prison is not only a book about the prison-industrial complex and the exportation of the US model to Colombia. De Dardel forces readers to reflect on the underlying interests hidden behind every carceral complex, which for the most part are inhabited by vulnerable populations, since tax evasion or even the environmental damage caused by the wealthy very rarely put those responsible behind bars. De Dardel’s ethnography unveils the brutalizing capitalist-driven logic of the new carceral practices and illustrates how the latter inevitably fails to supplant the more human patterns characterizing the ‘old’ criolla prison. Eventually, even the most skeptical reader will come to question the US model as an example of an efficient measure in fighting crime.

Attilio Bernasconi, University of Lausanne.

Reviewed in this essay:

De Dardel, Julie. Exporter la prison américaine. Le système carceral colombien à l’ère du tournant punitif. Neuchâtel : Éditions Alphil. Presses universitaires suisses. 264 pages, $37.00.




About Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Matthew Wolf-Meyer is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Binghamton University in the State University of New York system. He received his Ph.D. from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, specializing in medical anthropology and the social study of science and technology. He is author of the forthcoming book The Slumbering Masses (UMN Press), which focuses on sleep in American culture and its historical and contemporary relations to capitalism.

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