They Are Concentration Camps — and They Are Also Prisons

The words “Holocaust” and “concentration camp” were trending on Twitter on Tuesday. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had referred to the prison camps that migrant children are being kept in as “concentration camps,” and a virtual war erupted. The feigned outrage of conservatives was loud. Some argued that the Holocaust was a singular event, to which no parallel should be claimed. Meanwhile, many historians and people personally connected to the Holocaust insisted that the comparison was valid.

As a Native writer and a Jewish writer, respectively, whose ancestors and cultures were subject to attempted state-sanctioned annihilation, we are not opposed to people using the words “concentration camps” to describe the camps in which migrant children, teens and adults are being caged. The words accurately apply, and we should not hesitate to use Holocaust comparisons in appropriate situations like this one. However, if we stop at analogies that are suggestive of a faraway time and place, we are disregarding a wide web of interconnected atrocities that impact millions of people right now in the United States.

We have both spent many years struggling, organizing and writing against the prison-industrial complex, a many-tentacled system of death and destruction. It’s a system that extends well beyond the walls of the buildings formally known as “prisons” and “jails,” where over 2 million people are trapped, some of them spending decades and even lifetimes behind bars. It extends to the estimated 200,000 people shackled with electronic monitors, imprisoned in their homes. It extends to the euphemistically named “juvenile detention centers” — really, youth jails and prisons — where children are abused, locked in solitary confinement, and torn from those they love. (Family separation is a longstanding feature of the prison system.) The prison-industrial complex extends to the people indefinitely incarcerated in “civil commitment centers” and psychiatric hospitals, and in military prisons; and it extends to the youth trapped in the punitive and racially biased “child protective services” net. It extends to policing, a violent practice of capturing, harming and sometimes directly killing large numbers of disproportionately Black, Brown, trans and/or disabled people. The prison-industrial complex also extends to another immense punitive, violent institution: the U.S. immigration system, which hosts its own wide network of jails (usually labeled “detention centers”).

The migrant camps in which children are being incarcerated are concentration camps — and they are also prisons. We must hold these dual, overlapping realities in our minds, as we strive to comprehend the interrelated horrors to which the United States — not just Trump, but the United States — subjects millions of people every day.

As Alex Ross noted in his piece, How American Racism Influenced Hitler, “America’s knack for maintaining an air of robust innocence in the wake of mass death struck Hitler as an example to be emulated.” That stubborn insistence that the United States itself is, at its core, innocent (though currently saddled with an undeniably vile leader) continues to limit the country’s self-awareness and ability to grapple with its own injustices, including those — like genocide, enslavement, and Jim Crow — that Hitler himself vowed to emulate.

The current U.S. prison system provides ample evidence that this country is far from “innocent.” Imprisoned people are subject to a wide spectrum of violence and abuse — from torturous solitary confinement, to rape by guards, to inedible food, to shackling for long periods of time, to the ongoing abuse and murder of disabled incarcerated people. Children are not exempt from these cruel practices: 53,000 youth, who are disproportionately Black and Native, are currently confined in the criminal punishment system. They are subjected to many of the horrific conditions described at migrant camps: Authorities at youth jails perpetrate rampant physical abuse, sexual violence, medical neglect, and psychological manipulation.

The heartwrenching stories of babies torn from their mothers at the border bring to mind the fate of babies born to mothers incarcerated in the prison system: They’re often given 24 to 48 hours together, then brutally separated, as the mother is led away from her newborn in handcuffs and shackles. She may not see her baby for months, or years, or ever again.

Last year, one of the imprisoned organizers of the national prison strike told Truthout that his facility had been on continuous lockdown, leaving prisoners without recreation or sunlight for months. Prisoners were losing weight due to poor nutrition and had insufficient access to water. Self-harm among prisoners had increased, with one man trying to bite a vein out of his arm. Such conditions, while shocking, are not uncommon, particularly in higher-security prisons and in the face of protest. Notably, the prison strikers connected their efforts with the resistance efforts of ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] detainees. The organizer explained that the two groups were in solidarity with one another “because we understand those cages. And not only that, but it’s all the same system.”

On Tuesday, the same day the “concentration camp” debate rose to a fever pitch, the Prison Policy Initiative released a report on the sometimes-lethal lack of universal air conditioning in prisons in 13 of the hottest U.S. states, from Alabama to Texas to Florida to Kansas. Extreme heat, which can cause fatal dehydration and heat stroke among other life-threatening dangers, has also plagued migrants at prison camps. A number of courts have ruled that incarceration in severe heat violates the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment — and yet the problem persists, and those who complain are often retaliated against.

Meanwhile, each year spent in a U.S. prison takes two years off a person’s life expectancy. With over 2.3 million people imprisoned, incarceration has shortened the overall U.S. life expectancy by five years. The most marginalized people are in the gravest danger of being killed by carceral systems, whether they be migrant concentration camps or county jails: Consider the deaths this month of Layleen Polanco, a Black Latinx trans woman incarcerated at Riker’s Island jail, and Johana Medina Leon, a Salvadoran trans woman seeking asylum who was released from ICE custody to her death. There is no clean disconnect between prison camps and death camps.

In affirming that the migrant prison camps are concentration camps, experts have also pointed to the “mass detention of civilians without trial” as a key criterion. This chilling reality echoes a parallel one: Almost half a million people are incarcerated while awaiting trial in the United States, often because they cannot pay a money bond. (Approximately 9,000 youth are among those awaiting trial while incarcerated.) They wait months, sometimes years, behind bars, making it more likely that they’ll accept a conviction through a plea bargain, regardless of “guilt.” It’s worth noting that about 95 percent of felony convictions are the result of plea bargains, in which case those convicted simply never see a trial. “Without trial” is a cruelly widespread reality throughout the punishment system.

We’ve seen arguments over the past couple of days that one must use the term “concentration camps” and not “prison camps” to refer to the places where migrant children are being incarcerated. For example, sociologist Lester Andrist made the argument that “prison camp” is an inaccurate comparison, because concentration camps take place “outside the formal legal system,” where “the state is largely free to do what it wants.” Yet the horrors of the prison-industrial complex should remind us that the state is also largely free to do whatever it wants within the formal criminal legal system.

As we draw important comparisons to the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, it’s crucial to remember that the U.S. has plenty of its own sins to enumerate and name for comparison. To insist that the only acceptable term for these camps is one largely associated with the actions of a foreign country rather than the U.S. itself — the country actually committing the atrocity at hand — is to erase a vast network of interlocking violence. While some have argued that the term “concentration camp” also applies to genocidal acts committed by the U.S. government, we must acknowledge that this language, in popular conversation, does not evoke that understanding. Rather, it reinforces notions of a terrible regime that is foreign, both geographically and, ostensibly, in its values, that the U.S. deserves credit for battling and defeating. (This framing, of course, disappears the U.S.’s role in turning away Jewish refugees attempting to escape Nazi Germany.) When we hold that the only valid way to understand the migrant camps is in the context of the atrocities of a different country and a different era, we obscure the way in which they are an extension of ongoing U.S. violence rather than the rebirth under Trump of a terrible thing that happened far away and long ago.

The U.S. has its own complex history of violence, all of which delivered us to this moment: After Native genocide, chattel slavery, Jim Crow, ongoing wars of imperialism, internment of Japanese Americans, the violence of the prison industrial complex, predator drones, mass deportations, “family detention centers,” the destruction of the Earth, and the violent repression of its defenders, Trump is not the sole initiator of mass violence; he is the demagogue who was handed the keys.

Disturbingly, some have argued that tapping into our country’s obsession with Nazism is our best chance at mobilizing the masses. This argument is both ahistorical and infantilizing. The idea that we must portray the carceral violence being inflicted on migrants as something far removed from mainstream U.S. culture because Americans are not yet ready to consider the nature of their own government also limits our liberatory aspirations, which is unacceptable. As Mariame Kaba recently stated on Twitter, “Just because some have resigned themselves to crumbs and un-freedom doesn’t mean I should or will. The fact that they constantly shrink their visions doesn’t make them ‘realistic’ it just makes them resigned.”

The hard truth is that the term “prison camps,” like the term “concentration camps,” also references atrocities that are relevant to the crimes being committed against the migrant children Trump is publicly caging. If the majority of Americans had not spent decades turning away from the horrors of the prison-industrial complex, they would be far less tolerant of the terror that is currently unfolding against migrants. Now we must address those horrors in their totality. If we do not, Trump’s migrant prison camps will be viewed as an aberration, rather than a manifestation of a massive, entrenched, deathmaking system that is embedded in the history and present of the United States. This is a form of denial and a form of maintenance — and what is being maintained is the oppressive machine in which this moment was incubated.

In choosing how we discuss the migrant camps, we must not cut the millions of victims of the prison-industrial complex out of the picture. We must allow that these concentration camps are also prison camps, and take action based on an understanding that all the systems of the prison-industrial complex, including migrant camps, are interconnected. As Marisa Franco of Mijente wrote in the early days of the Trump administration, “We are fighting for the widest idea of sanctuary, and that vision, that aspirational demand, is under profound attack. Through collective action, however, we can create our own walls — walls of protection — that Trump cannot conquer.”

The prison-industrial complex functions by attempting to erase people and communities. As we fight Trump’s escalating violence against migrants, let’s work to do the opposite, and build an encompassing vision of freedom that doesn’t leave anyone behind.

Authors’ note: There are a number of mobilizations and campaigns you can support if you would like to get more involved in the fight against Trump’s concentration camps. There is a national call for vigils to be held on July 12 to “expose U.S. concentration camps.” There will also be a mobilization of survivors of Japanese internment camps and their descendents at Fort Sill in Oklahoma on Saturday. People who cannot attend can donate to help survivors and their families make the trip. People can also support Mijente’s ongoing campaign aimed at dismantling ICE’s deportation infrastructure, including software written by the data mining firm Palantir. If you would like to help bail people out of immigrant detention, you can give to migrant bail funds like the Immigrant Family Defense Fund.