OpEd | Reflections on Dwight: The logic of the savior


On March 11, the Board of Trustees for the Village of Dwight voted 5-2 in favor of the construction of a privately-run, for-profit immigrant prison operated by Immigration Centers of America (ICA). While over 90 percent of those who spoke at the village meeting opposed the prison, two Dwight residents spoke in supported of the prison. A key reason for them was the idea Dwight may be able to help these poor immigrants by providing better living conditions than the conditions provided at other facilities.

The utilitarian logic that “we can make the oppression benevolent” is not new and has a rather insidious history. From 1891 to 1978, it was legal in the United States for the government to forcibly remove Native American children from their families and send them to privately-operated boarding schools and schools established by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. These schools forbid “being Indian” in any way: wearing tribal clothing, speaking Native tongues, practicing tribal religion, etc. Mexican children from the mid-19th century to the 1950s were forced into segregated schools and forbidden to speak Spanish. Religious Southerners defended slavery by stating it was necessary to impose Christian morality on Blacks for their own good, and truly Christian masters will only impose moderate punishments, sufficient food, decent housing and leisure time.

The “savior logic” finds its origins in utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill. One of the chief theorists of colonialism, Mill had extensive experience with England’s control of India. He sent over 1,700 letters to India as an examiner for the English East-India Company. Mill examined and defined what it meant to be a developed country and how developed countries should extend themselves. In “The Principles of Political Economy,” Mill writes, “Colonization is the best affair of business in which the capital of an old and wealthy country can engage.” He defined a developed country “in terms of its capacity for autonomy and good government.”

However, Mill’s viewpoints on developed countries are still constituted solely on Eurocentrism, and he saw non-white countries as undeveloped and incapable of self-rule.

In India’s case, and even more perpetually in the case of the West Indies and African colonies, “benevolent despotism” –– a paternalistic “government of guidance” imposed by more advanced Europeans –– was the rational order of the day.

Is Mill’s logic not so far removed from the two Dwight residents who spoke in support of the prison?

But, Dwight has experience with the practice of “benevolent despotism.” From 1930-2013, Dwight was home to the Dwight Correctional Center (DCC), an Illinois prison exclusively for women. What was Dwight’s record in operating this facility? The John Howard Society, a prison-reform organization, reported in 1973 that conditions at DCC were “oppressive,” there was an overemphasis on preventing and punishing homosexuality and “there was racial bias” among corrections officers.

In 1979, two officers were accused of sexually assaulting women and arranging “sex parties” with inmates. According to a July 8, 1997, article in The Pantagraph, it was not illegal prior to 1997 for corrections officers to engage in sex with prisoners. That conclusion came following another incident at DCC involving upwards of 12 correction officers engaging in sexual relations with prisoners. From 1999 on, multiple federal lawsuits were filed alleging sexual abuse, painting a grim picture of sexual harassment and retribution against inmates.

With this history, can we really be confident an ICA-run detention center will be much different? Dwight’s own history proves the flawed logic of “benevolent despotism.” Despite the good intentions of some Dwight residents, the power schema is open to the same abuses as the village’s previous prison.

Finally, time and again, the “savior logic” mainly benefits the oppressor, not the oppressed; the profit motive with ICA only accentuates that fact. Anyone who truly cares about immigrants must support the abolition of the enslavement of immigrants.

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