CAÑON CITY, Colorado — The chain of events that brought Zakari Hamadou to the US began with gunfire at the central prison in Niamey, the capital of Niger, on the afternoon of June 1, 2013.

Hamadou is the director of rehabilitation for prisons in the landlocked West African country — no small order given that Niger is ranked by the United Nations as the least developed nation in the world, and its jails are overrun with extremists. A former journalist and NGO leader with no prior experience in correctional facilities before he took the job, Hamadou has a scholarly manner that seems at odds with the rather brutish world of Nigerien prisons.

A description of the Niamey prison from a US Embassy cable sent in spring 2013 showed the extent of the challenges Hamadou faced. Within the prison’s yellow brick walls, 850 men were crammed into a space designed for 350, and its courtyards were described as resembling as an “outdoor flea market.” The cable continued, “The officers who work at the prison (including the director himself) … mostly do not intervene in the affairs of the inmates. The prison director stated that his philosophy was to provide as many liberties as possible.” As a result “inmates are allowed to make unmonitored phone calls ... and make jewelry which they can sell to outside vendors, even though the metal could also be used to make weapons in the prison.”

It was amid this chaos that, shortly before 3 p.m., a prisoner armed himself with an automatic pistol, likely smuggled inside with baskets of food that family members brought inmates to sustain them in the underfunded system. At the penitentiary’s rusted gates, he shot two guards, who, like all Nigerien wardens, were national guards with no training in running a penitentiary. As the remaining security forces returned fire, a pickup truck charged the entrance and fighters allied to the Islamist militant group Boko Haram attacked guards and bystanders.

By the time Nigerien security forces finally regained control, 22 prisoners had escaped, including a high-profile Islamist extremist who had murdered a US diplomat with a pistol shot to the chest in the streets of Niamey.

The unrest at the prison was symptomatic of greater violence sweeping the region. West of Niger, an al-Qaeda-linked insurgency had conquered more than half of Mali in 2012 before French troops beat it back the next year. Across Niger’s southeastern border, Boko Haram took much of northeastern Nigeria in 2014, razing towns, enslaving women, and conscripting men — ultimately displacing more than 2 million people, 100,000 of whom fled into Niger. That year, Boko Haram assumed the title of the world’s deadliest group, according to the Global Terrorism Index.

By the time Nigerien security forces finally regained control, 22 prisoners had escaped, including a high-profile Islamist extremist.

The attack confirmed to officials in Niger the scale of the problems they faced within their prisons, so they turned to their counterparts in the US for guidance. Their concerns were matched by many in Washington, DC, where US State Department officials believe prisons across West Africa and the Middle East represent key fronts in the battle against Islamist extremism. And for nearly two decades, the US had been operating a program to teach foreign officials how to run prisons the American way.

So it was that, in June 2015, Hamadou walked across the tarmac of Niamey’s tiny airport to the plane that would take him out of Africa for the first time. Hamadou’s trip to the US — which would see him visit some of the country’s most sophisticated prison facilities — was part of that bid by the State Department to make prisons worldwide look more like those in the US.

Hamadou was just one of the tens of thousands of foreign correctional officers, from five continents, who have been taught US incarceration techniques. The program began in Latin America during the “war on drugs” of the early 2000s, spread through the Middle East during the “war on terror,” and then to the rest of the world as part of an Obama-era counterterrorism strategy. The State Department has trained around 50,000 prison officers across the world over the past decade and those officers have educated at least another 60,000. It is currently involved in the prison systems of 38 countries, deploying more than 100 full-time advisers.

The scale of the US’s efforts to remodel prisons around the world in its image raises some serious questions, given the reputation of its own correctional facilities. The US has been criticized at home for its overreliance on solitary confinement and its out-of-control prison population — although the US has only 5% of the world’s population, it contains 25% of its prisoners, or more than 2.2 million people. And scandals have hit US prisons abroad, from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib, while a US detention center in Iraq was where ISIS’s leaders first organized.

US efforts to remake foreign prisons have made considerable strides since the debacles in the Middle East in the early 2000s, but as Donald Trump adopts a hard-power foreign policy, the US may again find itself embroiled in controversial overseas facilities. Already the new president has stated his interest in bringing back Bush-era policies such as the CIA’s notorious “black site” prisons. Which forces us to ask: What does it mean if prisons around the world become more like the US’s?

One of the West African visitors to the International Correctional Management Training Center.

Doug Bock Clark for BuzzFeed News

Hamadou’s knowledge of US prisons mostly came from watching documentaries with names he remembered as The Hell of Prison and The Most Dangerous Women in the Globe. As a result, when he first came to the US, he “believed American prisons were dangerous, filthy, and rife with drugs and gangs.”

Twenty-four hours after leaving Niger, Hamadou landed in the US, for a lay over at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the busiest in the world. Every day, around 275,000 travelers transit through Hartsfield-Jackson — nearly as many as pass through Niamey’s airport in a year — and he felt overwhelmed by the crowds.

When he got to Colorado, a bus drove him south through ranchland pinched between red rock mountains — cowboy country that looked nothing like New York or Los Angeles, the America he knew from the movies. Prisons lined the highway as the bus approached Cañon City, the self-proclaimed “Corrections Capital of the World.” A dozen penitentiaries crowd the region, including the federal Supermax, the US’s highest-security prison, which houses senior members of al-Qaeda.

Hamadou’s bus rumbled past bullet hole–pocked signs warning motorists not to pick up hitchhikers and a Confederate flag stitched with the words “I Ain’t Coming Down” draped across a farmhouse fence. Finally, it drove up to a squat sandstone-colored prison surrounded by garlands of concertina wire: the International Correctional Management Training Center, the little-known institution at the heart of the US government’s effort to reshape prisons around the world. Since fall 2011, the ICMTC has operated as a school training the next generation of prison wardens from across the globe. It is run by the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) with help from the Colorado Department of Corrections.

When he first came to the US, he “believed American prisons were dangerous, filthy, and rife with drugs and gangs.”

Hamadou was not alone in his journey to the ICMTC: 27 other wardens and government officials from Niger, Mali, and Senegal filed off the bus with him to spend three weeks studying US penitentiaries. When they returned home, they too would be charged with putting their newfound knowledge to use, running their nations’ prison systems in the fight against extremist groups.

The outside of the ICMTC still looks like the prison it once was, but the first of Hamadou’s many surprises came when he entered: Inside, the facility had all the amenities of a hotel. “This facility is very clean, well-organized, and impressive,” he said.

During his visit, Hamadou slept in a former cell that had been transformed into a private bedroom, complete with a plasma-screen TV. When he got hungry he walked past pictures of smiling prisoners employed in rehabilitative work programs to a kitchen stocked with gala apples and fresh milk from a farm run by prisoners. He Skyped home from the computer lab. Prisoners from a nearby minimum-security facility cooked and cleaned for him, and the compound’s security guards chauffeured him around Cañon City. He couldn’t help but be impressed — he was living a lifestyle nicer than many people in Niger, but in a former US prison.

The raising of the flag of Senegal at the ICMTC.

Doug Bock Clark for BuzzFeed News

The goal of the INL officials was to woo their West African guests. They knew that many participants regarded the US prison system with suspicion and sought to impress them by showing off the best of it, a common tactic of the State Department that some observers have called “policy tourism.”

Each morning at 8 a.m., Hamadou would take a seat in a high-end office chair in the first row of the ICMTC classroom, from where he watched instructors deliver PowerPoint presentations on four flatscreen TVs, while translators simultaneously reworked the lectures into French, which the delegates listened to on headphones.

The training provided by the US varies widely per the needs of the visiting country, though it has increasingly tended toward addressing extremism. For countries like Afghanistan that are mired in conflict, the US has offered military-style training to strengthen prisons against attacks and invested in deradicalization programs. In Mexico and other nations plagued by drug trafficking, the US has advised them on isolating drug kingpins so they cannot run their cartels from behind bars. In the case of the West African countries, which had basic but rapidly expanding prison systems, this has meant beginning with the nuts and bolts of running a penitentiary.

Over the course of the three-week program, the visitors learned to differentiate and separate extremists from general prison populations. The US also trained the West African delegates in fundamental prison techniques such as how to search for contraband (including cell phones, drugs, and weapons), because many had never received any formal instruction.

During field trips to nearby prisons, Hamadou marveled at the surveillance cameras, metal detectors, and control rooms where dozens of screens revealed every corner of the facilities. He filled legal pads with notes and laughed with his colleagues at why-didn’t-we-think-of-that moments, like when they learned to use “shadow boards” on which the silhouettes of tools prisoners borrowed were painted, so guards could tell immediately whether any were missing. Inside one prison, he became teary upon witnessing the cleanliness of the cellblocks and the respect with which the prisoners and guards appeared to treat one another.

Hamadou and the West Africans also visited several facilities run by Colorado Correctional Industries, one of the largest prison-industry programs in the US, which employs about 1,600 inmates and operates 37 industrial shops and farms. These factories produce a wide range of goods, from stuffed animals to all the license plates for the state of Colorado. One of its aquaculture farms supplies 1.2 million pounds of tilapia a year to grocery stores such as Whole Foods. CCI also runs the largest water buffalo dairy in the country, and the West Africans were shocked to find animals native to their continent being milked in the Rockies.

In a furniture factory run by CCI, a safety-goggled guide led the delegation to a 10-foot-long Frankenstein machine: a crane-like arm, a toolbox head complete with drill bits and a rotating saw, and a sliding table, all of which danced in coordination along three axes, controlled by a touchscreen computer. Over the screech of saws, he yelled, “This HOLZ-HER Pro Master 7123 robot does the work of half a dozen machines that take up 20 times the floor space!”

A convict fed a slab of wood into the robot, and the group watched in astonishment as it spooned out a doorknob hole and precisely drilled sockets for the hinges, transforming the plank into a cabinet door. Hamadou gaped. Afterward, he profusely thanked the guide for the demonstration, and the West Africans who could not speak English gave him a thumbs-up repeatedly. As everyone else walked away, Hamadou lingered, running his hands over the machine, his fingers cleaning lines in the sawdust. Some of his prisons were built of mud bricks and most lacked electricity. Later, he said, “I really liked the CCI factories, and got many good ideas for reintegration.” But then he sighed, “The level of our development is so different.”

Ultimately, these efforts to change the opinions of the West Africans about US prison systems worked. “I’m excited to go back and use what I’ve learned,” Hamadou said as his time at the ICMTC ended.

But as much as Hamadou and the other West Africans had enjoyed their three weeks at the ICMTC, they had also occasionally been unsettled. One afternoon, on a tour of the Fremont Correctional Complex, one of the guests asked a correction officer with a handcuff-shaped tie clip why there were so many people who looked like Africans in prison. Later, the group stood aside to let hundreds of manacled prisoners parade past. Madi Laouel Toukou, one of the wardens from Niger, said, “There’s so many people of every color, age, race! What have they done? What have they done?”

The International Correctional Management Training Center

Doug Bock Clark for BuzzFeed News

Though the INL’s plans for Niger’s prisons are unique to the country, if the West Africans had wanted to know what the impact of US prison export had been in the past, they only had to look south to Colombia. It is there, where last year the minister of justice declared a state of emergency in the nation’s prisons due to overcrowding and inhumane conditions, that the US first tried to remake foreign prisons on a large scale. In the late 1990s, drugs were flooding the US from Colombia, and the Clinton administration determined that they presented the clearest threat to US stability. Starting in 2000, the US spent $140 million to help overhaul the country’s justice sector, of which $7 million was put toward technical assistance in prisons. This investment was part of Plan Colombia, an $8 billion aid program that is still the largest outside the Middle East and Afghanistan since the end of the Cold War. Quite quickly, the INL realized its efforts to combat the criminals by training foreign police forces were futile without effective jails to hold them. Six new prisons were constructed between 2000 and 2003 based on blueprints of the Federal Correctional Complex in Coleman, Florida. Over the next dozen years, 16 more prisons were built, adding 30,545 beds, representing a 70% increase in the capacity of the system. Guards were trained with US instruction manuals translated word for word into Spanish.

A US-style criminal justice framework was even imposed. Rudy Giuliani was hired as an adviser by Colombia and pushed his infamous “broken windows” approach to criminal legislation. Giuliani’s consultation was as a private citizen and head of his own security consulting firm, but he encouraged “tough-on-crime” laws explicitly modeled on ones he passed while mayor of New York. Later he would export the same US criminal justice framework to many countries from Serbia to Mexico.

As Julie de Dardel, a researcher at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, would later write: “Colombia had become the laboratory of a little-studied aspect of globalization: the export of US criminal and prison policies.”

Yet conditions in Colombian prisons have remained abysmal, and the reforms were often counterproductive. Colombian prison police trained according to US techniques have been accused of human rights abuses. Drug lords continued to run their organizations from behind bars. Overcrowding has increased because of “broken windows” legislation that led to the punishment of minor offenses with harsh sentences. The widespread use of solitary confinement has been criticized by civil rights groups.

Michael Reed-Hurtado, a Colombian lawyer, human rights activist, and senior lecturer at Yale, who has studied US involvement in Colombia's prisons, explained its failure by saying: “The prison is a cultural institution, and the needs that Colombia has for its prisons are not what the US has. Importing US prisons is not a solution. All that does is import the problems of US prisons.”

“Colombia had become the laboratory of a little-studied aspect of globalization: the export of US criminal and prison policies.”


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