03/31/2011 02:04 pm ET Updated May 31, 2011

Deport Me! Foreign-Born in American Prisons and the U.S. Culture of Punishment

Alvin McLean has a peculiar request for the powers that be: deport me, please.

Odder than his request is the state government's refusal to oblige it -- a dazzling irony at a time when getting deported seems, sadly, an easy feat. Janet Napolitano has boasted about 2010's record-breaking deportation numbers, but if 2009 is any indication, we might furrow brows about just who's being shipped off: About a third of criminal deportees were guilty of "dangerous drug" crimes, while the second most popular violation -- committed by 16% -- was the heinous sin of traffic violations . The controversial Secure Communities program, requiring police to pass fingerprints of those it arrests to ICE, is likely to ratchet up the number of people being banished for petty offenses.

So why should McClean have to ask twice? A Jamaica-born US legal permanent resident, McLean is serving his 19th year of a 33-years-to-life sentence for murder, robbery and assault in a maximum-security prison upstate. He's subject to deportation -- only after serving his time. And his misery shares ample company. Some 10% of New York's prison population is foreign-born, over half from the Caribbean. And while almost all will ultimately be deported, the majority cannot wait to hear the conclusive clanks behind them. According to Carmeta Lindo, a social worker who runs a New York- and Jamaica-based organization that aids Caribbean deportees, around that 60% of the people she assists are, like McLean, begging for deportation. Michelle Fei of the Immigrant Defense Project says that draconian immigration laws could make such scenarios commonplace. "It's become virtually impossible," she says, "for an individual with certain kinds of convictions to stay here with their families, where they belong."

These deportees-in-waiting harbor no illusions of tropical escape. Extreme hardship, they know, awaits them in islands where most practically do not belong and few, if any, care to return to -- leaving whole families behind. Still, who wouldn't choose that hot place knowing the hell of an American prison? 2010's chilling 70% increase in prison suicides , the Georgia prison protests, federal court findings that California's overstuffed prisons deny inmates constitutional rights to health care and other basic services -- it's clear why McClean would glumly elect exile.

It's also clear what's in it for states to grant them it: saving taxpayers' money and furthering the trend of reducing prison populations, dire priorities both. Such was the logic behind New York's Early Conditional Parole for Deportation Only program, launched in 1995 and replicated in various forms in other states; it has saved New York over $152 million thus far. But that program doesn't apply to McLean -- or nearly two-thirds of foreign-born people in New York prisons -- because they're in for violent offenses, and early deportation is an option for non-violent offenders only. Violence, evidently, begets a violation of all-American practicality.

Fighting for the right to be deported bespeaks a dim state of affairs. Dimmer still is what McLean's scenario lays bare about the ethos of the US prison system. When, in 1954, the American Prison Association changed its name to the American Correctional Association and prisons became "correctional institutions," the notion of rehabilitation acquired a veneer of institutionalization. Faced with prisoners marked for eventual deportation, however, the correctional façade crumbles under the weight of their paradoxical branding. On one hand, the process of deportation is a callous disclaimer -- "you didn't make the cut, so you're no longer one of us." The act of incarceration, on the other, is a claim of responsibility -- "but wait, we want to redeem you." It's as perverse as a parent harshly grounding a misbehaving teen before tossing her out of the house.

The demand that foreign-born offenders serve out their sentences before deportation stretches back to the notorious 1917 Immigration Act that, besides making alcoholics and "feeble-minded persons" inadmissible to the US, created a massive "Asiatic Barred Zone." As much as the law claimed a hunger to rid America of foreign "undesirables," it nonetheless insisted on trapping the most impeachable among them -- the law-violators -- on its territory. What zealous urge could have possibly trumped America's colorful history of xenophobia?

The same one that keeps McLean behind bars today: not a commitment to correction but a longstanding lust for retribution, an incarceration addiction that makes America, as Alexis de Tocqueville put it, see prison as "a remedy for all the evils of society." There are ethical problems with revenge -- isn't it hypocritical to harm someone in order to teach them that it's wrong to harm others? -- but even as we stomach it, we imagine it dispensed by our system in just doses. But to be locked up for years, then banished from family and "homeland," amounts to a double dose of revenge -- or worse. Fei regards it as a triple dose: "They're punished first by the criminal justice system, second by the deportation system, and third by being caught between the two." And surely that extravagant dose of punishment is one America simply cannot afford.