Dispatch From Detention: A Rare Look Inside Our ‘Humane’ Immigration Jails

Deporting 400,000 people a year means big business for the rural towns and private prison contractors that warehouse many detained immigrants.

By Seth Freed Wessler Jan 04, 2012

Sam Kitching, a soft-spoken, round old man dressed in civilian clothes who works for the Sheriff’s department at the Baker County Jail put his hand on my shoulder and, addressing me as "young man," said, "It’s very important that you be careful in there. They might have AIDS and might try to grab your hand and push something into it."

"AIDS?" I ask.

"They could," he said. "These men can be dangerous."

A younger man dressed in a tight, dark green Sheriff’s uniform unlatched the door into one of the pods that holds several dozen federal immigration detainees.

Mostly Latino and black and all dressed in orange jump suits, unzipped with the arms tied around waists, the men stood or sat at metal tables in groups of four or five in the three-sided concrete room.

"Zip up," the guard yelled as the door opened.

The detainees pulled the jumpers up over their shoulders and I followed the guard, Kitching and a young Legal Aid attorney named Karen Winston into the pod. A man stood on a grated walkway in front of one of the two-bed jail cells where the detainees eat, sleep, bathe and go to the bathroom. The rest of the men were below in the concrete room where they pass all their time–there’s only one hour of recreation time in an enclosed gravel yard.

"Hey, Honduras, get down here," Kitching yelled to the man on the platform, who walked down the grated metal stairs and joined three other Latino men talking in a corner.

"That’s what I do sometimes," Kitching explained to me. "I call them by their country. For some reason if they’ve been here a while, I can remember their country."

Winston, a recent law school graduate, works long days in the south Florida jail defending some of the close to 250 immigration detainees held there. On this Friday morning, she’d driven from Jacksonville, the closest city, to conduct a "know your rights" training for as many of the detainees as possible. She noted the training name is misleading, since detainees don’t have many rights to know of.

"I’m here to give a training on your legal rights. He’s here doing research," she said, pointing at me. "He’ll tell you what it’s about."

I gained access to the Baker County Jail and five other immigration detention centers as a researcher, working for Colorlines.com’s publisher, the Applied Research Center. ICE intermittently allows researchers from human rights groups to enter the facilities to interview detainees and check on conditions. Until recently, the facilities have been almost entirely closed and when I mention to immigration advocates that I’ve spent time in the jails, they look at me with bewilderment. The interiors of detention centers might as well be black sites, cast off the political map except for the rare instances of abuse so egregious that they blip onto our ethical radar.

As Winston talked and answered a barrage of questions from the men who hoped to glean from her some crack in the legal walls that might lead them out, I sat down at one of the metal tables to listen. A short man named Jose left the group that had gathered around her and walked over to me. His right eye had a thick, white film covering it and the skin beneath was scarred. 

"I’ve heard all this, and there’s nothing to help me," he said, in Spanish.

"I lost my eyesight in one eye," he said. "In Krome," a detention center in south Florida where he was held for months before he was moved to Baker, "they didn’t give me my meds for an infection. Now I can’t see anything from my right eye."

Then Jose pulled down the collar of his t-shirt and showed me the long, raised scars on his chest.

"This is why I don’t want to go back to Mexico," he said. "This is from torture in Mexico."

He says that Mexican federal cops tortured him in a town near the border, as he made his way back to the United States. He had been picked up driving without a license in South Florida and deported over a year ago. The police thought he was a member of a drug cartel, but he says he’s just an immigrant who had lived in the U.S. for 14 years. When the beating and cutting was over, he was left on the side of a dusty road in the border town. After three days living on the street, he decided to try to cross again.

Jose reached his hand out to shake mine and I began to meet him. But then I stopped, pulling my arm back and look toward the door, where Kitching was sitting on a stool looking down at the floor.

"I can’t," I said. "I’m sorry. He said I can’t shake hands," and I felt the panic of guilt rise up in my stomach.

Jose pulled his hand back to his chest and rested it inside the open zipper of his jump suit, as if he was embracing himself. Another man who’d walked away from the legal training sat across from me.

"We are not bad people," said the man, whose hair was parted handsomely to the side. He looked at his fingers. "It is the first time that I’ve had to bite my finger nails. It’s the first time I’ve ever had to do that, they wont even give us nail clippers. It’s demeaning," he said, in English.

Immigration detention centers claim their share of criminal abuses–medical neglect like the kind that left Jose blind (120 people have died in detention centers since 2003) and rampant sexual assault by guards (records recently released to the ACLU document at least 200 allegations of abuse since 2007 alone). But for many detainees, the worst part of awaiting expulsion is not the acute trauma inflicted inside the jails. Most carry with them the unhealed wounds of violence from life on the outside that the humiliating baseness of life inside these jails reopens.

America’s immigration detention centers are in the business of warehousing men and women who have suffered trauma–the sorts of people whom reasonable governments should aim to protect, and indeed whom the U.S. has laws to protect. Instead, they are locked up, thrown into these legal purgatories and traded as pawns in a political and financial game.

The Business of Deportation

MacClenny, Fla., is the seat of Baker County. It’s mostly one street–a strip mall and a few mechanic shops, just under an hour’s drive from Jacksonville and 10 minutes through fields and forest to Georgia. There are about 6,000 people in MacClenny and the Baker County Jail is one of the largest employers in town.

The facility was built to foster growth. The county signed a contract with federal law enforcement agencies, mainly Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to hold their detainees. For ICE, MacClenny was perfectly located: not too close to a metropolitan center with a high density of advocates like Karen Winston, who make the work of deporting people more difficult, and an easy drive from Georgia, South Carolina and the rest of the Southeast, which has seen significant new immigration in the past decade.

Baker County, though, does not have an immigrant population–three quarters of its residents are white and almost all the rest are black. It’s only immigrant residents are among the people it warehouses, people who are shipped in from as far away as New York. Baker County Sheriff Joey Dobson, a Methodist according to the county’s website, brought the detention center to town. With booming rates of deportation during the George W. Bush administration, Dobson figured immigration detention was the place to look for revenue. So in 2009, Baker County opened a new jail to hold county inmates and ICE detainees.

But as the year progressed, ICE had not produced the 400 detainees county officials expected. So most of the nearly 100 promised hires–guards, medical and support staff–hadn’t materialized and some of those who were hired in anticipation of the inflow of federal detainees were laid off. The facility wasn’t pulling in the $85 per day that ICE would have paid for each detainee and the jail was running at a loss. Worse, that meant the county was forced to pay a lot more for each of its own inmates, to make payments on the $45 million bond debt issued to build the facility.

This was 2009, a bad time for public officials in small conservative towns to look like they’d carelessly wasted money. In a public meeting on the budget, a local man piped up on the matter.

"The Tea Party is saying be prudent men," he began, identifying his affiliation as he addressed the commissioners. "We hope and pray for the best, a lot of us are Christians and we are praying for Sheriff Dobson and the BCDC facility, we want it to be a success and we are doing all we can to ask All Mighty God to support that venture."

A feasibility study by a private firm contracted by the county in 2007 had warned that although immigration was likely to continue and immigration enforcement was growing in intensity, the need for more detention space is ultimately vulnerable to policy shifts. "Relaxation of immigration laws could substantially reduce the workload of ICE," the study noted.

But President Obama has come through for Baker County. The Obama administration has deported more people in each of its first three years than any previous year–almost 1.2 million in the last three years–and it needs more space to lock those people up. The detention business is now booming and the companies and counties seeking profit off its expansion are no longer worried.

In January 2010, Dobson, a tall neckless, middle-aged man, stood before the Baker County commissioners to announce progress.

"We got 98 additional ICE inmates last night," he said.

"We are no different from all these other companies that are struggling," said Dobson, but, he added, the county was looking at "an additional opportunity to bring overcrowding to this facility."

In the next year, the sheriff hired a slew of new corrections officers and other staff.

Immigration detention is the most rapidly expanding segment of the American prison system. The 2012 federal appropriations bill allocated over $2 billion for detention, several million more than the year before, and since 2009, ICE has entered into agreements to build or expand at least 10 detention facilities.

Much of the growing budget for detention is paid in rent to municipal governments and to the private prison companies–the industry grosses about $5 billion annually–that operate most of the system’s nearly 34,000 detention beds.

Waiting for the Unknown

At noon, Kitching passed Winston and I off to another guard at the jail, a short man with a blond crew cut who took us to the women’s pod. "It’s a pretty good job," he said, as the door-control room buzzed us through. "It was hard to make a living here."

"Things are calm," said the guard. "Except the Haitians and Cubans don’t seem to like each other. The females are like cats, scratching at each other, fighting all the time. They act like my daughters. We have to tear them off each other."

Unlike people held on criminal charges, immigrant detainees are not afforded the Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel. Since deportation is not formally considered a punishment, but an administrative consequence for violating a civil law–crossing the border–they have no right to an attorney. Only 16 percent of detainees have legal representation. For most of the detained, presentations like Winston’s are the only legal advice they get; despite their designation as "illegal" in our political lexicon, in the legal system they retain few of the rights that we expect of the criminal justice system.

Inside the pod, the guard yelled at the women to quiet down. I sat down to talk with Julie, a British woman who’d been in the detention center for seven months because of a drug charge. She’s lived in the country for 20 years.

A guard opened the door and yelled Julie’s name. She looked up and smiled. She was being released. Winston, who’d taken her case, had argued in immigration court for her release on humanitarian grounds since Julie was the sole caregiver of her 7-year-old daughter. The girl was in foster care.

Julie slid off the bench and rushed into her cell to begin collecting her things, a stack of papers and some pictures of her daughter. The other women watched Julie as she left. One of them, a young black woman with tight cornrows and a baby face yelled after her. "Bye Julie, good luck with everything, okay."

Julie barely slowed to respond, waving as she rushed out of the door.

The young black woman came to the table and sat down.

"She’s going to see her baby," she said. "I want to see mine so bad."

In a southern accent, she told me that she had to leave her 1-year-old baby with her mom near Miami. She and her boyfriend, the baby’s father, were both arrested after stealing clothes from a mall. Her appointed public defender, a private attorney with a state contract, told her to take a plea to get a lower sentence. The lawyer failed to tell her that the plea would result in detention and likely deportation.

She now awaits deportation to Haiti–a place she has never been. She was born in the Bahamas to Haitian parents and the Bahamian government does not consider her a citizen. The Haitians do. She came to the U.S. before her first birthday and has no remaining family in Haiti, nor did she ever learn to speak Creole. If she’s deported, she does not expect to see her baby again.

A recent investigation by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting found that people deported to Haiti are incarcerated again when they land in the country–held in squalid jails where they have no access to clean water and risk contracting Cholera, but are denied access to medical care.

When I left the Baker detention center that afternoon, Julie was walking toward the building from the empty parking lot. She’d taken the cash from the box that held all the clothes and other possessions with which she’d arrived and asked the receptionist at the front of the jail where to find a cigarette. Leaning against one of the columns at the entrance of the jail, she lit one of the Winstons as she waited for a once-a-day shuttle bus to Jacksonville. From there, she planned take a bus to Fort Lauderdale where her daughter lives.

"Seven months and then they let me out," she said. "Seems sort of silly to me."

ICE’s stated rationale for detaining so many people is to ensure that those who may be deported appear for their court dates and comply with their deportation orders. ICE argues that unless it detains people, nobody would actually show up to court. In many cases, it’s true that posed with a game of legal Russian roulette, many choose not to play; but others simply are not flight risks. For someone like Julie, her only concern for four months behind bars was returning to her daughter. The absconder argument doesn’t hold a lot of weight.

As she waited, Julie looked up at the clear sky. "This is the first time nobody’s been watching me in seven months," she said, looking inside at the desk. "I don’t even remember what it’s like not to be watched."

A Wide Dragnet

The Glades County Detention Center rises out of the Florida swamplands north of Miami. It was designed by the same firm that drafted the Baker facility and it’s set up in almost exactly the same way. When I visited Glades, two ICE officers and a sheriff’s deputy led me up a flight of stairs to an octagonal guard booth in the middle of the pods. The walls were lined with panes of one-directional glass, each of which provided a clear view of the pods below.

As we toured the facility, a woman in her cell was getting dressed and her bare back attracted the glances of the three men giving the tour. I averted my eyes to respect her privacy. Of course, there is never a moment when detainees are unwatched. Guards watch them from the invisibility of the tower. Even when the men are not standing there looking through the windows, a guard sits in the watchtower booth, eyes glued to the screens, each with images of the people below.

At Glades, I wasn’t permitted to talk with people inside the pods. I was instead put in a small medical room and the women were brought there to talk with me. The woman who was changing was among them. Like most of the women, she’d been through hell to get to this purgatory. She’d lived for eight years with a man who she said she loved, but who beat her up.

"He’d get drunk and just beat me. I fought back and when he didn’t drink he was OK, but when he drank it was bad."

Three months before I met her, she’d called the police. But she speaks no English and when the cops arrived, her U.S. citizen boyfriend talked to the them instead, telling the officers that she’d been the aggressor.

"He was very smooth with them," she told me. "He could talk to them."

The cops cuffed her along with the her abuser. He was released, but because she’s an undocumented immigrant, she got detained by ICE and ended up in Glades.

Federal law is supposed to protect victims of crimes and of domestic violence from deportation. Specific categories of immigration relief have been created by Congress to provide domestic violence victims and people who have been involuntarily trafficked into the U.S. But in my time in detention centers, I met many women who have been detained, often for extended periods, as a result of arrests that related to domestic violence or human trafficking. Some have been released since I met them, but others will be deported, and even those who are eventually let out can find that their lives are ruined.

The first woman I spoke to in Glades was a white South African woman who suffered from such acute symptoms of dissociation that for 15 second intervals in the middle of our conversation, she’d look off toward the door and her head would start shaking. When she’d come to, she had no idea what I’d said and I had to start over. Before she got to Glades, where she’d been detained for several months, the woman spent four months in jail on drug charges. She says the cops found a small bag of meth in her purse.

When she was arrested, she was pregnant. She went into labor while locked up in the jail and the hospital, where she was brought in chains, forced her to undergo a Caesarean section. She watched the nurse take her baby away.

When she could focus on our conversation, she told me she’d been in the U.S. for 15 years. She’d come following a man. They’d had children, but he soon left her and she was left without a job trying to make do. Her father and brothers are in the U.S. and she has no family in South Africa.

After half a dozen more interviews at Glades, I was told it’s time to leave. As we walked down the hallway toward the entrance, we passed a thick glass window on a door that looked out to a gravel yard. A torrent of rain smashed against it. The ICE officer, a short rounding black man with a thick Cajun accent, said that the detainees wouldn’t be going outside for their hour of rec time that day.

"It’ll make them restless to be in all day, but this rains not gonna stop for a while."

Obama’s ‘Humane’ Reforms

In late 2009, the Obama administration announced plans to reform the detention system. The reforms included stated efforts to decrease the number of immigrants and asylum seekers held in penal jails or jail-like facilities, and to detain people closer to their homes by building new facilities near urban centers. The announcement also suggested that more people could be released or placed on supervision without being locked up, which is a more fiscally prudent option than mass detention. Yet, according to an October 2011 report by Human Rights First, about half of ICE detainees are still held in actual correctional facilities and most of the rest are held in jail-like facilities. Rather than expand alternatives to detention programs, ICE under Obama has moved to build more facilities, which it says will be "humane."

ICE has made only a few forays into humane detention, but the agency boasts about them as models of reform. The T. Don Hutto Residential Center, as it’s called, is one of them. Hutto is behind the main street in Taylor, Texas, an hour north of Austin. It’s a small town with a mile-long downtown that’s filled with closed shops. Near the highway exit, a couple of shiny auto sales lots filled with trucks and a farm equipment retailer look like they’re doing well.

Passing through the metal detector at the front desk of Hutto, I sat down and waited for 30 seconds until a petite woman with blond highlights named Melissa came to collect me. Melissa spoke with a south Texas accent and worked for ICE at the facility, which is owned by the private Corrections Corporation of America. We were joined by the chief of security at Hutto, an employee of the CCA who wore jeans and a belt with shiny rhinestones on it.

According to Melissa and the chief of security, Hutto is not a jail. Like its name suggests, it’s a residential facility. I ask if the women can leave if they want to. "No. But the thing is, we help them get ready for life after they’re out of here. There’s even a volunteer work program. They get $1.50 a day for a four hour shift."

It’s the first in a series of comments Melissa makes to paint Hutto as a rehabilitative facility. What its occupants are recovering from she does not say.

Until two years ago, Hutto was used to detain whole immigrant families, both parents and children. But advocates made a big enough fuss about locking up kids and that practice ended. Hutto didn’t close, though. It became a women’s detention center, and now there’s a large dirt patch in the yard where there used to be a jungle gym. Corrections Corporation of America, the for-profit company that owns Hutto and at least 13 other centers, donated the toys to the town of Taylor.

"It’s a nice environment here, it’s not punitive at all, no problems here, no cat scratching, nothing like that," says the chief of security.

Melissa jumps in. "We have very stringent criteria: no drugs, no crime, many are here for illegal entry, the rest are asylum seekers."

Indeed, Hutto is a softer place than the other detention centers. The women can wear their own clothes and as we walk down the halls, there are women walking in small groups without guards accompanying them.

Behind the main building where the detainees sleep in jail cells from which the locks have been removed, there’s a row of prefab trailers. Twelve women sat in plastic chairs in the back of one of them. They stared blankly ahead or looked down at the ground. A Corrections Corp. employee called them up one by one to a desk at the front of the trailer. The women slowly approached the desk and picked beads and long pieces of string from a plastic tub.

"You know the bracelets you sometimes see kids wearing. They can make those here and then send the bracelets to their kids," said Melissa. "They get the beads by trading in fake money like monopoly money they earn through their English classes. The better they do on their English classes, the more beads they can buy. It’s an incentive to learn English."

We walked to the back of the trailer where there was a shelf on which sat a pile of knitted blankets. There were three women knitting blankets out of artificial yarns in bright colors. "It’s amazing what they can do," she said, as she smiled too big and looked at me for validation.

Melissa told me that they donate the crafts and the blankets to local foster kids. The research project that I was conducting at the time of these visits discovered that there are thousands of children stuck in foster care who can’t be reunified with their family because the mother or father is locked in detention or was deported. Almost all of these women are separated from their own children, and the detention center has them making gifts for the local foster children.

We went back into the main building and I was brought into a small glass booth in a larger room that’s used for visitation. Before Hutto was a family detention center, it was a jail and the room still had the windows that separated inmates from visitors. The windows had been covered in red curtains and the room filled with multi-colored chairs. A man and a woman sat on some of them talking. He’d come to visit his girlfriend, who was detained there. But when they touched each other’s hands, a guard in the room yelled at them. "No contact."

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