Behind a seemingly endless series of electronically secured doors, amid the overwhelming smell of sweat and industrial-strength bleach, our group of visitors arrived where dozens of detainees are held. There are no shower curtains, chairs with backs, or close-toed shoes allowed; detainees are permitted to shower occasionally, but only in the open, just 15 feet from the guard stand in the center of the room.
This is a maximum-security facility, but it is not housing the convicted criminals for which it was originally designed. Instead, these jail beds in Virginia have been leased to the Department of Homeland Security, the arm of the government responsible for detention and removal proceedings of immigrants—a system that detains nearly 300,000 noncitizens each year.
Detainees are in custody in centers across the U.S. simply for being undocumented. They include torture survivors, victims of human trafficking, or asylum seekers, all of whom are kept behind bars if they cannot hire a lawyer or figure out—across barriers of language and trauma, and often without even being told it’s possible—how to apply for release. There also are immigrants who have been apprehended in indiscriminate enforcement raids, where simply showing up to work landed them in jail. Pregnant women, the elderly, and entire families are routinely detained.
All noncitizens who are apprehended by Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE), regardless of individual circumstances, risk being ensnared by the system of federal centers, county jails, and private correctional facilities. Their time behind bars can range from two months to several years, and detainees can be transferred at any time to another facility without explanation. Unlike criminals, violators of immigration law are not entitled to representation in court, and they are often denied access to legal information. According to Detention Watch Network, about half the immigrants in detention have no criminal record.
A RECENT SCATHING report by the University of Arizona on women in detention and an ICE report on a Rhode Island detention center describe how immigrants in private correctional facilities have been denied essential medical care, including prenatal attention and cancer treatment. Centers’ substandard conditions have been partly to blame for nearly 70 detainee deaths in the last five years. Immigrant advocacy groups, human rights organizations, and the media have widely criticized ICE’s detention system—a $1.6 billion industry funded by taxpayers—for being unaccountable and poorly overseen.
The system also lacks transparency: Few outside groups are permitted to go inside detention facilities, so my visit was an unusual opportunity to interact face-to-face with people who have little contact with the outside world. That visit brought home to me how our one-size-fits-all detention system is inherently broken. The detainees, who shuffle around the facility in orange woven plastic sandals and white sweat socks, are permitted to socialize in the windowless “day room” for just a couple hours a day. I averted my eyes as a man just a few feet away, trying to guard what little privacy he still possessed, turned his back on the open doorway to use the toilet.
Cost-effective and humane alternatives—parole check-ins and electronic monitoring devices, instead of shackles—exist. We should use them with vulnerable populations and individuals, such as asylum-seekers, who pose no threat to the community.
The real solution is comprehensive reform of our nation’s immigration laws—reform that addresses those already in the country without documentation and those who will undoubtedly come in the future seeking economic opportunity and freedom from oppression. I hope the painful reality I saw during my visit will soon be remembered as a dark period in this country’s past, rather than a commentary on our society for years to come.
Allison Johnson is Sojourners’ campaign coordinator for Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.