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Inside Our Supposedly "Humane" Immigrant Detention Centers

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 radar.

 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’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.”

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