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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.

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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.

 
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