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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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“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 carewho 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.”

Seth Wessler is a writer and Research Associate with Applied Research Center .

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