As you perhaps know, immigration detention is big business. The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spends lots of money--around $1.7 billion per year--to detain undocumented immigrants. But few of us see how that money is used. So when I got the chance to visit a detention center this week, I jumped at it.
After a two hour tour, I’m no expert, but—(ahem)—I always have a few observations and opinions to share. Today is no exception. Take them with a grain of salt. A lot of info whizzed by me in two hours, and I could have misunderstood any of it.
I joined a group of college students who had arranged to visit the El Paso County Correctional Facility, one local place immigrants are detained. First important note: this is a big source of income for the county, since the federal government pays out $67 per day per detainee.
As you’d expect, life in prison is highly regimented. This is a “maximum detention facility” which means that it can house the worst offenders—murder, rape and sexual assault. The intake process requires a complete physical search, including body cavities. Anything you bring with you is itemized and stored. However, if you are caught by the border patrol, your belongings are kept “at the bridge” [I presume that means at ICE headquarters in El Paso] and you’ve got just 30 days to petition to get them back.
Detainees who are determined to be “welfare” inmates—meaning they have no money in their account after a couple weeks—receive all their weekly supplies in a business envelope. This contains a few stamps and envelops, a traveler’s sized toothpaste and mini-toothbrush, and bar soap (used also as shampoo). They get a little laundry soap every other week.
“The food is bad here,” our tour guide frankly admitted. “It is not good.” But every detainee gets 1600 calories a day, divided into three meals: at 4 AM (!), at 9 AM and 3 PM. The students had some trouble understanding breakfast served at 4 AM [it helps the schedule to serve it then]. The cellblock goes dark from 10 PM until 6 AM (however, lights are turned on briefly for breakfast.)
Detainees are held in the same facility that holds the chronically imprisoned: those who are “institutionalized,” who can’t live in the outside world and, thus, recycle in and out of prison. Many prisoners are mentally ill, some of them seriously. The tour officer told of inmates who eat their own feces. Many try to commit suicide. Sexual assault happens. Anything can happen. The guards monitor the cell blocks every hour and remote cameras monitors watch the secured hallways. It is not a nice world.
---------------------- And this comment (reader response from Dava Castillo, with her permission) makes a worthy conclusion.:
The criminalization of illegal immigrants puts them in the same category as the criminalization of drug users. Non-violent offenders are housed with the violent. Nothing good can come from this. The jails and prisons have become the de facto mental hospitals and rehab centers. This is problematic for Americans as well as illegal immigrants.
The prevailing concept of "out of sight, out of mind" is at work here. Placating the political entities by getting the so-called "undesirables" off the streets instead of dealing with the social issues prevents any real progress towards reasonable and humane detention.