Thursday, September 13, 2018

When you visit a stranger in prison...

How do you begin to tell the stories of the people you met when you visit a deportation prison? The official name of the place is Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. The imprisoned are either undocumented immigrants or asylum-seekers. And while it's officially called a "detention center," the words "deportation prison" align much more closely with my experience. I went as part of a visiting program through Faith Action International in Greensboro and El refugio at Stewart Detention Center that's based out of Atlanta but is physically in Lumpkin. El refugio provides a free place for family members to stay in order to visit their loved ones.

I went to visit a stranger. To hold space for someone in their suffering. My goal was to bring empathy and compassion into a place where there's very little. My country is doing this to people. I need to own it. I need to see it. And I need to share the story.

How do I share the oppressiveness of the place? Do I tell you about the miles and miles of barbed wire? The multiple iron gates I had to be escorted through in order to visit? The fact that we were locked in during our visit; that there is no real bathroom for visitors but the one I was allowed to use had a lock on the outside only? Do I tell you about how I couldn't even wear an underwire bra because the metal detector is so cranked up it would have set it off and I would be denied the visit? How do I explain that the only thing I could bring in was my government ID? No pen or paper, no comfort items for kids (and I saw many kids).

Do I tell you about the woman who, upon hearing on Thursday that her family members had been detained there, drove nonstop with her husband and 9 month-old from Houston, Texas (over 11 hours, she told me) to arrive on Saturday morning? And how, on arrival, she learns (from another visitor since the guards only speak English) that she can't come in because there's a hole in her jeans? I happened to throw in an extra pair of pants and was able to give them to her and let her change in our van. But only because I speak Spanish and overheard the conversation. I talked with her husband after - they were visiting his brother. He said his brother cried through their whole visit, absolutely crushed "because he isn't free."

How can I explain the tears in the eyes of the woman I spoke to who was there to visit her nephew? This wasn't her first time here. Her husband has already been deported from this very same detention center. It's the last place she saw him. And she told me how their 4 year-old son didn't understand the glass between them in the visiting room and he bonked his head trying to hug his daddy. And here she is again, back in the same place. This time to see her nephew, bringing his brother with her to visit. Her husband's "crime"? Driving without a license TO HIS JOB. The nephew? A boy in his 20's who has lived here since he was 8 years-old. He knows nothing of his home country yet is likely to be deported back there.

Do I tell you about the woman who shared with me that her husband has told her the food has bugs in it?

Do I tell you about the young man I visited who is Sikh and THEY MADE HIM CUT HIS HAIR AND BEARD? The whole experience has left me walking around in a rage... but this in particular is something I can't shake. He told me he talks to his parents in his home country regularly but he can't bring himself to tell his mom what they've done to him.

What about the man who was on hunger strike that we were hoping to visit? He needed a check-in because he's not doing well. But we were told by the guards that we would only be allowed to visit him last since now he's a "medical case" and they only let those folks have visits at the end when they can be by themselves (visits happen in groups of 5). So that meant we would wait 4-6 hours before being allowed the 1 hour visit. We had a 9 hour drive back to Greensboro ahead of us so we couldn't wait that long to see him. My friend who was supposed to visit him was particularly shaken by this.

These are the stories I'm holding today. I'll be honest, I'm not entirely sure I'm done processing this. I'm outraged, disgusted, and ashamed that our government is doing this to our fellow human beings. They are in detention because they are "flight risks" but they all want to be citizens here... undocumented immigrants have been showing up for immigration check-ins for years. We have no evidence that they need to be locked up like this. They are not violent. How is an asylum-seeker a "flight risk"??? They are actively asking for our help - not running away.

And where's the justice in this? The court system in Lumpkin, GA has about a 2% relief rate for asylum-seekers. Yet the judges at the NY detention center have about a 60% rate. That's not equal justice. Just by landing at Stewart (which is one of the largest detention centers in the country), a person is quite possibly sentenced to death... people DIE when they are deported back to their countries. The young kid I visited (he's 21) told me he's not safe at home. He's been detained in that place for 20 months. At home, he's been attacked. I asked him if he felt safe inside the detention center and his response was that it's safer than back home. But he also shared that he is "sad every day" in there.  I didn't tell him I knew about the 2% rate at the prison he's in. I don't even know if he knows.

Stewart Detention Center has 1900 men in it. 1900 people who have either been ripped from their communities or are here seeking help. And we've imprisoned them. The water is green, the food is often bad or has bugs in it. This center has the worst reports of human rights violations of all the detention centers (why do we even have multiple detention centers for this?!?!?)

I was really struck by how the company logo was larger than the name of the facility.

And we are paying for it. This is our tax dollars at work. My state is facing a hurricane right now and our current president moved money away from FEMA and put it toward immigration detention. And Stewart Detention Center is a FOR PROFIT COMPANY. CoreCivic runs it. Their logo is all over the place there. Folks are getting rich with our tax dollars while incarcerating innocent people.

So how do I tell you all this in a way that makes you care? Not care. You probably care just by reading this and most likely you cared before. But how do I share those stories in ways that move you to action?

Do you want to visit someone? We need more folks to have primary experiences with the detention centers & detainees so that they can share their stories. Can you be a pen-pal? Getting mail really brings some hope to the folks there and it provides welcome relief from the monotony of being in prison with no news from the outside. Would you be willing to buy a book to send to an inmate? There's no programming in detention centers... not like prisons. No classes, no real libraries, support groups, or 12-step programs. And, as always, talk to your representatives. Tell them we don't want detention centers - there is NO NEED to hold folks in a medium-security prison.

You can connect with some good organizations and learn more here:
El Refugio at Stewart Detention Center -   or their website at
Detention Watch  -
Read about Southern Poverty Law Center's lawsuit against CoreCivic: