Friday, January 22, 2010

A Rare Glimpse Into Life in Jail: Visiting an Immigration Detention Center

On any given day, about 30,000 immigrants are held in jail-like detention centers across the United States. Most of them have never committed a crime yet they are treated like criminals, isolated from their families, and often unable to get lawyers to represent them. These are the real victims of the broken immigration system.

Detained immigrants are unable to tell their own stories because of the conditions of their confinement. In Minnesota, a group of concerned citizens is taking it upon themselves to work to ease their suffering.

These individuals have created the Interfaith Coalition on Immigration Ramsey County Jail Immigrant Detainee Visitation Project. They are in the process of launching a visitation program in which local residents would go to the jail and meet with immigrants there, to provide some human comfort and solidarity.

The core members of the coalition toured the jail on Wednesday. Their experience offers us a rare opportunity to peek into the world of immigration detention. I'd like to share with you some of their reflections:

Ramsey Jail Visitation Project Update

On Wednesday, January 20, four core group members had a tour of the Ramsey County Jail. We met the three primary administrators and the two programming personnel. All were gracious, welcoming, and clearly dedicated and committed to their work. Before scheduling the tour we were told it usually takes one hour; our tour took two hours and included a long pre-meeting. We were never rushed; there was ample time for questions and conversation. Our tour included a brief conversation with one of the facility's nurses who overheard one of our questions and gave a response.

Our group was taken into the 'A' area where new criminal detainees are held and where we got a sense of what it meant to be in jail: it was lunch time, but while we were there, all were locked in their cells (which are typically two bunk cells with a thin mattress, a small table, and stainless steel toilet; the cells appeared to be about 6 X 10 feet ['guesstimate,' but it seemed smaller than the small 8 X 12 feet home study where I prepare this report!) where they were kept, their lunch stacked and waiting on the cart.

PERSONAL NOTE: I was uncomfortable in this situation and conscious of my privilege and, I guess, my power. They were in their cells so we could wander around. It was an accident of timing, perhaps, but in an already difficult situation, it was unfortunate that even this small experience was added to their troubles. For those waiting to eat, this must have seemed arbitrary, which might also be the feeling experienced by ICE detainees and their families: the subjects of 'arbitrary' power who are experiencing a complete loss of control of their lives and have become 'objects' in a deportation system that has taken charge of their future. This was also a reminder that when we get visiting privileges (I am optimistic) we must be careful to not intrude on meals and normal visiting and recreation times.

MEDICAL CONCERNS - Tour Observations
1. Our guides made repeated reference to the ICE mandated 14-day physical-medical assessment that all civil immigrant detainees get. They want us to know they both know about and are in compliance with this standard, which has not always been the case (as reported in an ICE Inspector General report, June, 2008, available on-line).

2. New medical request cards are being prepared that will state the ICE detainees do not have to make a co-pay. They are not in place yet: existing stocks without this notation are to be used first. All jail leadership personnel also made a point of telling us that they know ICE detainees do not have to make a medical co-pay.

3. Since the death of Maria Inamagua from a parasite originating in her country of origin and which is not common in the United States, there have been investigative reports stating the importance of ICE medical evaluations including screening for such exotic diseases (diseases or medical conditions originating in a person's country of origin) or that responses to health issues arising during detention include such screening, especially when the diagnosis proves difficult. The response to a question about this did not seem to reflect an awareness of this issue nor a specific knowledge of medical screenings.

HEAT - Personal testimony
I wore a short sleeve shirt. We were often moving and walking. My attention was usually directed to the speakers. Under these conditions, I was never cold. HOWEVER, as we were leaving, I observed someone in a holding cell just outside of the 'A' pod area. He was wearing the jail's mandatory orange short-sleeve coveralls. He was cold, his sleeves empty, both of his arms having been drawn upside his jump suit where he held them against his torso for warmth.
(Related note: no action or decision has been made per issuing long-john shirts to detainees. Pending that and the new requirement that all laundry be processed at the Ramsey County Workhouse, the option of purchasing a long-john shirt has been suspended; clothes cannot be brought into the jail.)

VENDING MACHINES - Personal observation
There are vending machines in the 'pods.' Prices are roughly $1.50 to $1.75 for snacks and soda (what I call 'motel' or 'airport' prices). I noticed that the same vending machines in areas serving only jail personnel were less expensive.

TOUR PARTICIPANT REPORT (I have not asked permission to share this person's name, hence it is not included; these are brief excerpts from a longer report)

It comes as no surprise that a jail is not a happy place. While I believe the staff “manage” (their word) the inmate population with the best intent, the conditions of a jail must be unnecessarily traumatic for an otherwise innocent immigrant.

Throughout my experience at the jail, despite being flanked by two or more official tour guides and 3 other tour participants, my awareness was heightened and I was on edge. I cannot imagine being placed in this facility when my only crime is trying to keep my family together or trying to find work that will sustain my children. I believe that the visitation program could be beneficial in easing the trauma of being placed in such a facility. However, for the long-term, I would like to see policies changed to eliminate jailing detainees without criminal offenses.

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