What's It Like Being In Immigration Detention?

June 3, 2010

Before I describe what it is like to be detained, I want to tell you that Pedro has been detained for 218 days.  His detention costs the government and taxpayers an average of $122 per day. The grand total is $26, 596 to cause us extreme pain and hardship for 8 months.  That is pretty disturbing. Let me paint you a picture of the area around the detention center.  Stewart Detention Center is located Lumpkin, Georgia and it has a population of 1,220.  The town is in rural southwestern Georgia .  There are very few places to work besides the detention center.  The downtown is a ghost town with many skeletons of shops that once were.  I tell you this because the people that run the facility and interact Pedro on a daily basis are from this area.

So what is it like to be detained in Stewart Detention Center.  Pedro wears a facility issued jumpsuit that is blue.  It was changed from orange to blue when he arrived at his 6 month anniversary of being in Stewart.  It is short sleeved and thin and they keep the facility very cold.  His activities are limited to reading the books people have sent, playing cards, talking to other detainees, working a job in which they pay him $3 per day, and writing letters (he has to pay for the stamps).  There is also watching television.  Each unit has about 60 people and two televisions.  You know how when you were younger, you fought for the remote with your spouse, brother, sister, dad, roommate etc., imagine trying to decide on a show to watch with 59 other people.  It is complete chaos.

Communication with the outside world is very limited.  Pedro’s friends and family members can sign up for an extremely expensive telephone company which allows Pedro to call them or he can buy phone cards and the charge varies depending on where he is calling.  We figured out a way to buy a local number and forward it to my cell phone.  So after about 6 months it is slightly less costly.  Calls are limited to 20 minutes.  The phone call cuts off if you accidently push buttons on the phone, if you are silent for too long, or sometimes for no reason.  If the person he is calling does not pick up the phone but voicemail does, it takes $2 off a $5 phone card for nothing. At times there is a problem with  the phone line and the person he is calling picks up but they can’t here each other and it charges $2.  Pedro can never receive phone calls.  That includes calls from lawyers.  He has to pay money to call anyone.  Because many of the people with Pedro inside the detention center have even fewer resources than we do, on many occasions I have called detainee’s friends and family members to explain where they are or explain how to set up the phone system or how to send money.  It is heart wrenching to be the one to tell someone their husband or wife is detained and will most likely be deported.

All the detainees are forced to use the bathroom in front of other people.  This is a humiliation just in itself.  There is absolutely no privacy.  The officers can search Pedro’s possessions at any time.  All of the phone calls are recorded.

Lockdown is four times per day.  No one moves from their area and everyone is counted.

Pedro has a bunk bed in the middle of a room of 30 or so bunk beds.  He has very limited space and absolutely no storage.  There is always the risk of someone stealing from him.

The food is horrendous as one could imagine. Pedro says it is like school food or worse.  He says on “real chicken” days everyone gets very excited.  Pedro is allowed to buy “snacks” which include ramen, coffee, honey buns, and candy.  Those are the “delicacies”.

The highlight of Pedro’s day is receiving mail.  He loves it.  It keeps him going.  He can receive letters, articles, cards, cutouts from newspapers, printouts from websites, stories photos, art, and drawings.  He cannot receive books directly from you (only from internet companies or directly from the publisher).  He cannot get hardcover books or artwork with glue or anything attached.  He is very thankful to all of you that have sent him letters, cards, books, and drawings.  They all light up his day.

Visitation is one hour per week unless special arrangements are made.  Stewart Detention Center is 9 hours from where Logan and I live.  We have visited twice in the last 6 months.  We can only see him behind glass and we talk through a telephone.  Logan handled the two times surprisingly well compared to the visit in Alamance County.  Logan and Pedro played “hide and seek”, shot “spider webs” at each other, kissed and hugged each other through the glass, and talked on the phone.  The visits are heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time.

Pedro is allowed a small amount of time outside Monday through Friday in the mornings.  He has a job in the mornings so he hasn’t gone outside in a very long time.  His current job is cleaning the ICE officers offices.

The correctional officers are mostly from small towns in the area.  Pedro says that they treat the detainees as if they are worth nothing.  They us profanity most of the time, humiliate them, threaten to take their food, threaten to put them in the “hole”, and withhold their mail.  Pedro is one of the few fully bilingual people in Stewart and has been a translator for many of the detainees to ask for things or to help them complain because of injustice.  He has gotten himself into trouble many times for helping people because they say that he is inciting riots.  Pedro is an advocate for human rights from the inside.  I am very proud of him.

The immigration case officer’s main job is to get the detainee to give up and return to their respective country.  They say that there is no hope.  They talk about other cases that have failed.  They have approached Pedro many times with the deportation papers completely filled out, telling him all he has to do is sign and he will have his freedom back.  Pedro has consistently chose to fight because of Logan and because of me.  Most days he feels like he is dying inside but he knows that all our family and friends are here in the United States.  Signing the deportation papers is tempting but once you sign the papers, its over and there is no turning back.  The detainee does not know when they are actually going to leave.  I could be tomorrow or 3 months from now.  Usually they find out hours before the actual bus leaves.  Pedro would be deported to Guatemala where he knows no one. He has been in the United States since he was 8 years old.

Not surprisingly all the detainees are depressed.  All are suffering severe losses and all are treated as if they are worth nothing.  The majority do not have the money to fight or even to contact their loved ones.  Very few even understand how to navigate the system to even attempt to do either.

There are a few cases that shocked me that I would like to share. 

There was an Asian man detained with Pedro.  He was detained because immigration got the number on his immigration documents wrong.  He was detained for months. 

Another of Pedro’s friends is from Poland.  He has no documents but if he returns to Poland, he will be killed because of the political situation in Poland.  He has a wife and a 3 year old in Poland. 

The following case made Pedro and I very angry.  There was a man without documents, from Mexico who had two marijuana charges, one cocaine charge, a DUI, and a probation violation.  He was released from the detention center to be free without bond.  How does this make sense?  It doesn’t.

This brings me to Judge William A. Cassidy, the immigration judge for Stewart Detention Center.  He is one of the toughest judges in the United States.  Pedro received more than 30 letters of support of his good moral character and we are pretty sure Judge Cassidy did not read them.  Judge Cassidy has claimed from the start that Pedro does not qualify for NACARA when the majority of Pedro’s family have permanent residency or citizenship because of NACARA and our lawyer has the Nacara legal statute that proves that he qualifies.  He has claimed that Pedro does not have good moral character because we can not find 2 years of tax documents from the 90’s but we have submitted 8 years of tax documents.  The judge has claimed that Pedro has been a fugitive for 10 years when in actuality Pedro has had a legal work visa that he has reapplied for every year since he was a teenager.  The judge has claimed that Pedro would be a flight risk because Logan and I are United States citizens.  That just doesn’t make sense.  The sad part is that Pedro would most likely have been free here in the United States if any other judge had had his case. 

So what can you do to help?  Take action!  Contact elected officials!  Write to Pedro even if you don’t know him!  Comment on this blog!

Thank you for everyone’s continued support!!

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Pedro was detained at Stewart Detention Center for 19 months.

NACARA is the type of relief Pedro was granted. Click here to find out what it is.