Tuesday, April 30, 2013
Florence loomed in my mind as the hellhole of the inhospitable landscape of Arizona: a town that I had heard contained three prisons and no supermarket. Florence is a visual representation of the recent trajectory of Arizona’s economy, which is investing money and creating jobs through a federal and corporate prison network mostly detaining undocumented immigrants. Arizona has moved away from its 5 cs of a state economy. It used to be that Arizona survived as a state through the cattle, citrus, copper, climate, and cotton industries. We’ve skipped thirteen letters in the alphabet to arrive to the present day industry keeping Arizona afloat: prisons. The presentation that we were given as a group when we went to the I.C.E. (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) Detention Center in Florence reflected this proliferation of prison jobs. The man who gave us our tour, told us that there were 122 I.C.E. employees at this detention center and that they contracted 457 general staff (13 in food service, 424 in security custody, 12 in maintenance, and 3 religious staff), and 29 medical staff. That is a total of 608 staff for a detention center that has 392 beds for detainees. Although this may not be a fair or totally grounded comparison, I keep thinking about the fact that if Arizona schools had as much staff or monetary investment as Arizona prisons, we could skip down a couple more letters in the alphabet and create a sustainable Arizonan economy that wasn’t reliant on the incarceration and dehumanization of non-criminals.
As of last week, 31% of the current population in the Florence I.C.E. Detention Center are criminals, meaning they have been previously convicted of a crime, while 69% of the general population are non-criminals. Non-criminals, meaning they have no criminal record, but have been apprehended by the local police, Border Patrol, or I.C.E. as people living in this country without papers. It is not a crime to be in violation of immigration laws; it is a strictly civil violation. Immigrants have to go through a civil legal process to see if they have the right to stay in the United States or not. Instead of letting people stay at home and work while they are going through this legal process, detention centers are making huge profits off of detaining immigrants. The Florence Project, a non-profit legal aid organization that provides assistance to detainees, reports that the average cost of detaining an immigrant is $99 per person a day, while alternatives to detention, including reporting and electronic monitoring, are effective, yielding a 93% court appearance rate, and cheaper, at an average of $12 a day. Only thirty percent of the people in this detention center have committed crimes deemed “dangerous to society”, but the rhetoric of the detention center is that everyone in the facility is dangerous and that their primary function is keeping our streets safe through detention. Our guide kept saying that detention centers are not punitive, meaning not for punishment; they are strictly for administrative purposes. However, he later said that he is proud of his job and that he sleeps better at night because he is protecting the community, his family, our families, from the criminal element of society. This rhetoric of security against the criminal enhances the idea of immigrants as “other”, as not worthy of basic human rights or of access to the benefits of living in America.
At the I.C.E. facility, detainees are paid a dollar a day to work a shift in the kitchen or the Laundromat or elsewhere within the facility. This work was phrased as beneficial to the detainees because it gives them additional job skills. Do we really think that someone is going to list wiping tables at a detention center while being incarcerated on an application for employment? This is one of the newer rungs in the horrible history of forced and enslaved labor in the United States. The detention center is receiving practically free labor from non-criminals who could be working minimum wage jobs while going through their civil, not criminal, proceedings. When we walked into the Laundromat, there was music playing. The security guard standing by the door casually joked to us that the music “makes them work faster”, attributing the allowance of music to an industrial praise of efficiency.
“Care, custody, and control” was the motto of the employees of the I.C.E. Detention Facility. They control detainees by color-coding them by criminal status. Lime-green uniforms mean that they are located in the staging facility and have not yet been processed, blue means non-criminal or low classification, orange indicates a medium-low or medium-high threat or degree of criminality, and red is high criminality. This color-coding occurs all over the country and is being taken to new heights. A recent article on NPR explained that “Officials at at least five state institutions have been using a color-coding system to keep track of their inmates by race: black inmates get blue signs placed above their cell doors, while white inmates get white signs, Latino inmates are designated by red, green or pink signs, and everyone else is yellow. Their logic works like this: if a group of Latino inmates fights with a white inmate, the prison would place all of the Latinos on lockdown.” Racism is ruling the functioning of our prison systems in the United States.
One thing that became clear to all of us was the bureaucratic distinction (albeit a blurry distinction in terms of treatment and intent) of the differences between a detention center, jail, and a prison. We were told that a detention center has a purely administrative, not punitive function, that a jail serves to hold people pending prosecution for a criminal charge, and that prisons house people once they are convicted of a crime. Florence alone houses the I.C.E. Detention Center, the CCA (Corporate Corrections of America) Detention Center, and the Pinal County Jail. Conteras mentioned that the function of the tour he was giving us was to dispel the ideas that the media sometimes exudes about prisons: that they are horrendous facilities in which torture and harassment lurks in every shadow. Our amiable tour guide’s goal was to show us that the detainees were being treated as humans, with top of the line food, recreation time, and access to legal rights. The treatment at the I.C.E. detention center did seem better than I had anticipated; however, we were later informed by a social worker with an organization that offers detained immigrants legal aid, that the Florence I.C.E. Detention Center is I.C.E.’s shining jewel in terms of treatment. In other words, when we toured the detention center, we saw the top-of-the line. Cindy told us that conditions are much, much worse at the Pinal County Jail. Regardless of the numerous amenities that the I.C.E. detention center is providing, the detainees at one of the supposed best facilities in the country are still being treated as animals, as the bottom tier in a human caste system.
The words that were used continually on our tour portrayed the detainees as animals to be taken care of and controlled. At one point, our tour guide announced that we were moving on to view the dining hall facilities and he warned, “They may be feeding right now.” Feeding? Really? Do you believe that you are the warden of animals whose only needs are nourishment by glucose and protein, sleep, and shelter? Humans, humans, have emotional, mental, and sentimental needs. Humans have survived through all kinds of impossible journeys because of the strength of their mind and their willpower. Humans thrive on ideas and creativity. Prisons treat humans like animals, and intentionally so, because their goal is not rehabilitation of people; their goal is detainment of people who exist outside of and challenge the normative sphere of US society.