What It’s Like Inside the Largest Immigrant Prison in the US

I hate hospitals. I watched my grandma die in a hospital and saw cancer take my best friend’s father from her in a hospital. Today, I am in a place like a hospital, but it is not at all comforting. The walls and hallways are as silent and sterile as a hospital, but the orderlies are not here to care for people. No. This is an immigrant prison run by a publicly-traded corporation whose legal duty is to turn a profit for its shareholders.

“Men coming in,” announces Officer V as he opens the heavy metal door into the women’s module of this immigrant prison. V is a middle-aged Hispanic officer with US Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency responsible for imprisoning over 40,000 asylum seekers, victims of human trafficking and other immigrants across the country per day in places like this.

V and I have a history, so much so that he has banned me from visiting at this prison on more than one occasion. He has even called the local police to escort me off the “private property” or arrest me. The local police all but laughed at him. Last week, V tried to tell me I had used up all my visits at the prison for the year. I’m a lawyer, so I quickly pulled out some arguments and escalated the matter to his supervisor. He was not happy about this.

V allows the prison door to slam shut, and I feel the first movement of air in hours. The hairs on my arm briefly flutter. And then the building is still again.

My mouth tastes like cotton.

It is almost one in the afternoon, I can tell from the way the sun beam bounces off the window. There is no clock in sight. We have been on this inspection tour now for two hours.

I stand at the front of the room with the 11 other community members I have brought with me to the Adelanto Detention Facility, the largest immigrant prison in the country. I have walked through the locked hallways of this prison about a dozen times, and I have been visiting the people inside regularly since 2013.

For the other community members, this is their first time. I know a little about each of them, but I wonder why they were moved to visit with me today. Maybe they are children of immigrants, like me? Or perhaps they cannot stomach injustice in any form? Or conceivably, they are just curious about this opaque system they are hearing more and more about in the news.

The Adelanto Detention Facility is named after the small town in California where it is located. The City of Adelanto greets visitors with a sign, proclaiming it to be a city of “unlimited possibilities.” However, when you drive through this small town in the Mojave Desert, it is clear the city is known for only one possibility: incarceration. The City of Adelanto is home to this immigrant prison, a state prison and a county jail. Just along the border of the neighboring town of Victorville lies a federal prison that is now also being used to imprison immigrants. All in all, about a third of the population is behind bars.

“What is that bird doing in here?” asks one of my volunteers.

“Oh that? That’s Marvin. He flew in here one day, and decided to stay. He likes living here,” says V.

“Sometimes the bird flies outside during recreation time, but he always comes back. You see we even built a place for him,” adds a white, younger-looking guard with GEO Group, the private prison corporation that runs Adelanto.

I look up.

The bird is not flying.

Marvin is stuck inside a metal cage near the ceiling. The ceiling is two or three times the height of a normal room. Someone would have had to buy or build a bird cage, find a ladder, climb up the ladder and affix the cage to the wall.

“Do they really think a bird is happier inside a prison?” I think to myself. “Do they see the irony in this situation? Do they not understand that we see the irony?” I’m never surprised anymore by the absolute daftness of officers who take us on these tours of immigrant prisons, but this is the first time I’ve seen a caged bird.

The women do not look amused by Marvin, but the prison personnel assure us that they enjoy this bird, almost as much as the bird enjoys being here.

One volunteer asks, “Will the women be given outdoor recreation today?”

“Of course,” says the GEO officer. “Two hours a day they get under the standards, but we often let them stay outside as long as they want. We were just getting ready to let them out before you came in.”

The women are sitting at lunch tables, facing us in their blue prison jumpsuits. The stench of week-old pea soup is mixed with the smell of drying paint. We were instructed by the prison personnel not to talk to the women inside.

But we wear shirts that say, “Freedom for Immigrants.” Some women nod in affirmation.

I make eye contact with one woman. She has long, black hair, but like the other women, it does not look like she has been allowed to properly wash and comb it for weeks. Her hair is beautiful, though, and reminds me of pictures of my own mother when she was a teenager.

I wonder what she will tell her children about her imprisonment at Adelanto. Will she keep this part of her life a secret, in an effort to protect her children from her pain? Or will she share her truth to save future generations from making the same mistake?

She glances down at the table for a few moments and presses her lips together in an attempt to restrain a quiver. Then her eyes are again locked with mine. We both smile, sadly.

I realize I haven’t smiled for the last two hours.

I look up at Marvin, inviting the woman to follow my eyes. We look together at the black and brown bird, maybe a finch or a song sparrow, perched in a cage within a cage. I slowly swivel my head back to her, trying desperately to keep our silent conversation hidden from the ICE officers and GEO guards.

I feel good about this small act of defiance, a thread of innocence that we have sown together in this forgotten place.

My unknown friend frowns and shakes her head, moving her eyes between me and Marvin. It is clear to both of us: This bird does not belong here.

The sunlight is now coming right through the window, and I feel like I have been watching a picture develop in a dark room.

My family’s immigrant story began with an earthquake on a small island in the Azores, an autonomous region of Portugal. Congress passed legislation in the 1950s to grant refugee status in the United States to people who had lost their homes in the volcanic eruption and subsequent earthquake on the island. My great-grandfather immigrated first. My grandparents and father followed a few years later in 1968. My parents met in a Portuguese class, my mother the daughter of Portuguese immigrants.

My family’s immigration picture has been developing in the safety of man-made laws, protected by green cards and citizenship status. But so many immigrant legacies of so many families are halted too soon, unable to develop, exposed too soon to the light.

Visiting people in immigration detention is the other side of the coin from the rest of my life, from my life with my loving husband, parents, nieces and nephews. From the evening walks on the beach and the weekend afternoons spent hand-painting or chalk-drawing with my four-year-old niece. This is the place I am free to walk away from because I am a citizen, but this is the place that haunts my dreams. It fills me like darkness fills a room. This is the place that does not belong to humanity.

Marvin lets out a madge-madge-madge and then stops, as if his voice has been impeded by the prison walls. There is a loneliness about a bird unanswered.

Adelanto is one of the most isolating places I have ever been to. It’s a camp with two buildings laced with concertina wire and filled with 1,960 detained immigrants, an undisclosed number of prison personnel and one bird. Six immigrants have died here. Last year, in a hunger strike led by a group of Central American men, GEO guards pepper-sprayed nine men, then doused them with hot water to ensure that the pain of the pepper-spray was intensified as their pores widened.

The guards and ICE officers are now telling us about the new sandals the women are wearing, the fresh linens on their beds and the food. “These people, you know, they have never eaten so well….” a petite, older Asian woman wearing the GEO Group uniform states.

I peel away from the group, placing my hand on the white, brick wall. It is soft and malleable, from what seems like a recent coat of paint left baking in the heat. But between a few of the grooves in the wall, I can see clues left behind by the painter.

The black mold remains visible, possibly the same mold that had created a fungus outbreak on the women’s feet months before.

US immigration detention is a world where reality is painted over with lies, lies that for the people who work in the system are essential to believe.

The ICE officer escorts us out of the women’s module and into the outdoor recreation area. Men from the module across the yard are staring through the windows at us. One of the community volunteers I brought with me is staring back at the men. Her eyes are filled with tears. “This could be my father,” she whispers to me, as I put my arm around her to try to comfort her. I think the same thing to myself.

I once spoke to a young girl whose father was detained at Adelanto. She told me that she keeps a packed suitcase in her closet because she is positive that ICE is coming for her next.

The haze of the sun reflecting off of the white concrete is now blinding me. My eyes are watering. Or am I crying? I step into the shadow of the building for protection.

One of the younger GEO guards says to his buddy, “That is why I always bring my sunglasses,” as he puts his on. I am not sure if he is saying this for me to hear, but I think he has forgotten that the prison makes visitors leave their personal belongings in the lobby.

We walk back inside.

Close one door.

Wait.

Open another door. Walk through a hallway, past a group of men in a line. “These are our detainees,” says the ICE officer, as if we are in a zoo.

Next door.

Wait.

Another door.

Wait. We are almost out.

“We have to do this for security purposes. We are dedicated to the safety and security of all our detainees,” says one of the GEO guards. “My staff are the best of the best,” he adds as an afterthought.

We collect our personal belongings. The lobby personnel seem to have lost or misplaced one of our volunteer’s Driver’s Licenses. “The best of the best,” I think.

We walk through one more set of doors and we are outside. The free-flowing air knocks me off balance. I almost take a step back. My lungs automatically fill up, as if I had forgotten to breathe the entire time I was inside.

We get into our bus and drive out of the parking lot. I look back to see if the women are outside for their recreation time, as promised. I cannot see them. I cannot see Marvin.