Inverted Particularities

Professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore spoke at the University of Arizona on October second about the proliferation in this country of enclosures; of those not documented to work, and those documented not to work. These are the “inverted particularities” of the lives, the movements, the meanings of the undocumented and the incarcerated. Our boundaries grow denser, more embedded, and our institutions eat more bodies every day. “The border” the professor said, “waits as quietly as a land mine.”

The Border Studies Program found the border last week in the bleak and thirsty prison town of Florence, Arizona. The town is host to seven prisons and jails, including a state prison, two private prison complexes, and the Florence Detention Center, an ICE facility. It is to this institution that we paid our visit. The site once held detainees from Fidel Castro’s prisons and asylums. Before that, it was an internment camp for Japanese-Americans. In the room where we are screened for weapons, a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization sign hangs on the wall; a picture of the World Trade Center, and the words “We will never forget.”

Our host is the Assistant Field Office Director, Martin Zelenka. Mr. Zelenka meets us in a conference room prior to our tour of his facility. On the wall, a screen flashes through a series of video-feeds: men sleeping in bunk beds, men folding sheets, someone being processed, men playing cards, watching TV. No one explains why it is there. A security measure? Insurance against accusations of mistreatment? A selling point? The loop appears endless-the entire time we sit there I watch the same people go about their daily activities inside the facility. Mr. Zelenka begins his presentation. He explains that he is in charge of a very dynamic facility. “I think,” he tells us proudly, “that you’ll be very surprised at what you see.” Indeed.

The Florence Detention Center (FDC,) processes roughly 5000 intakes a month, and cages around 1500 people on any given day-the count is shaky because the Center’s administration often doesn’t account for the population in transit-those just passing through on their way to being deported. These inmates, we learn, can be identified by their green jumpsuits. Other inmates wear white, blue, and orange uniforms. This system marks each man according to his “level of criminality,” ranging from “none” to “some but not too much criminality,” to “habitual criminal.” Inmates hail from 80 nations, though 48% of them are Mexican, 25% are Guatemalan, and the majority of the rest are from Honduras and El Salvador.

After the presentation, we are led on a tour through the facility. We are shown the kitchen, the dormitories (row upon row of tiny beds, shoes sticking off the edge of each one like disembodied feet,) the dining hall, the tiny courtroom for on-the-spot trials, other rooms that smell the same. We pass by men staring at us from their cells, men doing laundry (for which they are compensated at a rate of $1 per day,) men being marched in rows from one part of the complex to another. When we venture outside, we can see rows of National Guard tanks lined up across the street, waiting. Next door, a training facility in “desert warfare” is being erected. It’s hard not to think about war. It’s hard not to wonder what purpose these casualties in color-coded jumpsuits serve.

2.2 million people are currently incarcerated in the United States-more than any other nation on the globe. Of these, detained immigrants (numbering 33,300 as of 2011) are the fastest growing population. Cycles of militarization, detention, and incarceration ravage communities of color in the United States, and perpetuate racial partitions that resonate with this country’s legacies of slavery and colonization.

Perhaps this is not lost on our cages’ keepers. As we say goodbye in the parking lot outside of the detention center. Mr. Zelenka wants to make sure we know in whose name the apartheid continues; “Thanks,” he says, “for coming to see what your government’s doing for you.”

– submitted by Sofie Ghitman


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