Florence Detention Center

With the horrific realities of Operation Streamline still etched in our minds, our group witnessed yet another manifestation of immigrant criminalization and commodification this past Friday. After a 90-minute drive north from Tucson, we arrived at the fenced-in complex of Florence Detention Center in the rural community of Florence, AZ. Roughly half of the town’s 17,000 inhabitants are confined within its 12 correctional facilities (split between federal, state, county, and private ownership), and this prison economy keeps much of the remaining population employed. Florence has a long history as a prison town – the Florence Detention Center originally incarcerated German and Italian prisoners of war during World War II. Now operated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the remodeled facility holds male undocumented immigrants who are awaiting court cases and deportations.

After a thorough ID check at the gates, a guard led us through the complex and into a conference room for a pre-tour information session. Our host, a jovial facilities supervisor named Marty, rushed through a glossy PowerPoint with the obvious goal of subduing our skepticisms. As he highlighted the detention center’s diverse religious services and outdoor recreational space, Marty assured us that it’s “nothing like a prison or jail, but more like a college campus.” While this facility is doubtless the most visitor-friendly of Florence’s immigrant detention centers, the college campus comment went too far. As students, some of us may “imprison” ourselves within the library by choice, but that hardly compares to the forced incarceration and impending deportation of people on a massive scale.

While Marty (and a pack of four or five guards) led us on a tour, we walked past detainees wearing solid-color uniforms corresponding to their so-called “levels” of criminality. As we filed into the dining hall during its lunch-time peak, the room briefly quieted while prisoners turned their heads to gaze at this spectacle of college students. I was painfully aware of my visibly white appearance, my many privileges. Perhaps I should have looked back and smiled to acknowledge our common humanity, but I could only bear to glance down and walk quickly to the door, unable to own up to my general complicity within the whole system.

We continued on to the special housing unit, a relic of old-fashioned jailhouse configurations with bars substituting for interior walls. In what felt like a stark violation of privacy, we passed by detainees in see-through “segregation” cells (who Marty assured us were simply in medical isolation) as they napped and killed time. I felt as if we were walking through a human zoo, cage by cage. The regular housing unit wasn’t much better, sporting a large dormitory of bare-bones bunks where the room-occupancy ratio is designed to equal 5 feet of space per person. Although Marty claimed that the average length of stay at Florence Detention Center is 17-21 days, some people have languished here for years.

Visiting the detention center was yet another reminder of the ways that immigrants are construed as criminals and “threats” to the United States. Unfortunately, the prison industry profits from this national mindset each time an immigrant gets caught in the system, at the expense of taxpayer money. The cycle continues as these corporate interests lobby for more anti-immigrant legislation in the political realm. Yet the workers at Florence Detention Center seemed indifferent to this commodification of human beings. Like the Border Patrol agents we spoke with a few weeks ago, Marty claimed impartiality in his work and emphasized that it’s his job to simply enforce the laws. Despite his problematic detachment from the larger human rights implications, it’s understandable that he’s found ways to justify his work. For people like Marty, these prison jobs provide steady income and benefits within a rural economy that lacks other options. What would it look like for Florence to transition to a more socially constructive economy, one that doesn’t rely on the criminalization of impoverished brown people to bolster its revenues and keep local residents employed?

More questions emerged when we visited with a representative from the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project over lunch. Our host, Dorien, and her colleagues offer pro bono legal services to people detained by ICE in Arizona, since the federal government does not provide lawyers for immigrants in deportation proceedings. Because of this shortcoming, 86% of detainees do not have an attorney and must learn to represent themselves within one of the most complex categories of U.S. law. Members of the Florence Project strive to provide immigrants with a variety of legal tools by talking with people about their options, giving know-your-rights presentations, offering one-on-one preparation for hearings, supplying small law libraries in the detention centers, and partnering with other advocacy organizations.

It was refreshing to visit candidly with Dorien, since she frequently navigates the multilayered settings of the Florence Detention Center and other ICE facilities (like the Pinal County Jail) that harbor even worse conditions. She compared the Florence Project’s work to operating an emergency room, as these detention centers are places of continual crisis for the people that inhabit them. Given this reality, the triage-style application of direct legal services is necessary but not exactly transformative. Despite the difficulties in balancing immediate needs with long-term change, Dorien has focused on finding small-scale solutions to concrete problems while maintaining relationships with organizations that pursue broader social transformation. Yet she also admits that the Florence Project frequently deals with failure: many clients can’t win their cases in a system that is stacked against them. For people in direct service roles, sometimes the most essential work involves meeting individuals on a human level and bearing witness to the impossible situations that they struggle through.

Another important message from Dorien’s visit was the necessity of nonviolent communication across-the-board. In the Florence Project’s work, maintaining respectful relationships with prison employees is the key to accessing clients and gaining the necessary rapport for constructive conversations regarding daily injustices. Furthermore, outright anger toward detention center workers could create a ripple effect and be redirected toward the detainees. This is a lesson I will carry with me as I continue on this journey with Border Patrol officers, prison workers, and others who are making a living in this complex world. In order to overpower the culture of distrust and imprisonment, we – as activists – need to set the precedent for a radical society founded on love and openness.

— submitted by Elsa Goossen

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