A Gold Cage is Still a Cage


“you can’t come in like that.” 

After entering high security gates that looked like they came out of a movie in Star Wars, the entrance security officer distastefully uttered these words to our Critical Issues instructor, Alisha, as she talked about our scheduled tour at the detention center. In disbelief, we all thought the officer was ableist, referring to Alisha’s crutches, but she was referring to Alisha’s shoulders being visible. This started off the beginning of our trip to the I.C.E. detention center in Florence, AZ. After getting clarification and explaining that we have been in contact with I.C.E. officials for a tour, we then heard the words:

“we don’t do those here.”

Our group eventually learned that we walked into the wrong detention center. Something most people do not know is that Florence, a very small town in between Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona, is actually a prison town. They even have a prison store, where folks can buy things made by prisoners, and depending on the item 75% of the proceeds goes back to the artist. Florence has 11, yes ELEVEN, incarceration facilities in the area. We walked into a Corrections Corporation of America   CCA facility, which is privately owned. Apparently, they are “America’s leader in partnership corrections. [They] provide solutions that combine public sector oversight with private sector efficiency.” Except, given our experience, their prison was not really public.

After following some advice, we made our way to the I.C.E. detention center. At the entrance, we exchanged our state I.D.s for visitor’s passes, made our way inside and passed through security before going upstairs where we would wait for our tour. It was during this wait where I made myself a cup of hazelnut coffee from a very fancy coffee machine. I figured my tax dollars were paying for this horrible facility to exist, so I might as well drink its resources, literally. After waiting a few short minutes, we met the director of the facility, who informed us that he was “kinda the detention guy”, along with a few other folks, whose names I cannot remember but who did not leave our side during the tour. The director gave us a brief history of the detention center, teaching us that in 1942, this facility was a prisoner-of-war camp; in 1963, a minimum security prison where prisoners made brooms; in 1983, a service processing center for U.S. Immigration Naturalization Services; and then in 2003, the present day detention center.

Throughout the director’s lecture, I listened very closely to how he talked about the migrants in the detention center. Was he calling them illegal aliens? Was he referring to them as migrants? For a while he used respectful and politically correct language. Then, we began to talk a bit about policy; these migrants/detainees/immigrants became illegal aliens instantly. He explained the differences between refugees, asylum seekers, and the migrants crossing the border on non-U.S. checkpoints. Apparently, the media has got it all messed up. These people crossing the border illegally are not refugees or asylum seekers. They are not doing things the right way. Apparently, the right way was going through federal ports of entry, approaching an officer, and stating that you are seeking asylum. But what is the right way when officers are will actively turn you away?

Welcome to the Jungle”

I heard a detainee say this as we continued to learn about how tolerable this particular I.C.E. facility was. These words stuck with me. Jungles. They are so complex and elegant in pictures, green trees and bright plants, exotic fruits and beautiful animals, but to survive within them is a struggle. There are constant negotiations that need to take place in order to make the right decisions. When is the right time to eat to avoid getting preyed on? How can one move in order to avoid as many problems as possible? Although I will never be sure about his exact thoughts when saying this to our group, whether he meant that we would be looking at them as exotic creatures or this was a comment on their survival within this facility. This man’s words have stuck.

How does the saying go?

a gold cage is still a cage.

This I.C.E. detention center is very well kept. It is environmentally friendly, with very expensive technology used to ensure the garbage weighs as little as possible to save as much money as possible.  Every migrant is “allowed” to sit wherever they want, even though everyone was in two tables when we passed them for lunch. They kept a separate sterile space for folks with TB to make sure that it was not spread throughout the facility. Their version of solitary confinement was not in a hole, but in a very public space. Folks worked and even got paid $1 a day. A whole dollar is given to folks at the end of the each workday for doing laundry, kitchen work, garden etc. One may even end the tour thinking, “well this place is not too bad. It’s clean. Hey. They have ping-pong and basketball tournaments.” But again…

a gold cage is still a cage.

“It costs money to take away someone’s liberty”

 That is correct Mr. ICE facility director! It certainly does cost money to deprive someone of their freedom. Of their human rights. This detention facility does just that and on tax-payer dollars (something folks seem to care a ton about). We are paying to detain people until their cases get processed. In fact, we are holding people just because we want to hold people. Folks plead guilty through Operation Streamline, and instead of getting released and sent back to the countries which hold their citizenship, they are held for up to 180 days, six months in US prisons!  I say “we” because it is us. Our money is going to fund the increasing number of detention centers, minimum and high security prisons, and juvenile detention centers, instead of going towards public health, welfare, and education. Someone is getting rich off of someone else’s misery. I say “we” because it’s important to hold ourselves accountable. I say “we” because as people who know about these injustices, it is our job to fight to end them.

 I believe that we will win.

-B Alvarez


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