ICE Detention Center


ICE facility aerial view

Florence, Arizona. Pinal County seat, midway between Tucson and Phoenix. A locally born and raised Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agent tells us that everyone he knew growing up now either works for or does time in a prison. Meanwhile, the largest proportion of the town’s population is made up of involuntary residents held within 11 carceral institutions. These county jails, private prisons, and federal detention centers bring in independent contractors, driving the regional economy while constructing a bizarre desert landscape of barbed wire and security towers.


Florence, AZ partial view from Google Earth

Before entering the detention complex, a gate guard checks our state-issued ID’s, exchanging driver’s licenses for red visitor’s passes marked “requires escort”; we are duly escorted to a conference room in the administrative building for a revealing presentation about the facility. The property has been a site for politically driven imprisonment since 1942, when it served as a POW camp. In 1963, the space was converted to a minimum-security prison; twenty years later it became a processing center for Cuban immigrants arriving en masse at the time of the Mariel Boatlift. During this period, resistance by detained Cubans led to destruction of the facility’s main building: some of the rioters were sent to Oakdale, Louisiana, setting the stage for the larger uprising that would take place there in 1987. The detention center that now occupies this carceral footprint was established in 2003, but remnant structures invoke its history. Most strikingly, the “Main Jail” unit, in contrast to more recent buildings, retains barred windows and cages. This “special housing unit” contains the isolated cells where detainees are sent as enhanced punishment, or for “protective custody” and suicide watch.

During the initial presentation and question session, we learn that Florence houses those who ICE considers as adult males (including transgender women like Nicoll) , and that the average length of stay is 20-21 days unless a detainee attempts to pursue an immigration appeals process, which can take years to move through the courts. When they arrive at the ICE facility, via Border Patrol stations, hospitals, or other prisons, detainees enter a 72-hour staging facility, where they undergo orientation and classification. New arrivals are given uniforms that correspond in color to their security status: blue indicates a low security individual, orange medium-low, white a kitchen worker, green as yet unclassified. Classification is based on records of prior criminality, which may include any previous apprehensions for unauthorized entry. Medium and high security prisoners are sent across the street into the custody of the privately run Corrections Corporation of America. Later in the process, deportations, now officially dubbed “removals,” occur through chartered flights to Central American nations and buses to Mexico. ICE also contracts with various private companies for kitchen, maintenance, and security personnel, as well as technology firms for surveillance and telecommunications syndicates for (expensive) contact with the outside world. These myriad contractors are supervised by a limited number of federal staff.

The man in charge urged us to take note of cleanliness and high air quality around the facility, and of the recreation area in particular. “Detained aliens,” he reminds us, aren’t sedentary: they may work in the kitchen or laundry room for $1/day, and are allotted three hours of outdoor recreation. The recently installed turf soccer field, he boasts, has prevented sports injuries, effectively saving taxpayers’ money.

ICE prides itself on careful spending of taxpayers’ money.

ICE prides itself even more on security and the defense of America. Upon entering the detention area, I slouch against the chain-link fence, and am waved off by security agents for setting off “the sensors.” I had ignorantly assumed that height, barbed wire, and constant surveillance were enough.

ICE also prides itself on harm reduction. In the cinderblock bathrooms, shower and toilet stalls have no doors, allowing guards to walk through for “cursory checks,” ensuring that no one is trying to hurt himself. Suicide smocks and padded isolation cells are available for depressed detainees. Hunger strikes are carefully documented, and force-feeding occurs when necessary. A Spanish-language sign on a cinderblock wall warns that attempting to cross the desert into the United States may result in death.

At first, this warning puzzles me: aren’t we already on the other side? Don’t the men incarcerated here know firsthand the dangers of the desert? But then I remember the deported migrants we met in Altar, many of whom crossed the border long ago, and have lived in the U.S. for a decade or more. They would have been held, I guess, in a facility like this one after being apprehended by ICE. The cautionary sign, perhaps, is meant for them. Crossing has grown exponentially more deadly since their original journey, but we know that these men will no doubt still be tempted to rejoin their families, reclaim their lives.

The migrants within these walls know all too well that crossing may also result in loss of freedom and human dignity.

At the beginning of our tour, I notice that the outside walking paths within the detention complex are marked with two sets of parallel lines, to control human traffic (elementary school teachers take note).


As we pass a group of detainees flanked by security guards, our guide directs us neatly into one lane. When possible, I make eye contact with the men moving past in plastic yellow sandals, and sometimes we nod at each other, a gesture of mutual affirmation. I try to smile. I wonder, as always, what they think of our presence. Here, I regret theirs.

Most vivid in my memory are the sights of a group of new arrivals sitting on the curb in dusty street clothes; the emptiness of the soccer field; the tiny, barren metal bunks in 64-man barracks; the holding cells in the medical clinic; the bustling cafeteria where men sit joking at crowded tables, faced with Styrofoam trays of catfish patties and iceberg lettuce.

We walk through courtyards, past men staring out the windows of “day rooms” full of detainees. I wave. It feels too casual, too cavalier. But nothing about any of this feels right.

I am acutely conscious of my white, female, documented body passing through the health clinic, the kitchen, the laundry room, the quarantine unit, medical intake, “administrative segregation” (disciplinary) cells, the recreation yard, sleeping bunks, group bathrooms, common spaces with programmed TVs and rows of payphones on the wall.

I am acutely conscious of walking out of the gates when our visit is over.

Our penultimate stop within the facility is the contact visiting room, where two detainees sit across from their respective visitors, sharing lunch and talking in hushed tones. We linger, interrupting their time together. I wish that we would stop asking questions. This is not the place to be a student.

Last, finally, we enter the attached courtroom. It smells of clean blue carpet. We take seats on wooden pews, facing the judge’s bench, for one more round of questions. The courtroom, where immigrants represent themselves in hearings, is well furnished to uphold the appearance of justice.


A license plate from the detention facility that reads “IDPORTM”

Our drivers’ licenses are returned at the gate, and we climb into the van for a driving tour of Florence. The downtown looks like it’s straight out of a Western. A few blocks over the highway is flanked by prison compounds. We stop at the prison outlet, which sells art made by “inmates.” The craftspeople are paid 75% of sales for crafts made out of paper or bread. If they use tools and materials such as metal or leather, they are paid an hourly wage (one I can only assume is under minimum wage); restitutions for criminal charges are deducted as well. In my mind, this little store becomes symbolic of a thriving economy that depends on and profits off of the mass criminalization, immobilization, and incarceration of low-income people of color.


The Prison Outlet store where detainees can sell their creations on consignment

On the way out of town, we stop for road snacks. Tyrian runs across the street to a Subway patronized by customers in various law enforcement uniforms. In the van, we eat chips and peanuts and cookies and plan our Friday evenings. I process, slowly. I can’t accept this pattern of policing and detention as normal or logical, because I did not grow up in this town. But still I can’t leave it behind.

–Emily Belle


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