‘Immigrant Detention Center’ Is Just a Nice Way to Say ‘Prison’


When Sylvester Owino tells people he spent nine and a half years inside immigration detention centers, they ask him a lot of questions. They ask if he liked the food in the cafeteria, and whether his family was able to visit him, if he was able to wear his own clothes. All the follow up-questions make it clear they think he was locked up in a friendly camp of sorts.

“People I talk to say ‘Oh my God’ after I explain to them that detention centers are just like prisons,” Owino says.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials are careful and precise when they describe the facilities that detain an average of 40,000 immigrants each day. They refer to them as “processing centers” and “detention centers,” not prisons or jails. And when the government is not referring to the immigrants inside them as aliens, they’re called “detainees,” not inmates or prisoners.

Owino says this all leads the public to believe detention centers are more humane than local jails or federal and state prisons.

“The conditions are worse in so-called detention centers than they are in prisons,” says Owino, who was incarcerated at three different California state prisons after he was convicted of robbery in the second degree in 2003, before being transferred to ICE custody. He grew up in Kenya and entered the United States with a student visa in 1998. He is now an advocate for immigrants in detention and the named plaintiff in a class action lawsuit accusing a private prison company of forced labor.

The media consistently use the same institutional language as ICE. The Associated Press’ Stylebook, a guide widely used in newsrooms nationwide, has an entry for “detention center,” but it directs journalists back to the entry on prisons and jails, with no explanation on what distinguishes a detention center. (An ICE spokesperson said the agency doesn’t issue guidance to journalists on what language to use.)

Owino says calling these facilities “detention centers” leads to elected officials and the general public to not question whether the people locked up should be there in the first place. Changing the language around detention centers would also more closely link the issue to the wider discussion around over-incarceration. And it would draw attention to the unfair treatment immigrants get when they’ve already served time in actual jails and prisons.

“I got to see the difference between the detention center and prisons, and there is no difference.”

People like Owino, who were in detention as a result of a conviction, have already served their sentences. After their prison time, immigrants are often immediately transferred directly to ICE custody for deportation proceedings. ICE does not have authority to detain individuals for criminal violations.

After Owino served his 28-month sentence in state prisons, ICE locked him up for more than a decade while they tried to deport him. Owino was incarcerated at the Central Arizona Florence Correctional Complex, an ICE facility that is owned and operated by CoreCivic, the largest private-prisons contractor in the country. He spent nine and half years at immigration detention facilities while he appealed his deportation order. Owino says he was detained at four different ICE detention centers during the nine and a half years he was detained.

The average length of detainment in immigration detention is 31 days, according to November and December 2012 ICE records analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. But immigrants legally in the U.S. who end up in immigration detention and challenge their deportation orders often spend a lot more time there. Thousands of people are detained in ICE facilities for more than six months. TRAC’s report found some extreme cases where immigration detainees were locked up between six and eight years.

The procedures many of the so-called detention facilities are often identical to those at jails and prisons.

When Carlos Hidalgo was processed at the Adelanto Detention Center, officers took his name, looked at his record, and gave him a colored jumpsuits that corresponded with the severity of his conviction. He was assigned his bed. Every move was tracked. If he went to the cafeteria, he walked in a single file line. If he went to the medical facility, he was escorted and patted down before and after his visit.

Hidalgo, 50, says it was the exact same process he had to follow when he was in the county jail.

“I got to see the difference between the two facilities and there is no difference,” says Hidalgo, who was transferred to ICE custody after serving time for a petty theft misdemeanor.

Hidalgo says he knows what a real detention center looks like because he was detained in one after he fled El Salvador in 1981. He came to the U.S. seeking asylum and was taken to a juvenile facility where he says he was treated with respect and didn’t have to wear a uniform. This is where he first had chocolate milk and cinnamon buns. At a regular detention center, these snacks would be a luxury you have to buy at the commissary, he says.

Owino and Hidalgo have partnered with CIVIC, a group “devoted to abolishing U.S. immigration detention,” to launch a petition calling on 10 news publications to refer to the facilities that lock up immigrants as “immigrants prisons.”

They’re calling on the Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, CNN, and all the national broadcasting networks to drop “detention centers” and call these facilities immigrant prisons. (NPR recently used “immigrant jails” in a story about private prisons.)

Most detainees at the Adelanto Detention Facility called it a pinche carcel—a fucking prison.

Calling the same facilities “immigrant jails,” immigrant prisons,” and “immigration detention centers” could be confusing because the federal government actually has “immigrant prisons” that detain immigrants who are serving time for a crime. The Bureau of Prisons has what are called Criminal Alien Requirement prisons that incarcerate immigrants typically serving time for what’s known as improper re-entry, which is when an individual who has previously been deported is caught re-entering the United States.

But Hidalgo says that calling detention centers “immigrant prisons” wouldn’t be confusing, because the confinement settings are similar.

“I can only assume the [detention centers] are the same or worse,” Hidalgo says.

Advocates have long pressed the Associated Press to update its stylebook to include more accurate and neutral terminology. Immigrant rights advocates pushed the AP to drop “illegal immigrant” for years before the stylebook instructed journalists to not describe people as illegal. The stylebook also banned the use of the term “mentally retarded” and suggested journalists use terms like “mentally disabled” and “developmentally disabled.” And most recently the stylebook added “they” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun.

Mónica Novoa, a communications strategist who led a campaign demanding the AP stop using “illegal immigrant,” said organized efforts from the people affected by the use of language goes a long way.

“We have to listen to directly impacted people who are the experts on how they want their humanity and conditions described, and how they want to make justice,” said Novoa.

Hidalgo says most detainees at the Adelanto Detention Facility, where he was detained for a year and half, referred to the facility in Spanish. They called it a pinche carcel—a fucking prison.

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