Humans of Detention: Letters from inside Irwin County Detention Center

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     Members from South Georgia Immigrant Support Network (SGISN) hosted “Humans from Detention,” a letter reading event at Plough Gallery on Saturday, June 29. Six participants in the pen pal program from SGISN read letters that they received from people inside immigrant detention centers.

     Members of SGISN visit detention centers and find people inside interested in participating in a pen-pal relationship. Some of the detainees find comfort in releasing their stories and thoughts about incarceration.

     SGISN intern, Taylor Horton decided to organize Humans of Detention to show people that the immigration crisis is not a political issue, but a personal issue.

     “Sometimes you have to take the politics out of things to show people regardless of how you believe these people are human,” said Horton. “Regardless of anything, the Constitution gives that right to people whether or not you were born on US soil.”

Survivor’s Guilt

     The first reader at the event was Alma Young, a member of SGISN going on two years now and a translator to translate letters in Spanish into English. She participates regularly with the visitation process because her first language is Spanish.

     The mother of four children wrote a letter to Young saying that she has lost her immigration case because a judge told her that her children do not need her anymore and that the children can survive without their mother.

     “I have been held prisoner since August 2017, and I was detained by police for not having a driver’s license. I don’t have any other criminal charges, only driving without a license,” the letter read. 

     The letter described how this mother spent 25 years of her life living in the US, and she doesn’t want to return to Mexico because of the dangerous environment. The last thing she wants to do is return to a place she already escaped from.

     Her biggest fear is returning to Mexico because she will be lonely knowing she is leaving her husband and children behind in the US. Her children, natural-born citizens of the US, would then be raised by their father.

    These are the types of stories that tug at Young’s heart. She has a hard time processing why she was lucky enough to gain citizenship and avoided becoming a detained immigrant facing deportation.

     Young came to the US at age 11 and has since gained citizenship. She says she suffers survivor’s guilt when she sees the situation other immigrants are facing.

     “What is so special about me? At this point I am dealing with what is very clearly survivors guilt,” said Young. “And I have dealt with this my entire life.”

     “I began volunteering for this organization just to give back to my people,” said Young. “Mostly because I am an immigrant and I know the challenges we face in the country due to challenges with education and financial reasons.”

     Young read a letter from a 51-year-old mother who has been in detention since August of 2017 for driving without a license. Young said, “The more I hear about the experiences other people are going through and the mistreatment of my people I am overwhelmed with a sense of guilt.”

     SGISN finds different ways to improve the quality of life for the people that are impacted by the immigration crisis. The pen pal program they use has proven beneficial to the mental health of detainees. The local non-profit organization focuses their time on supporting immigrants and improving the lives of those incarcerated. 

Pain, Trouble and Suffering

     The next reader was April Salas who recently began volunteering with SGISN. “I am really happy that I’ve been made aware of this so that I can come here and give a voice to those people who cannot be here,” said Salas. The letter she read was from a woman who came to the US from Somalia, Africa.

     She read the letter detailing the woman fleeing her country in 2009 to South Africa after being persecuted as a minority in Somalia. Her father, brother and husband were murdered, forcing her to run for her life. The farm and house she grew up in were confiscated. 

     The letter continues by telling how this woman started a new life and remarried in South Africa until a gang killed her husband and raped her. The gang took everything she owned. She traveled alone through 11 different countries until she reached the US border. Now this woman faces deportation and has spent the last six months being moved to multiple detention centers.

     The letter read, “My story contains a lot of pain, trouble and suffering. I can’t write all of it on this piece of paper but I will share what I can. I walked through jungles for nine days at a time, sometimes without food. I came to America to have peace and freedom in my life.”

Superhero

     After Salas finished reading her letter, Christine Tibbetts shared multiple letters she received from people she has written to inside Irwin County Detention Center. She described the letters as small printed words that filled every inch of space on the paper with clarity from the heart. She held the letters up so the audience could see that they were filled top to bottom with words. “Look at the need that of these lovely people we have the chance to meet, they are all full because there is such a story to tell,” she said.

     Before the event, Tibbetts informed her three pen pals about the letter reading event. “I have told all three of my new friends and they are so thrilled,” said Tibbetts. “They have told others that there are people telling their stories and it gives them hope to be heard.”

     Another detainee asked one of Tibbetts’ pen pals if she would share a letter from her son that was written to her while she was in detention.

     The child wrote, “I am going to become a superhero mommy, so I can break down the walls and come get you.”

Hungry Days

     Another letter from a pen pal started with, “Hello my friend, I have received your cards but was unable to reply because I couldn’t afford the envelope.”

      Immigrants inside detention do not receive paper, pencil, envelopes and stamps. They are required to purchase these items on their own as part of commissary expense if they choose to write letters. SGISN members have heard from detainees that the food inside detention centers sometimes has worms or splinters in it, so they save their money to buy food items from the commissary, but the prices are triple the cost of what they would be outside of the detention center.

      Another letter that Tibbetts read stated, “I worked so hard and saved up all if not most of my money to get a visa. They took it from me with no idea how many hungry days I had to save for it.”

     Tibbetts’ pen pals were also placed into detention for driving offenses and don’t have any criminal offenses. These women, escaping a country filled with violence and oppression, are being tried as criminals in the US and maybe deported.

     The next reader to share a letter was Nancy Carrera, a Mexican immigrant and a proud Dreamer or otherwise known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). “I want to read it in Spanish first so I can give the person who wrote it some justice,” said Carrera.  She read her letter in Spanish first, and then read the letter in an English translation.

     Carrera read a letter from a woman who left Guatemala with a six-year-old daughter and entered through Arizona. She was immediately separated from her daughter upon entry and she didn’t have a strong family to depend on. Once inside Irwin County Detention Center, this woman suffered from an ear infection without receiving medical attention for 15 days.

     “Reading this letter and knowing they are so close and they [detainees] just need somebody to reach out,” said Carrera. “Even if it’s only to say I am praying for you, I am here for you and I am fighting for you.”

A Single Mother

     The letter reading continued with Sandra Giles who read a letter from a woman who moved to the US when she was two years old from the country of Cameroon.

     The woman wrote, “I have lived in North Carolina my entire life. I have a nine-year-old daughter and I am a single mother. My entire life has been God, family and school.” 

     The woman has dreams and aspirations to get released from detention so that she can return to school and become a pediatric nurse, raise her daughter and ultimately become a US citizen. 

A Personal Connection

     The final speaker was Filiberto Hernandez. He earned his citizenship after serving two terms in the US Army, including a tour in Vietnam. He spent a large portion of his life fighting for citizenship for himself and his family.

      He grew up going to school by hitchhiking in the morning. He remembers carrying his books in one hand and his saxophone for the school band on the other hand. Hernandez received his high school diploma without having a green card. He, like other readers, feels a personal connection to the people battling the immigration crisis.

      Hernandez read a letter from a mother with two children. Shortly after the birth of her son, she was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) before her son was released from the hospital. She said the judge ruling over the case said she didn’t qualify for a bond without opening her case file.

      “They do not care about us as people,” said Hernandez, reading from the letter. “They treat us as if we are not human. To them [detention center staff], we are worse than animals. The guards treat us roughly, only because we are Hispanics and they discriminate against us.” For more information about SGISN, contact them by emailing sogaimmigrantnetwork@gmail.com.

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