Beyond cruelty lies immigrant detention and family separation: Maria, Flor, Eloy

Maria and Flor crossed the U.S. – Mexico border in March 2019 and applied for asylum. Technically, Maria, 23 years old, filed for asylum for herself and her six-year-old niece. Maria and Flor had travelled north from Guatemala, where Flor’s entire family was murdered when Flor was a baby. Maria was, and is, her only living relative. Maria took Flor in and has raised her as her daughter. Maria is the only mother Flor has ever known. Maria’s family was killed this year, and that precipitated the flight north. Maria brought all the formal papers she could lay her hands on. ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, rejected the papers, rejected Maria and Flor as well. Maria was dumped into Eloy Detention Center, in Arizona. Flor was taken to a shelter … in New York City, thousands of miles away. Anita, a woman living in New York, has volunteered to provide a home for Maria and Flor. Volunteers have provided assistance, clergy and faith community members have joined with activists to raise a hue and cry, attorneys both in Arizona and New York have actively represented both Maria and Flor. Despite all this support, Maria was recently again denied parole. ICE provides no reason. Deeper into the landscape of no-reason, were Maria or Maria and Flor to be deported, there are no assurances that Maria would know Flor’s whereabouts. Again, Maria is 23 years old; Flor is 6 years old. Find a six-year and just look at her, and you’ll understand what this theater of cruelty is all about. As one local reverend said, “It is beyond cruel.” What is beyond cruel? This.

Maria sits, waits, tries to organize her life and Flor’s life, in Eloy Detention, the place where Raquel Calderon de Hildago, also Guatemalan, hanged herself … or was sentenced to hang herself; Eloy, the detention center that often has had both more deaths in custody and more suicide and suicide attempts than any other detention facilityEloy, the site of repeated women’s hunger strikes. Why is Maria in Eloy, rather than `out in the world’ with her daughter-niece Flor? Why is anyone in Eloy?

Despite the State of Abandonment, Maria insists that she does not feel abandoned, because, she says, “I have the support of lots of people. I’m not alone”. Abandonment is the obverse of democracy. Maria’s understanding of community, solidarity, hope, that is what democracy looks like. 

#FamiliesBelongTogether #FreeMaria

(Image Credit: Franziska Barczyk / The Guardian)

Raquel Calderon de Hildago did not die. We killed her.

A woman in her room at the Eloy Detention Center

A woman in her room at the Eloy Detention Center

On Monday, November 28, U.S. Immigration and Customs, aptly named ICE, reported the death of Raquel Calderon de Hildago, a 36-year-old woman from Guatemala who had been a `guest’ of Eloy Detention Center. Located in Florence, Arizona, Eloy Detention Center is run by the inaptly named CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America. In 2013, women prisoners in Eloy Detention Center went on hunger strike to protest life threatening conditions there. What has changed since then? Raquel Calderon de Hildago was the fifteenth person to die in Eloy, which makes Eloy the most fatal immigrant detention center in the United States. According to ICE, “Calderon is the third individual to pass away in ICE custody in fiscal year 2017.” Fiscal year 2017 began October 1, and already three people have died in ICE prisons. Raquel Calderon de Hildago did not pass away. She died in agony, after multiple seizures. She did not die. She was killed.

Carlos Garcia, executive director of Puente Arizona, noted, “For us it’s disappointing because this death, like the others, could have been prevented. But unfortunately this administration and (the prison operator) are not held accountable and so we see again someone’s life being lost.” The tragedy here is that there is no tragedy. There can’t be when each death at Eloy is just “another death at Eloy,” just another number in the fiscal year accounts. Raquel Calderon de Hidalgo’s life was not lost. It was thrown into the garbage dump of history. End of story.

Days before Raquel Calderon de Hildago died, a report on ICE’s immigration detention centers opened, “The U.S. government still fails to enforce basic standards of care at its privately and publicly contracted detention facilities, according to the National Immigrant Justice Center’s (NIJC) review of immigration detention facility inspections from 2013-2016 which were recently publicly released by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE inspections data for the past five years indicate that many facilities have pending inspection ratings, in some cases for as long as two years,1 raising uncertainty about ICE’s adherence to a 2009 congressional mandate to close substandard facilities.2 As a result, inhumane conditions, including egregious violations of medical care standards, prevail across an immigration detention system composed of more than 200 detention facilities that detain approximately 34,000 immigrants daily.”

The report describes Eloy Detention Center: “Since 2003, 14 people have died at Eloy, operated by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Office of Detention Oversight death reviews show significant lapses in medical care, including failure to respond promptly to medical emergencies, refer individuals to hospitals or other outside medical care, and address known flaws in facility operations that have led to the deaths of individuals in custody. ICE has not publicly released any inspection results for this detention center since 2012, and the facility’s Enforcement and Removal Office rating has been pending for two consecutive years.”

This report followed two other major reports, in February and July, respectively, that documented not only the terrible conditions in which people have been dying in immigration detention, but, equally, the fatal neglect on the part of all who run the prisons that condemns people to slow, painful and certain death sentences. From February to today, the only thing that has changed is that CCA became CoreCivic and that 14 is now 15. Raquel Calderon de Hidalgo’s death was a death foretold, as was the manner of her death.

According health law expert Stacy A. Tovino, “Many immigration detainees are physically and emotionally vulnerable at the time of initial confinement due to a history of torture and trauma, which may include human trafficking, sexual violence, political oppression, psychosocial trauma, and acculturative stress. Detention can exacerbate preexisting vulnerabilities and contribute to severe physical and mental illness as well as death. Between October 2003 and October 2015, 153 individuals died while in ICE custody.” The general situation is bad, and Eloy’s is worse. Eloy has consistently “refused to conduct” an examination or “ignored the call” by desperate detainee after desperate detainee. For example, Jose Lopez-Gregorio’s sick calls were ignored for seven days. Jose Lopez-Gregorio died hanging at the end of a bedsheet, but it wasn’t suicide. Like Raquel Calderon de Hildago, he was killed.

According to ICE, “At the time of her death, Calderon was awaiting removal to Guatemala. Database checks indicate she had no criminal history in the U.S.” Raquel Calderon de Hildago had no criminal history. Why did we sentence her to die; why did we kill Raquel Calderon de Hildago?


(Photo Credit 1: Nick Oza / Arizona Republic) (Photo Credit 2: NACLA)

In prisons, jails and detention centers, the bodies pile up: Who cares?

Harmondsworth, 2006

According to a report released today, 2015 recorded “the highest number of executions … in more than 25 years (since 1989).” Along with the `highest number of executions”, many jails, prisons and immigrant detention centers are experiencing the highest number and the highest rates of suicide. Once more into the global work of necropower: “In our contemporary world, weapons are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead … Under conditions of necropower, the lines between resistance and suicide, sacrifice and redemption, martyrdom and freedom are blurred.” Welcome to the necropolis.

In the United Kingdom, the number of suicide attempts in “immigration removal” centers is at an all-time high. In 2015, there were 393 attempted suicides recorded. Harmondsworth topped the list at 105. Yarl’s Wood came in second at 64. In 2014, there were 353 attempted suicides. Harmondsworth led again with 68, and, again, Yarl’s Wood came in second with 61. In 2015, 2,957 detainees were on suicide watch during 2015. Of that number, 11 are children.

Meanwhile, in 2014, prison suicides in England and Wales reached a seven-year high. The Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales found a 64% increase in self-inflicted deaths in custody over the previous year. There is no surprise in either the seven-year high in prisons in England and Wales, nor in the all-time high in immigrant detention centers.

In the United States, during the Obama administration, there have been 56 deaths in ICE custody. These include six suicides and at least one death after an attempted suicide. Eloy Detention Center, in Eloy, Arizona, holds pride of place in this race to the bottom. As of July 2015, 9 percent of detention deaths nationwide since 2003 occurred at Eloy, where 14 of the 152 total deaths occurred. In 2013, women prisoners in Eloy went on hunger strike to protest the conditions. As Thesla Zenaida, an Eloy hunger striker, explained: “Look, a girl hanged herself. A girl was hanged here. [After] she was hanged, they didn’t want to take her body down. And for the same reason—because they treat us poorly. A guard treated her poorly, and that guard is still working here.” And now, three years later, people still ask, “Why so many suicides?

Meanwhile, in 2015, the Arizona prison system recorded close to 500 attempts at self-harm and suicide, another record broken.

In Illinois, in the Kane County jail, the suicide rate is three times the national average, and no one on staff seems to care. In August 2013, Terry Ann Hart hung herself in the Kane County jail. Now, almost three years later, her daughter is taking the county and the sheriff to court. In a little over a year, Kane County had three suicides and one attempt, while nearby larger jails had no suicides from 2011 to 2015. Terry Ann Hart’s daughter wants to know how it’s possible for so many people to kill themselves and for no one to be held accountable and for nothing whatsoever to change inside the jail.

The family of Wakiesha Wilson, who died in the Los Angeles County Jail last month, has similar questions. How did their loved one die, and why did the State take so long to inform them? From Harmondsworth and Yarl’s Wood to Eloy Detention and Kane County and Los Angeles, and beyond, women are dropping like flies, and their families ask, “Why?” and “Who cares?

In France, due to two recent high profile prison suicides, people are asking why the rate of suicide in French prisons is so high. Coincidentally, a report released this week notes, “Suicide rates in French prisons are higher than in the general population – seven times as high … According to the French government, there were 113 suicides in French prisons in 2015 … Female prisoners with psychosocial disabilities face particularly harsh conditions in French prisons. Women in general, who are a minority in prison, are more restricted in their movements than men and have less access to treatment for mental health conditions than their male counterparts. Women detained in a prison with separate quarters for female and male prisoners described … how, unlike the men in the same facility, they had to be escorted in all their movements. Besides making them feel isolated, this gives women the sense that they are treated more harshly only because they are women. Female prisoners also face discrimination in their access to mental healthcare: while 26 Regional Medico Psychological Services (SMPR) in French prisons provide mental healthcare during the day and beds for the night, only one of them has beds for women.”

From executions to prison suicides, these numbers are the census of the death-world, where now what is blurred is the line between the living dead and the dead dead. Record-breaking numbers of suicides occur, and nobody knows? How much higher must the piles of women’s corpses rise before the `discoveries’ end and the work of justice begins? Look, a girl hanged herself. A girl was hanged here. ¡Ni una mas! Not one more!


(Photo Credit: Institute of Race Relations)

A girl hanged herself. A girl was hanged here.

Women prisoners in Eloy Detention Center in Florence, Arizona, are on hunger strike to protest conditions there. This hunger strike was sparked by the internment of the Dream 9 activists, and in particular of 24-year-old Lulu Martinez and 22-year-old Maria Peniche, who have spent practically all of their time in isolation. No doubt, the conditions are `preventive’. What is the women’s crime that places them in solitary? Too much autonomy? Too much independence? Too much hope?

The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday ruled that overcrowded is overcrowded, and too much overcrowded is inhumane, as in cruel and unusual punishment. It’s good news for thousands of prisoners in the California prison system, who soon will be released. And who “bears the brunt” of California’s systematic prison overcrowding? Women.

At first, women benefited from both early-release programs and from alternative sentencing programs. Those benefits were shortlived. Now the women’s prisons are once severely overcrowded and getting worse by the day. As so-called low-level women offenders are shunted off to county jails, which are not and more to the point have not prepared for the particularities of this influx, the levels of violence in the prisons intensifies. This means more and more women are being sent to solitary. And so the cycle not only continues but spins ever more rapidly, ever more violently, ever more viciously.

Given all the studies that point to the concentrated levels of mental health issues among women prisoners, what has been California’s response? Solitary isolation. It’s … preventive. It’s also typical.

The same abuse of women prisoners occurs around the world. In Australia, journalist Christine Rau laments that nothing was learned from the abuse her sister, Cornelia Rau, suffered in immigration detention. It’s a common story. Cornelia was picked up and wrongfully detained, by immigration authorities. She then vanished into the system. Literally. For a year, her family and NSW Missing Persons detectives searched for her. Finally, she was located, in an immigration detention cell.

While fellow prisoners recognized that Cornelia Rau lived with serious mental illnesses, the prison guards and system chose to ignore the symptoms, and so effectively ignored the woman.

Upon her release, Cornelia Rau received a hefty settlement for her torture, but the money is meaningless. As Christine Rau, her sister, notes: “Her life is a misery. Her neurological pathways have been so damaged after 10 months in an untreated psychosis, that she cannot settle in any permanent residence, she can’t sustain relationships beyond fleeting ones, and she is one of the unhappiest people I know. The money is meaningless: it’s handled by financial administrators employed by the NSW Government; her medical needs are rarely followed up, and we rely on a network of friends and acquaintances to try and make sure she’s safe. It’s a nightmare; but anyone with a family member without insight into a mental illness would tell you that. It’s hardly unusual.”

It is hardly unusual.

It is more than hardly unusual. It is the entire system. While immigrants are treated abysmally in “detention centers” around the world and prisoners with disabilities are abused pretty much universally, there is a special hell designated for women immigrants, for women prisoners with disabilities, for women. In Australia as in the United States, private corporations profit from the particular abuse of women, and so does the State.

It is hardly unusual. It is the systematic abuse and torture of women.

So, the women prisoners of Eloy are on hunger strike. As Thesla Zenaida, a sister prisoner and hunger striker at Eloy, explained: “Look, a girl hanged herself. A girl was hanged here. [After] she was hanged, they didn’t want to take her body down. And for the same reason—because they treat us poorly. A guard treated her poorly, and that guard is still working here.”

The torture and abuse of women is the work of the State. That’s the lesson we are meant to learn.


(Photo Credit:

What is left: after solitary confinement in schools

Prison is a bad place for children. Solitary confinement is worse yet. Extended solitary confinement is lethal. These are not surprising statements, and the news that underwrites them, though dismaying, is not particularly shocking.

Immigration detention centers in the US, such as the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, run by Corrections Corporation of America, or the Reeves County Detention Center, run by GEO, are lethal, fatal black holes for all residents. Joe Arpaio’s jail in Maricopa County is only the best known example of humiliation and terror against all Latinas and Latinos, irrespective of status, and which results in increased anxiety and mental health problems for Latina and Latino children.

And it is estimated that more than 60 of those held in Guantanamo were under 18 when they were arrested and sent to Cuba.

In England, Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre is so terrible for children that the entire nation is now considered unsafe for children of immigrant parents, including those seeking asylum and refuge. The place literally drives children mad.

Juvenile centers in the United States report that sexual abuse of prisoners, by other prisoners and, more, by staff, is off the charts. In 2008 – 2009, in more than a few juvenile detention centers, a recent study suggested that nearly one out of every three prisoners suffered some sort of sexual abuse.

When children go to prison, how are they educated? According to some, they’re not at all. California is being sued in a federal class action case for failing to educate youth in their `probation camps.’

These are terrible and tragic and all too familiar. Prison is a bad place, after all. Bad things happen.

Those bad things that happen to children are not restricted to prisons. Take “seclusion rooms”, for example: “Seclusion is the involuntary confinement of a student alone in a room or area from which the student is physically prevented from leaving. This includes situations where a door is locked as well as where the door is blocked by other objects or held by staff.”

This happens in schools all over the United States.

In the state of Georgia, public schools have “seclusion rooms,” solitary confinement cells. The doors are double bolted on the outside: “Seclusion rooms are allowed in Georgia public schools provided they are big enough for children to lie down, have good visibility and have locks that spring open in case of an emergency such as a fire. In 2004, Jonathan King, 13, hanged himself in one such room, a stark, 8-foot-by-8-foot “timeout” room in a Gainesville public school.” Time out. When schools put children into solitary confinement, what time is left?

What is left for Jonathan King’s parents, so many years later? Pain, anguish. Only now is Georgia finally responding by considering a law that protects all students from seclusion and restraint. It only took the State legislature six years … equal to almost half of Jonathan King’s entire life.

In May 2009, the Missouri state legislature passed a law giving the school districts two years in which to devise written policies governing the use of seclusion rooms. Before that, there were no policies, only the practice of solitary confinement of school children without a single written guideline or rule. This is now an issue in the upcoming GOP primary for State Senate. One candidate sees restrictions on solitary confinement of children as a violation of local sovereignty.

Florida state legislators are also considering a bill to restrict the use of restraint and seclusion. There are seclusion rooms all over the state school system, from elementary on up. Up til now, there has been no written policy.

Not surprisingly, solitary confinement is of particular concern to parents of children living with disabilities. Here are two stories from Florida:

When a twelve year old girl with autism repeated names of movies, shoved papers off her desk or waved her arms and kicked her legs toward approaching teachers, they responded by grabbing the eighty pound girl, forcing her to the ground and holding her there. This happened forty-four times during the 2006-07 school year.  She was held once for an hour, and, on average, twenty-two minutes at a time.  At least one incident left her back badly bruised.

When a seven year old girl, diagnosed with autism and bipolar disorder had her head pushed to the floor, the parents discovered several other frequent inappropriate uses of restraint and seclusion. The county where they live leaves it to individual schools to write their own policies on restraint or seclusion use.

These come from a 2009 report issued by the National Disability Rights Network: School is not supposed to hurt: Investigative Report on Abusive Restraint and Seclusion in Schools.  The stories come from all over the United States.

On the cover is the picture of a lovely, smiling seven year-old girl, from Wisconsin:

A seven year old girl was suffocated and killed at a mental health day treatment facility when several adult staff pinned her to the floor in a prone restraint.  This child, who was diagnosed with an emotional disturbance and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, died because she was blowing bubbles in her milk and did not follow the time-out rules regarding movement.

Greenfield School District, outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin, applied to use Federal stimulus funds to build seclusion rooms in elementary and middle schools. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction recently rejected the application, instructing all school districts in the state that stimulus funds and special education funds not be used for that purpose. Greenfield is disappointed.

School is not supposed to hurt. It’s not only the children sent to isolation who suffer. What are the other children in the classrooms, in the hallways, in the school offices, who witness these acts and know of these rooms as part of the norm, what are they being taught? What becomes of a generation of child witnesses to torture?


(Video Credit: Vimeo/