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Women and girls in prison

Coming Soon — A Detention Center Near You

by Julia Thorne

To find out where a detention center is near you and to learn more about this issue, visit the Detention Watch Network.

Recent newspaper and radio news reports revealed that the United States is the world’s leader in incarcerating its citizens. A Pew Research Center study reports that 1 out of every 100 American citizens is in jail.

Additionally, what is not widely known is that the United States routinely puts citizens from other countries behind bars as well. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) jails at least 280,000 people a year in more than 400 facilities at a current cost of 1.2 billion dollars a year; an average of $95/day for each person held. This spending has risen from $641 million to $945 million in 2005-2006. The DHS owns and operates eight facilities and contracts out to approximately 400 for-profit prisons and local jails. The cost to the taxpayer is not widely circulated as Americans discuss the U.S. immigration system.

Who are these detained people? Detention centers hold: documented and undocumented people — including political asylum seekers, pregnant women, children — who are sometimes separated from their parents, people who are seriously ill and sometimes even American citizens who have been wrongly detained and then deported before anyone could help them. Those held in the local jails are often placed in cells with violent criminal offenders. Over half of the people held in detention centers have not committed a crime but only violated a civil law. Of the other half who may have criminal convictions, many of the convictions are minor. Some convictions are for entering the United States without authorization more than one time, or using a false social security number.

According to the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security, in some detention centers there have been reported cases of rat infestations, crowded conditions, rotten (sometimes maggot ridden) food, denial of undergarments, beatings and abusive guards. In 2005, immigrants being held at the Elizabeth Detention Center in Northern New Jersey who complained of abuse won a $2.5 million settlement from the private company that operates the Center for profit.

Many people do not realize that there are detention centers in their communities. It is important to know the facts about our detention system in the United States before we decide what kinds of policies to have locally and nationally. Julia Thorne is the manager for immigration issues and immigration counsel in the Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She is responsible for delivery of legal advice to presbyteries and churches on matters relating to immigration law.

“For the Lord your God is God of gods ... who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19 [NRSV])

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