Inside Immigrant Prisons

By Maria Muentes and Familes for Freedom

More than 360 jails, prisons, and detention centers were in use by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement between 2007 and 2009. Map courtesy of the Global Detention Project. Another interactive detention map is available at Detention Watch Network.

Recently, the Donald Wyatt Center in Rhode Island lost its contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to house 153 immigrant prisoners after the horrific death of a detainee. Center representatives publicly bemoaned the loss of $100,000 per week and quickly began looking for a way to get more prisoners. The chairman of the board for the center, Daniel Cooney, said, “Frankly, I’m looking at it like I’m running a Motel 6. I don’t care if it’s Guantanamo Bay. We want to fill the beds.”  He was eventually fired in the fallout from this remark, but his candor is revealing. Immigrant prisoners are valuable commodities to local jails. This approach boosts the economies of private prison companies and municipalities but costs the federal government millions—perhaps billions—of dollars.

The sprawling immigration prison complex comprises facilities owned and operated by the Department of Homeland Security, local state city jails, and private prisons, all paid by ICE to house those deemed deportable. It is a lucrative business: ICE pays local jails approximately $95 per day per person. The average price of maintaining an immigrant prisoner is only $20 per day, and if a jail scrimps on necessities such as food and health care, it can increase its profit margin still further.

Many immigrant prisoners are legal permanent residents. More than 30,000 immigrants are detained every day—three times the number detained ten years ago. No recent immigration reform proposal is likely to address this issue; in fact, the Obama administration recently requested money from Congress to expand the Secure Communities program, initiated by George W. Bush, which is aimed at checking the immigration status of virtually every person booked into local jails. This occurs at the time of booking, so that a simple arrest can trigger a deportation. As the stories below illustrate, immigrants in prison are generally presumed deportable until they can prove otherwise.


I recall once—while driving to college—seeing guys shackled and chained in a police van. Back then I thought they must have done something terrible, that they must be monsters.

About ten years ago, when I was a senior in college, I ran into trouble with the law. A local priest warned me that I would be deported. I did not fully believe him, as I was a green-card holder and all my family were U.S. citizens. But I asked my criminal defense attorney, who assured me that immigration would not go after someone with a simple misdemeanor offense.

On the advice of my attorney, I gave up my constitutional right to a trial and negotiated a probation sentence with the government. I didn’t know that by doing so I was subjecting myself to mandatory and indefinite prison and deportation.

The conviction landed me in immigration proceedings and an endless detention in a federal prison in Oakdale, La. The U.S. marshals who were taking us to Oakdale told us that Oakdale was heaven. They said there were ten immigration judges and they release almost everyone. When I got to Oakdale, I found out that there were only three judges and almost no one gets out. It’s a last stop out of the United States. One of the counselors used to say, “This is not a detention center. This is a deportation center.” He was eventually transferred out of the facility for being too sympathetic.

While in detention, I was forced to work as an orderly, cleaning and dusting. I was paid 10 cents an hour. The law gives detainees a right to sign a waiver excusing them from forced labor, but those who exercise this right are subject to punishment by prison officials. They are not allowed in the law library until after 5:30 pm, which limits their law library time to four or five hours a week.

My next few years were spent reading law books and helping other detainees who could not afford attorneys. I recall the first time I helped file a habeas writ for a detainee from Africa. He was in prison for selling CDs on the street. One afternoon, ICE came to him and told him to pack up because he was being released. He came toward me crying, fell down on his knees, and started kissing my feet. I was embarrassed and worried. You can go to the hole for giving fellow detainees legal help. After that day, other detainees started coming to me for help. While other detainees were out in the yard, I was in the law library helping someone or working on my case. If I couldn’t help someone, I would write letters to nonprofit organizations and try to find them low bono or pro bono attorneys.

Corruption was commonplace in Oakdale prison. I and a fellow detainee, who was a paralegal, found out that someone at the facility was intercepting legal mail, keeping it from reaching courts. Many detainees were deported because courts never received their documents. We also followed up on illegal deportations of Haitian nationals. At that time, Haiti refused to accept deportees. ICE Oakdale continued to detain them indefinitely. When we started filing habeas writs for them, ICE put all of them on regular commercial flights with their passports. Some had expired passports. We later found out that when they arrived in Haiti they were arrested and detained for illegal entry into the country.

Detention is prison. You can call it detention, but it’s still prison. It’s like putting someone in a grave alive; we were not meant to be confined in an environment like this. But it also helped me in many ways. I made many friends. It was almost like a street education for me.

It has been more than six years since my detention. I eventually won my release, but I’m still not safe from deportation. I have found many legal arguments against the practice of detaining immigrants indefinitely. It’s a huge mistake for the United States to disregard these rules, especially when it is looking for allies around the world. Immigration is a matter of international relations; to place it in the context of national security is to criminalize the very existence of immigrants.

* Not his real name


I was taken into custody, processed, and then held at a local county jail. This jail was built to house those facing charges for crimes. I was told that I was not being punished but was being held until my immigration case was resolved. Was my freedom denied? Yes. I had to get up the same time as the other inmates, I had to eat the same types of meals at the same time as the other inmates, I had to wear what the other inmates were wearing (we all wore jumpers but were given different colors), and only my immediate family could visit me. I could not have visits from friends, members of my community who were concerned about my welfare, or other family like my uncle and aunts. Was I being punished? According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, I was not. I spent two years in immigration detention. I met other detainees who were appealing the immigration judge’s decision on their case. They are still being detained after five years, six years, and more. Others won their immigration case outright, but ICE appealed and they had to stay in detention. Is this punishment? According to our government, no.

Because I was an immigration detainee in a prison, I was in limbo. The jail said that they did not have to take care of me because I was in ICE custody, and ICE said that they had to follow the rules of the jail and could not approve any [medical] treatments other than what the jail was offering. When I wanted treatment, I had to write requests to the jail and ICE, and then write grievances to them when my requests went unanswered. My family and outside agencies had to get involved before I was given treatment. I remember a detainee who had mental problems and needed medication. The jail simply threw him into isolation without his medication. He suffered day after day with no one on the outside to help him, unable to help himself.

The attitude of the ICE agents was that they were only there to deport people. Some of them were very abusive; they knew that no matter how abusive they were, their victim was going to get deported and thus had no recourse. How long do we have to put up with this treatment?


A native of Nicaragua, I took my first step on U.S. soil as a legal resident of the United States in 1994. I was nine years old. As a 24-year-old, I can’t imagine myself living anywhere else. I was brought up as a true American, from the pledge of allegiance to admiring U.S presidents. One of my most memorable experiences was standing alongside my fourth-grade class and the 41st president of the United States. As a kid, everything seemed perfect; I never thought this country I saw as my own would try to expel me.

In January and again in September of 2005, I was convicted of criminal possession of marijuana. Both convictions were misdemeanors (simple possession). I paid the penalty and moved on. I went on with my life as a father, trying to avoid any harmful situations. However, one day on my way home from work I was forced to defend myself against three people attempting to rob me. Instead of giving them what they wanted, I fought them. This led to my encounter with Homeland Security.

While under arrest, I was visited by two ICE officers, who notified me that my two prior criminal convictions were enough to put me through deportation proceedings. My convictions were considered crimes involving moral turpitude, which put me into ICE custody. I was transferred to a detention center in New York City, where I was detained for three days and then transferred to a facility called York in Pennsylvania. I was processed and allowed to sleep for only two hours before being awakened by an officer, who notified me that I was being transferred again. No one would tell me where. Five hours later, I found myself in a bus in front of a federal airplane. That was when I found out my destination: Stewart Detention Center in Columbus, Ga.

It had now been five days since I’d had any contact with my family. Apparently, no one is required to notify family when they move a detainee from state to state. I attempted to ask a few ICE officers for phone privileges, but this was not permitted. I was assigned an ICE officer who was supposed to come see me every 15 days. However, I did not meet with him till the end of my first month there. My crimes were so minor that I had no doubt I would be granted a bond. A bond was granted, only to be revoked one week later for some arbitrary reason. I was now forced to wait for my first court date, which was five long months later.

I was anxious for my first court date because I was ready to show why I should be released. I felt confident when I entered the courtroom. However, my court date was postponed for two more months, which meant I had been in Stewart Detention Center for seven months without seeing a judge. This was one of the many times I felt like giving up, signing my deportation papers, and withdrawing my case. Deportation officers encouraged me to “sign myself out” and agree to be deported. I was lucky enough to be able research my case on my own. This is not the case for those who don’t speak or read English.

I determined that my offenses were not deportable and that I could be granted cancellation of removal by any immigration judge. After 11 months of being in immigration custody, I was finally granted my cancellation.

What was accomplished by locking me up for a year for such minor offenses? An ICE officer told me that ICE spends a lot of money to keep immigrants detained because “they mean business.” All the money the United States spends keeping immigrants detained could be better spent elsewhere. People trying to join family here have to wait years because of a huge backlog; wouldn’t that money help move these cases faster? We will have to wait and see if President Obama means what he said about change. The way we treat immigrants needs to change.

Maria Muentes is a co-founder of the immigrant rights organization Families for Freedom (FFF). She has worked at various organizations throughout New York City that work toward social and economic justice for low-income people of color. FFF is a New York-based multi-ethnic defense network by and for immigrants facing and fighting deportation. FFF comprises current and former immigrant prisoners (detainees), their loved ones, and individuals at risk of deportation.