Behind a seemingly endless series of electronically secured doors, amid the overwhelming smell of sweat and industrial-strength bleach, our group of visitors arrived where dozens of detainees are held. There are no shower curtains, chairs with backs, or close-toed shoes allowed; detainees are permitted to shower occasionally, but only in the open, just 15 feet from the guard stand in the center of the room.
This is a maximum-security facility, but it is not housing the convicted criminals for which it was originally designed. Instead, these jail beds in Virginia have been leased to the Department of Homeland Security, the arm of the government responsible for detention and removal proceedings of immigrants—a system that detains nearly 300,000 noncitizens each year.
Detainees are in custody in centers across the U.S. simply for being undocumented. They include torture survivors, victims of human trafficking, or asylum seekers, all of whom are kept behind bars if they cannot hire a lawyer or figure out—across barriers of language and trauma, and often without even being told it’s possible—how to apply for release. There also are immigrants who have been apprehended in indiscriminate enforcement raids, where simply showing up to work landed them in jail. Pregnant women, the elderly, and entire families are routinely detained.