I used one of the four digital tablets we shared among sixteen women to see my family through a screen at the Dodge County Jail in Wisconsin. I paid twenty-five cents per minute to speak to my family once a week.
My nieces and nephews looked much bigger than the last time I saw them. “Tia Ana, when are you coming home? I thought you were done being in jail,” they said in tears. My niece asked me why I couldn’t be there for her birthday. The separation from my family and seeing them crying through a tablet was killing me inside.
I was put in immigration detention after serving twelve years in prison at Logan Correctional Center in Illinois for a conviction in a case in which I was a survivor of domestic abuse. In 2023, I was one of the 39,748 people that were incarcerated in an immigration detention center in the United States.
Three months after I was released from prison, Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) showed up at the halfway home where I was living on the South Side. They posed as police officers, handcuffed me and took me to Dodge County Jail in Wisconsin. Since immigration detention is prohibited in Illinois after the passing of the Illinois Way Forward Act, I was transferred and detained out of state.
After being in detention for eight months, I am absolutely sure that no human being should experience the cruel and unusual punishment that immigrants in ICE detention live through.
One’s health deteriorates in ICE detention because of the oppressive environment. Imagine being confined to a tiny area all day long, without access to nutritious food, hygiene, all while being cold and struggling with your mental health. It was worse than prison, since there was nothing to do. There were no activities for the people, no access to fresh air and more indignities.
Most of the day we were confined to a small cell, always being watched by the officers through tinted windows. You had to wake up at 5am to put your wristband by the window of the cell door so officers could verify that it was still you in that room.
Without being able to see or go outside, I would forget how the air feels and how a sunny sky looks like. The inability to move not only took a toll on me physically, but mentally as well. I was anxious, had problems sleeping, and experienced emotional breakdowns from, once again, being away from my family and thinking I could get deported.
Outside of breakfast, lunch and dinner you are locked in the cell all day.
There were no Spanish interpreters. Immigration officers talked down to the people who didn’t know English.
They said they did not understand. It was hard for anyone who only spoke Spanish to get support with figuring things out, or seeking medical help.
I barely speak Spanish, yet I was constantly asked to translate. The worst was translating for the ICE agents to other fellow immigration detainees that there is nothing to be done for them and that they are being deported the next day or week.
An uncertain future in ICE detention induces even more anxiety and depression and there is no mental health support. We were not even allowed to comfort one another with something as human as a hug. Hugs, especially if you’re part of the LGBTQ+ community like I am, are not allowed because it is labeled as sexual assault.
They knew I was part of the LGBTQ+ community because when you come in, they ask you what you identify as and then they use it against you. They told me I could not hug anyone whatsoever.
Our meals were pushed through a small trap in the door and it was typically a brick of breakfast cake–a loaf of bread without any apparent nutritional value—canned vegetables, and soy meat, which has come under criticism in other prisons as a cheap substitute for meat and as it may have harmful effects in large quantities.
We were definitely getting sick and our problem was part of a larger pattern of immigrants being treated as less than human. People would experience stomach aches and bloating, and people with diabetes experienced sugar spikes. I developed a soy allergy that I’d never had in my life before. Some people developed rashes that they said they had never had before too.
According to the ACLU, individuals are six times more likely to get sick through the food they consume in jails across the U.S., including immigration detention centers, than those outside.
The facility was freezing and some of us did not count on the economic support of loved ones outside to afford the thermal clothes, so we borrowed or gave one another a thermal until that act of solidarity was banned in the jail.
The officers and staff confiscated thermal clothes and threw them in the trash if they learned the clothing was shared. After throwing them away, we were told we were not allowed to share them anymore, and anyone who did would get written up because it was a violation. Everybody needed to purchase their own.
Still, no amount of money could get anyone any clean underclothes because buying additional underclothes was not an option. Clothes were collected twice a week to be washed, but oftentimes we received underclothes that were still dirty, crusty, and stiff. This is an example of the detention center saving themselves money at the expense of our wellbeing.
Over 90 percent of the people in ICE detention are being held at a privately-run facility, which means that their detention results in increased profits for corporations. Their lives are at the mercy of this system that does not seem to care whether they live or die. The confinement and conditions of our confinement hold people back from being able to recover or rehabilitate.
The criminalization of immigrants is a business. When they lock us up, the government is putting us in jails that are basically warehouses. We pay for our phone calls, for the food, for the clothes. They charge us extra for calls that are out of state or international calls. The counties also get money from the governments to warehouse us there. It’s a business on top of business. It’s a circle of money.
Even ICE’s victim-centered policy does not stop them from targeting survivors of violence, trafficking, or domestic violence.
I am an undocumented criminalized survivor. For readers who may not be familiar with the term, being a criminalized survivor involves being a victim of a crime who, instead of getting support, gets punished and blamed by the prison system. People from marginalized racial and ethnic communities, undocumented women or underserved populations face extra challenges when seeking safety and receiving help.
In fact, many women who have a history of gender-based violence end up facing incarceration. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 94 percent of women’s prison population have experienced some form of physical or sexual abuse before.
We need to stand up and continue to advocate for the abolishment of detention centers all over the country. No taxpayer’s money should be going to something this inhumane.
Editor’s note: ICE declined to comment on specific questions for this Op-Ed and referred us to federal guidelines on detention standards from 2000.
Ana Navarro (they/she) is a queer, undocumented survivor who was criminalized at the age of 19. Navarro is an artist, advocate, avid reader, and a member of Organized Communities Against Deportations and a Women’s Justice Institute fellow.