For many years, Brave New Films has been dedicated to researching and exposing the injustices of our criminal justice system while advocating for better practices. In 2016 we advocated to abolish bail, an assumed standard practice that preys on the poor. In 2017, when we began to research the immigration justice system, I found myself following people desperate to acquire broken practices like bail because the immigration system was that much worse. The common denominator between the criminal justice system and the immigration justice system is the profit motive driving so many inhumane practices.
Embarking on our immigration series, the first thing we encountered was difficulty getting information and interviews. Working in criminal justice is always tricky due to legal red tape, but under the climate of the new administration, all lawyers were advising clients not to speak to anyone, let alone show their faces. This is why we were so grateful to meet Tecla, Gerardo, and Sylvester, who were willing to share their experiences with us.
We titled the film Immigrant Prisons because the United States imprisons 440,000 immigrants each year. The reality is that many people held in these facilities have not committed crimes. These detainees aren’t criminals; they are held in detention awaiting the verdict of paperwork for civil charges. These people are contributing members of society who are taken away from families, jobs, and communities for the convenience of authorities and at the cost of taxpayers. Immigrants can be locked up indefinitely, without being accused of a criminal offense and without a bond hearing. As we know, locking people up is expensive and profitable for companies like The Geo Group and CoreCivic when there are no protections for how long people can be held. This results in people like Sylvester being detained more than nine years waiting to hear about his case.
Holding so many people in detention is costly in many ways, and to maximize profits, humanity is sacrificed. These detention centers purposefully underfeed detainees and then dangle expensive commissary food as incentive to work for abysmal wages of $1/day of work. This work allows The Geo Group and CoreCivic (formerly CCA) to cut down on staffing costs because detainees are filling in for facility understaffing. On top of malnourishment, these family members are medically neglected, some having their cancer treated with ibuprofen. The results of such neglect are infection, disease, permanent damage, and hundreds of deaths. People like Gerardo are left to advocate for themselves or die trying.
The sad reality is that an overwhelming variety and number of abuses are happening in these detention centers right now—more than we had time to cover in this film. Even more heartbreaking is the lack of avenues to correct these abuses. Less than 1% of the thousands of complaints submitted were even investigated. As a result, these abuses continue without consequences to the perpetrators. Freedom for Immigrants (formerly known as CIVIC) was an important research and strategic partner on this piece. We visited Adelanto [California] ICE Processing Center, a detention center owned by The Geo Group. We went with a group of people who received permission to visit and listen to immigrants’ accounts of their experiences, one of the very few ways to document these immigrant experiences once detained. When we arrived, we were all shut out without reason. It was 110 degrees outside, and along with our group, families and children were shoved out the door and into the sweltering heat. Some had traveled from states away. While the main group protested peacefully outside in prayer, my team went around back and saw detainees working outside in the sun and heat. We yelled through the layers of barbed wire that people who care about them were being prevented from visiting, and they shouted back that sometimes family members would travel for weeks only to be turned away and could not afford to come back again.
Every year 440,000 immigrants are locked away, and privatized prison companies are using them for high profits. Furthermore, these practices and profits are directly linked with our administration’s policies. These practices will only continue to flourish in the darkness. We must bring awareness and action to these unjust practices. Immigrant Prisons shines a light on these dark corners of America and calls for an end to these facilities.
Tara Vajra, supervising producer, and Jim Miller, executive director of Brave New Films, are 2018 Media for a Just Society Awards finalists in the TV/Video category for Immigrant Prisons.