Sophie,* a little two year-old girl with brown eyes and pigtails, squirmed around in front of me, restless, like any toddler. I kept trying to make her smile, using the silly faces and peek-a-boo tricks that worked on my kids when they were that age, but she was reluctant. She was coughing constantly and looked tired, and it was cold in that tiny, white-washed, cinder-blocked room.
Sophie is in a jail in the middle of nowhere along with more than 500 other infants, toddlers, young children, and their mothers. They are in detention in Karnes County, Texas, because their mothers asked us for protection from violence. The jail where they are held is euphemistically called a “family residential facility” by the federal government. This summer, the Obama administration started shelling out millions in taxpayer dollars to private prison corporations to build and run two such centers in remote areas in Texas and New Mexico. These are not family facilities. They are not shelters or temporary transit facilities. These are jails behind barbed wire, heavy security doors, metal detectors and other hallmarks of prison. Women and children locked up inside have been languishing for months. They could be there indefinitely.
Sophie’s mother, Maria,* told me that trying to care for her child in this environment is impossible. Sophie has a chronic cough which makes her vomit, but she is not receiving any medicine. Other children are coughing too, some with high fevers. None are being treated. Maria is worried that Sophie has lost a lot of weight while detained; she isn’t eating. Children as young as Sophie don’t have the ability to express their stress in words. Their stress manifests in other ways, such as weight loss and changes in sleep patterns.
Even if Sophie did have a better appetite, there’s not enough milk to go around. When one child tried to sneak an extra milk carton, a guard opened the carton and poured the milk on the floor in front of the child. Inside these walls, guards use varied methods to exert their power. Mothers are separated from their children as a form of punishment if they break even minor rules, like allowing a child to crawl in the wrong place. In addition, there are already multiple allegations of sexual assault and coercion by guards in these new facilities.
These abusive displays of power are especially hard for Maria, who—like the majority of the other mothers in this detention center—has experienced severe domestic and sexual violence. Domestic violence is rooted in the perpetrator’s desire to maintain control over his victim, and survivors of this type of cruelty often find that incarceration exacerbates the symptoms of trauma that stem from the abuse. Maria can’t sleep, and she has painful, chronic headaches.
Is it necessary to indefinitely hold survivors of violence and their children in high security warehouses like this? The very simple answer is: absolutely not. There are tried and true alternatives to detention, such as ankle bracelets, which assure that those seeking asylum and related protections report to authorities when required. These alternatives cost a tiny fraction of what it takes to hold women and children in these jails. According to a summary of funds requested by the administration for increased family detention, it costs taxpayers approximately $266 each day to detain one mother or child. Immigration officers have wide discretion in whom they detain and for how long, and for the last few months, they’ve been using it to go after victims of violence who really should not be their biggest priority.
Our government has ignored resounding cries for an end to prolonged family detention and instead continues its race to build more and more jails for women and children. Another facility, designed to hold more than 2,400 women and their children, is opening in the tiny rural town of Dilley, Texas very soon.
When Maria talks about how escaping her abuser has meant ending up in jail with her daughter, she can’t hold back her tears. Before those doors open in Dilley, and before other jails for women and children spring up across the country, our nation needs to hear 2-year-old Sophie cough and watch 18-year-old Maria cry, like I did. No amount of work to improve conditions will make it alright to keep women and children like Maria and Sophie in jail. Indefinitely jailing mothers and children who are running from violence is inhumane and unconscionable. It has to stop.
This op-ed from Archi Pyati, the Director of Public Policy at Tahirih Justice Center, originally appeared in “Huff Post: Impact,” following Archi’s tour of the Karnes facility.
*Names have been changed to protect client privacy.