A “Closed College Campus” in Pinal County

On Thursday, we visited Florence, Arizona, where half the population are inmates.   Before we left, I heard one of our teachers asking the other if she knew where we needed to go when we got to Florence.  I thought to myself, What does he mean, where are we going? We’re going to the prison, aren’t we?  I learned when we arrived in Florence that Riley’s question was extremely well-founded: there are (at least) four different detention centers in Florence, which is located in – this seems too tragically poetic to be true, but it is – Pinal County.

We received a tour of a facility  run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  It is a detention center for people who have violated immigration law and are waiting for their cases to be processed by the courts.  It is one of 6 immigrant detention facilities run by ICE around the country – the rest are run by private prison companies like the Corrections Corporation of America.  There are 300 facilities in total, holding 35,000 people in detention at any given time.  Because the people in these facilities are not detained as punishment for being convicted of crimes, they live in dormitories, and they are not compelled to work. Most have no criminal history, and none are considered “dangerous criminals.”  The facility was described to us as “more like a closed college campus” than what we might have seen in movies or TV.  It’s true that it wasn’t like what I’d seen in Law and Order or Locked Up Abroad or on the tour of Alcatraz, but I wouldn’t describe it as my experience of college, either.  No one marches me to mealtime or regulates if I can have clothes under my bed, and I also have the freedom to leave when it pleases me.

And that detail, the freedom to leave, is key.  Yes, you might be thinking, duh, Maddie, of course they can’t leave – they’re detained. But precisely because they haven’t been convicted of anything, people in immigrant detention facilities don’t have sentences. They don’t know when they’ll be able to leave.  The head of the detention center said to us, “We’re America; I can’t keep someone locked up forever,” but what he didn’t say is that he can keep someone locked up indefinitely.  The reason why people are being detained in the ICE facility in Florence is because they are waiting on the outcome of their case, which will end in their being either released in the US or deported to their country of origin.  Some cases are decided quickly, within a matter of days, but others take years.  This uncertainty creates a huge amount of psychological stress, often more than that of people serving a sentenced amount of time in a less “college-like” prison.

It’s also important to note that the people being detained in Arizona were not necessarily apprehended in Arizona.  ICE is a federal operation.  Where people are detained has much more to do with bed space than geographical location.  Someone taken into custody in New Jersey is likely to wind up in Louisiana or somewhere else in the South; someone detained in Seattle might easily end up on one of ICE’s two daily flight loops in the western US, bound for Florence.  The geographical distance people have from their homes can also have an impact on the result of their case and their psychological wellbeing.  A separation of thousands of miles can make important documents harder to obtain, as well as testimony from individuals who can help establish residence or basis for asylum.

We met with two women from the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project  after our tour.  The Florence Project was started in the 80’s, when a federal judge felt extremely uncomfortable deporting people who had had to represent themselves in an unfamiliar and complicated legal system.   Because immigrant law is civil law, people in immigration court do not have the right to a state-appointed attorney.  Immigration law is also one of the most complicated and confusing types of US law, a close second to tax law.  Thus, many people in immigration court are don’t have the grasp of the legal system to represent themselves effectively.  The Florence Project provides people with legal information to help them better understand their rights and their cases.  This is critical for the people that they assist, but there are thousands more detained people than the Florence Project and other organizations like it can assist.  Usually, the only person paying attention to a detainee’s case is their deportation officer, whose goal is pretty clearly indicated by their name.

We left Florence, passing the Detention Center run by the Corrections Corporation of America and the Pinal County Adult Detention Center, and some other big, small-windowed buildings surrounded by fences and barbed wire.  I thought back to our guide’s firm stance that his job was apolitical – it was only his job to enforce the law.  He wasn’t about to determine which “alien” should or shouldn’t be in his detention center.  He said he liked to keep things in very strict order in his center and prevent hierarchies from forming amongst the detainees, because, he told us, “When you give someone power over someone else, they tend to abuse it.”

I almost audibly laughed when he said that, because the absurdity of his feeling entitled to make that sort of statement without acknowledging the complete power he has over the lives of every single person in his detention facility was too much.  Yeah, this detention center didn’t look like anything I’d seen on TV, but it still had locks, it still had guards, it still had blue and orange jumpsuits.  Is that not an abuse of ICE’s power over people who come here without documents?  Why should these people, most of whom have no criminal history, be locked in the desert behind layers of barbed wire, marching from meal to dorm to field, waiting to see if they’ll be released or put on a plane?  So their deportation officers can make sure they get to their deportation hearings, and then, unless they’ve managed to establish their right to be here (and I don’t have the statistics on this, but I don’t imagine very many aren’t deported), on a plane home to their country of origin.  It’s another angle of the same racist and dehumanizing mechanism that Streamline feeds.


This is not an abstract discussion.

This was posted tonight on Facebook by my friend Faren Tang.

“The latest round of hate speech in Jewett– the words “cunt” and “whore splashed in paint on the 7th floor common room– has me convinced that someone is just trying to get a reaction out of those of us who care about the safety and humanity of all. And they will. Every time. Because I will say, every time: “Not on my campus. Not in my home. Not in my community.” I refuse to allow these things to be said and done without comment.

This is not a game. This is not an abstract discussion. Saying the kinds of hateful, violent, oppressive things that these menaces to our community have been saying creates a hateful, violent culture in which hateful, violent acts occurs. People die from sex-based violence all the time. Women right here in Dutchess County are murdered by their intimate partners on a regular basis. People are raped, and beaten, and abused, and killed because they are seen as objects. Every “Cunt” every “Whore,” every “She was asking for it,” every rape joke made, every slur slung contributes to the culture where people believe that these things are true, and in that culture people rape and beat and abuse and kill. People are assaulted on this campus all the time. One in four women and one in seven men who attend this college will be sexually assaulted by the time they graduate. As I’m writing this editorial, I am sitting in my bedroom in between phone calls with a woman who is in the hospital and trying to find a placement in a domestic violence shelter tonight. This is not a game.This is everyone’s problem. Every act of hate speech, every act of oppression against one group contributes to every other kind of oppression. Sexism, rape culture, racism, cissexism, heterosexsim, classism, ableism, imperialism, colonialism, capitalism are all systems of violent domination, and every act that contributes to one of these systems contributes to all of them. I refuse to stand for any of them. 

By now, I imagine many of you are tired of hearing my voice and reading my words. I am, too. This is not what I want to be doing with my time. This is not what I want any of us to have to do with our time. But I also believe it has to be done. By not reacting, by not taking a stand and insisting that this kind of oppressive, violent hate speech not be tolerated, we tacitly endorse it. And if you are tired of hearing what I have to say about this, then please, say something yourself.

I do not speak for all of feminism. I do not speak for all of feminists on this campus. I do not speak for all of feminists who consider themselves a part of Feminist Alliance. But I am speaking out because care about this. I care about all of us. And if we are going to be a community where we can feel safe, this must stop. We must not tolerate it. Not in our home. Not on our campus. Not anywhere. Not ever.”

-Faren Tang, VC ’13
I’m sad to be away from my VC community during this time on our campus.  It was only a year ago that I ran a teach-in to respond to hateful sexist and homophobic graffiti in my dorm.  I’m grateful for and proud of Faren’s and the feminist presence at Vassar right now.  Here in Tucson, I bear witness to the impact of all sorts of oppression, through bills SB 1070 and HB 2281, which are enforcing racial profiling and eliminating ethnic studies, and politicians standing at a podium, saying teachers who teach love are teaching hate, and Operation Streamline, and Tucson law enforcement questioning women who are reporting domestic violence about their own immigration status.  We have to take a stand against systemic oppression, whether it’s at Vassar or in Arizona or a federal bill or a global policy.  Faren is right – every act of oppression contributes to every other kind of oppression.

Hey! That’s a resource in your toilet!

It was my turn to post on the Border Studies group blog this week, about our visit to Tucson native and rainwater harvester, Brad Lancaster. This post originally appeared on the BSP Fall ’12 blog.

A watershed is “that area of land, a bounded hydrological system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community.”
— John Wesley Powell

Did you ever consider that we pee into clean drinking water? No, really, it’s clean and you can drink it. That’s why your cat does – it’s probably fresher than the water you leave out for her. Not only is this a common practice, in the United States we are mandated by law to turn clean water into toxic waste however many times a day nature calls us to, without considering what sort of impact this has on our community or environment.

Brad Lancaster is a Tucson native who has spent the past 20 years turning his property into a rainwater harvesting system and teaching others to do the same. We walked over to his house from our classroom last week, and came to think a little differently about borders.

Tucson is in a water crisis. The water table here has dropped 300 feet in the past 100 years, and continues to fall at an average rate of 3 feet per year. 44% of the energy the city of Tucson uses goes to pumping and filtering water. According to Brad, if Tucson used its rainwater as a resource instead of shooting it out of town through sewers and drains, this city in the desert would no longer have a water crisis, and we’d be more connected to the land and each other.

On Brad’s property, he uses very little or no city water; from what I gathered, the only energy used in the consumption of water is the energy used by his washing machine, which functions as a community laundromat. He gave us a tour of his composting toilet, his natural clay water filter, and his sunken garden beds, which collect water, rather than shed water like raised beds do. He led us in a “sun dance” to teach us how he developed passive heating and cooling systems for his house without blocking his neighbors’ winter sun. He also showed us the systems he’s created on his street to reduce flooding, by directing rain into roadside gardens of native plants. Brad’s house is a living laboratory of how Tucson could reimagine the way in which it uses the water that floods its streets every time it rains. “Turn a problem into a solution,” Brad says.

Brad took us on a virtual tour of neighborhoods in Portland, OR and Seattle, WA which have changed the way they interact with rainwater by narrowing streets and planting native plants that use the rainwater that falls into the soil that has replaced pavement. It is worth noting, however, that in these neighborhoods in Portland and Washington, innovative flood-control implementation has coincided with gentrification. I don’t personally know very much about these areas, but the question of access to the resources that allow these rainwater harvesting systems to be implemented and maintained was definitely in my head throughout Brad’s presentation. Most of the techniques he showed us rely more on community organizing, observation, and creative thinking than spending power. Still, “green living” is a buzzword these days, and when a neighborhood becomes more environmentally conscious, property values come up, and it becomes more difficult for low-income people to continue living there.

But perhaps if Brad’s methods were to become the norm, access wouldn’t be a problem anymore. Radical shifts in how we think about water are hard to imagine as reality, but around the world, as water becomes scarcer, people are beginning to think differently. Grey water harvesting is now legal in Arizona, California, and New Mexico, and the composting toilet in Brad’s yard is actually part of a trial to see if that specific composting system can become legal in Arizona.

Radical shifts in the way we think about water also require reimagining the way we think about borders. The way water rights work, especially in the southwest, where water is both scarce and in high demand, is a complicated maze of laws and dams and regulation, because state and international lines cut straight through watersheds; sometimes they are rivers themselves. Reimagine: borders drawn along watersheds, as John Powell said. If we imagine our communities as all of the people living within our watersheds, political borders fall away. Suddenly, we’re not only connected to Tucson, but we’re also connected to the greater Arizona community, and beyond, into Mexico. Water doesn’t stop at the border wall. If our borders come to be about the resources within an area whose bounds are defined by nature, we can start to think about working together to use those resources in a way that makes sense: harvesting the rain, only making use of what an aquifer can recharge on its own, and not peeing into drinking water, but rather into a pile of sawdust that can become compost for fruit trees.