Immigrants Who Fight Deportation Are Packed Into Federal Gulags for Months or Years Before Their Cases Are Heard

A  trio of immigrants crouches against the wall in an attempt to catch a narrow ray of sunshine.

The men are in jail, locked inside a concrete triangle. It is mid-morning in Florence, and only traces of day can be smuggled into the building through the chain-link-covered window below the ceiling.

Two artificial lights glow, and a couple of basketballs are abandoned in the corner of the big, empty room.

When you ask the government officials gathered there during a tour whether immigrant detainees are allowed outside, they tell you that the immigrants you're looking at are outdoors.

"This is considered covered-enclosed outdoor recreation," says Marty Zelenka, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement field officer tasked with supervising the long-term detention wing reserved for immigrants at the Pinal County Jail.

Chief Deputy James Kimbell of the Pinal County Sheriff's Office blinks when asked whether the county provides actual outdoor recreation for its criminal inmates, even though it refuses to do so for people held on civil immigration violations.

"This is considered outdoors," Kimbell, who oversees the county jail, repeats, annoyed. Then he answers: "Yes."

Criminal inmates — charged with such felonies as murder, rape, and armed robbery — are allowed fresh air in the recreation yard, while immigrants — charged with being in the country illegally — step outside only for court appearances.

The Pinal County Jail is one of five facilities in Arizona used by the federal government to hold immigrants in long-term detention. The jail is notorious among immigration attorneys and human-rights advocates, who consider it the state's worst immigrant-holding facility.

Just down the road from the county jail is the Florence Detention Center, a compound shared by ICE with an immigration court. All immigrants detained in Arizona are taken there, processed into the system and jailed while they wait to be deported or for their cases to be heard in immigration court.

The federal government owns Florence Detention and holds it up as a model facility for what immigrant detention should look like.

Detainees there are allowed considerable freedom, especially when it comes to recreation. Its rec yard boasts a soccer field with newly installed Astroturf, several exercise stands, a basketball court, and benches for anyone who simply wants to sit in the shade.

Detainees who do not want to go outdoors can retreat to their housing unit, where they may watch television in English or Spanish.

Problem is, only a fraction of immigrants held by the federal government are kept at Florence Detention.

The vast majority of immigrant detainees in Arizona are tucked inside the walls of a county jail or private prisons, where the federal government contracts away their custody.

Conditions at detention centers not run by ICE are radically different from those at Florence.

ICE claims its detention centers are not meant to punish immigrants.

Because immigration proceedings are civil, the federal government insists that detention is different from incarceration.

America does not imprison immigrants, government officials insist; it detains them.

In jails.

More immigrants are held in long-term detention centers today than at any other point in the nation's history.

Twenty-eight states host detention centers, most of which are county jails or private prisons. ICE contracts for about 34,000 detention beds a night across the country, nearly double the 18,500 beds available in 2005.

Immigrant detention costs taxpayers about $2 billion each year.

All immigrants in ICE custody in Arizona are taken to a processing facility in Florence, about halfway between Phoenix and Tucson.

Florence is a prison town. On its main road are a county jail, two private prisons, a state penitentiary, and the Florence Detention Center, a revamped World War II internment camp.

A local museum celebrates the city's history as a dumping ground for criminals, displaying nooses used to hang outlaws and the chair an inmate was strapped to during the first gas-chamber execution in Arizona.

The city has enriched its prison tradition in the 21st century by becoming a repository for immigrants held by ICE as their cases to remain in the United States are adjudicated.

Immigrants with cases before immigration courts are detained at five long-term detention centers in Arizona, four of them in Florence and one in Eloy.

Pinal County contracts with the federal government to incarcerate immigrants, as does prison giant Corrections Corporation of America, which holds detainees at Florence Correctional and the Central Arizona Detention Center, next to the county jail. CCA, a billion-dollar-a-year business that got its start in 1983 detaining immigrants in Houston, also owns the Eloy Detention Center.

The Pinal County Jail was built in April 1996 to hold 472 prisoners. In 2006, the building was expanded to include 1,032 new beds.

To help fund the incarceration complex, Pinal County signed a contract with the federal government to hold more than 600 immigrants at any given time. The jail is the second-largest detention center for immigrants in the state. Only the Eloy center is larger, with 1,500 detainees.

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Gregory Pratt
Contact: Gregory Pratt