Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Friends of Orange County Detainees by Felicity Figueroa

My name is Felicity Figueroa and I’d like to tell you about a group I work with called Friends of Orange County Detainees.

You have been hearing a lot lately about the mass incarceration of certain economic and ethnic groups, but there is also another kind of detainee in our US jails and prisons: the undocumented immigrant. 
As you might know, the current Obama administration has deported more people than any other administration in US history; and, whether for a short period or long-term, all of them spend some time in detention. Every year, 400,000 immigrants disappear into the system of 250 jails and for-profit prisons in this country; and we taxpayers are bankrolling it, to the tune of $5 billion a year. This money is paid out by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, primarily to the big for- profit prisons run by CCA, GEO group and the slightly smaller MTC. These rich and powerful corporations have so much influence over our government through their lobbying (and campaign donations) that Congress has now passed a law stating that, nationwide, 34,000 beds must be filled by detained immigrants at any given moment.

Here in Orange County, we have three facilities where approximately 1,000 immigrants are currently being held. Two are county jails: James Musick here in Irvine, a minimum-security site which is more like a work-farm, and Theo Lacy in Orange, which is maximum security and houses immigrants in both barracks and individual prison cells. Detainees are also held in the Santa Ana City Jail, which has the distinction of being the first detention center in the US to have a separate pod for gay, bisexual and transgender detainees.

Our group, Friends of Orange County Detainees, began in the latter half of 2012 when we became aware of the high number of immigrants in confinement right here in our own county and realized that many of them had no visitors. These detainees are not in jail because of any criminal acts; if they had any criminal convictions, they would have already served their sentences before coming into deportation proceedings. They are facing civil charges, and so have no legal right to an attorney, no right to free phone calls (which can cost them up to $5 a minute because of the for-profit phone companies that work inside the prisons) and no right to visitors.

However, through an agreement that FOCD has with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), we have been allowed visitation rights at Musick since late 2012; after that the Santa Ana jail began permitting us to post lists inside the jail so detainees could sign up for visits. We do have people visiting at Theo Lacy as well and hope to have a formal ICE-approved program there in the near future.

Many of the detainees we talk to seem to have been picked up for fairly minor and/or arbitrary reasons, some just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. One fellow I visited was working collecting recyclables from a trash bin; he saw a bike propped up against the container and,
thinking someone had discarded it there, started riding away on it. Apparently, the bike did still belong to someone and so he was stopped and given a citation; but because he was undocumented, he was then turned over to ICE custody. 

Some detainees are brought to our local detention centers from outside the immediate area, sometimes even from other states, so it is often difficult for their family members and friends to visit if they work all week or have children at home or don’t have the transportation or money to make the trip to the detention facilities. And sometimes, family members don’t even know where their loved ones are being held. I visited one young man, a single dad, who had been picked up helping a cousin cross the border and had been unable to contact anyone to let them know what had happened to him, including his young daughter in Tijuana who had no idea if her father was dead or alive.

Now, as visitors we are not there to advocate or give legal advice; we’re there to show these individuals that someone on the outside is concerned about them and their plight. It’s a completely humanitarian gesture so they don’t feel isolated and alone in these facilities where they may stay for months or even years. Most detainees are young men, although there are some women. Many are from Mexico and other Latin American countries, but we also see asylum seekers from Africa and countries like Bangladesh. Some are newcomers, but many have grown up here or have lived in the US for years, with spouses and American-born children; some have their own businesses and employees. The one thing they have in common, though, is that they really appreciate and look forward to our visits; and for us, the experience can be both rewarding and even transformative. Our only problem is that we have far more people asking for visitors than we do volunteers: and that’s where you come in.

Friends of Orange County Detainees is part of a national non-profit coalition called CIVIC – Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement ( Included under their umbrella are nearly 40 community-led visitation programs in 19 states, where they visit 32 different facilities. They have a vibrant listserve so everyone can stay connected and share best practices; and CIVIC has recently launched a pen pal program so people everywhere can help more immigrants in detention realize that someone out there cares and that they are not alone.

If you are interested in visiting or becoming a pen pal, please contact us at friendsofocdetainees at gmail dot com . I can promise that you will be amazed at the difference you can make in somebody’s life.

1 comment:

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