Detention Immigrants

Detention and Imprisonment: One and the Same

Detention and Imprisonment: One and the Same

The United States is infamous for its reputation as the incarceration capital of the world. 1.9 million people are confined nationwide, which equates to 583 people per 100,000 residents. The Prison Policy Initiative composed a disturbing (yet hardly shocking) graph entitled “World Incarceration Rates If Every U.S. State Were A Country.” El Salvador takes first place, with nine US states ranked between El Salvador and the next country, Cuba. These numbers are not associated with higher crime rates; they are the racist legacy of the War on Drugs, resulting in a disproportionate number of Black and Latinx individuals imprisoned as opposed to their white counterparts. 

Immigration detention centers are deceptive. “It is a detention center, yes,” says Pablo Allison, a photographer and author, “but it smells, looks, and tastes like a prison.” According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, detention is “non-punitive,” but the U.S. is systematically (through legislation and through precedent) inclined to dehumanize its detainees—even though the vast majority of individuals entering the U.S. without documentation are asylum seekers. Their only crime is seeking refuge.

The Horrors of Detention: The Facts

Immigrant detention centers are run by or contracted through ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Undocumented individuals are kept in detention facilities where they wait indefinitely to be assigned a court date. These individuals include “immigrants apprehended at the border who are seeking asylum; people who entered the U.S. illegally and whom the government wants to deport or deems a public safety risk; and permanent residents who are hit with deportation orders,” writes NPR in an article entitled “Government’s own experts found ‘barbaric’ and ‘negligent’ conditions in ICE detention.” 

It is no secret that detention centers are widely condemned for their inhumane and abusive practices, but they continue to operate. As of June 16, 2024, there are 38,525 individuals in detention; 62.1% have no criminal record. ICE alleges that detention centers are “non-punitive,” but abuse is common practice. Medical negligence, lack of proper nutrition, prolonged detention, and solitary confinement are reported on a routine basis.

Medical neglect is an extremely serious—and the most common—issue in U.S. detention centers. Of the 144 detention facilities affected by Covid-19, 121 of them were reported for “inadequate medical response/health services.” Twenty-one people died in detention centers in the year of 2020. Most were due to Covid-19. Four were attributed to “self-inflicted strangulation.”

Freedom for Immigrants displays this data on an interactive map, allowing users to navigate accessible information on private and public detention centers. 

History & Purpose

U.S. immigration policy has evolved over time, becoming increasingly aggressive as xenophobia skyrockets in the 21st century. Detention centers were formally established in 1952, with the enactment of the Immigration and Nationality Act. They have since become standard practice, strengthened and normalized by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. In the very same year, Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, increasing the categories of deportable offenses and expanding mandatory detention. It should be noted that the language used in each is extremely dehumanizing. Asylum seekers are not referred to as people, but “aliens” or terrorists. 

Why is detention the first recourse for undocumented immigration? As the incarceration capital of the world, one could say it’s rather characteristic of the U.S. to detain and push out individuals deemed unsuitable for American citizenship. One need only look at the over-policing of Black and Brown communities and the overrepresentation of individuals from those communities in the U.S. prison system. ICE maintains that its detention centers protect the wider community from threats to public safety and ensure that undocumented individuals do not flee while awaiting their court date. These individuals, however, are not told when exactly that date will be. 

Private Immigration Detention: “It’s worse than prison.”

“Private prison corporations’ perverse incentive to profit off of the prolonged imprisonment of Black, brown, and Indigenous immigrants is foundational to the immigration detention system,” writes Freedom for Immigrants

As of July 2023, over 90% of detained individuals are confined in privately-owned detention centers. These centers are owned and operated principally by the two largest private prison companies in the US, GEO Group and CoreCivic, through contracts with ICE. “According to an OpenSecrets analysis of private prison company annual reports,” Freedom for Immigrants writes, “the GEO Group and CoreCivic grossed $551 million and $552 million respectively from contracts with ICE alone in the fiscal year 2021.” 

Meanwhile, Rene, a former undocumented detainee, tells NowThis Impact, “ICE detention isn’t really a detention center. It’s worse than prison.” He recounts his story of medical neglect, mistreatment, and losing precious time with his family. “I missed everything,” he said. “All because they wanted a paycheck.” Rene entered the U.S. with his parents at two years old. In 2008 (by which time he was an adult), he was detained for four to six months. There, he sustained a facial injury that demanded immediate medical attention. He waited an hour to be transported to a hospital, only to wait two months for the necessary surgery. His story is one of thousands; medical neglect is the most common form of abuse in detention centers, followed by a lack of proper nutrition and prolonged detention.

Because detained individuals are noncitizens, denying them their human rights is somehow acceptable. Sergio, who came to the U.S. without documentation as a 1-year-old, was detained by ICE at 25. “We have no visits,” he told the NowThis Impact reporter from inside a center in Colorado, “no deportations, our court dates are all being delayed.” People like Sergio live in uncertainty, with prolonged detention being the second most common form of abuse reported in detention centers. The Shelbourne County Jail in Minnesota, for example, detains individuals for 259 days on average

“No one’s less than anybody,” Sergio said over the phone. “Just because I’m undocumented or there’s people here that are undocumented doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve their human rights.”

An analyst in the short documentary “The State of Private Immigration Detention in the U.S. Revealed” by NowThis Impact describes privately-owned detention centers in particular as “unconstitutionalized space[s].” They go unchecked, remarks Stanford Law Review:

“Arguably, privatization makes matters exponentially worse … as is true in other privatized contexts, detention contractors are not subject to federal open records laws, civil service requirements, administrative law, constitutional requirements, and other legal checks that would otherwise apply to federal officials doing the same work.”

It is worth noting that private detention centers like GEO Corps donated generously to the Trump campaign—even though “it is illegal for an entity receiving a federal government contract to contribute to a political campaign,” writes CAP 20. Private prisons stand to benefit from Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy; if elected, Trump promises to carry out “the largest domestic deportation operation in American history.” These undocumented individuals will most likely be held in private detention centers, who earn a “paycheck,” in Rene’s words, from each body detained.

Psychologically Detained: Losing Hope

Individuals in detention centers are subject to automatic dehumanization under the law. Psychological detention should not be overlooked. As Sergio commented, “No one is less than anybody.” That is exactly the kind of strategy employed in detention centers; detainees are made to feel less-than.

“There is no right to a government-provided attorney in immigration court,” writes the AILA (American Immigration Lawyers Association), “and 70 percent of detained persons face proceedings without counsel.” Individuals in detention can be forced to wait months for a court date. Most are unfamiliar with U.S. law, an obstacle compounded upon by the lack of translation services. 

Immigration attorney Homero Lopez, however, travels hours every day to provide legal assistance to individuals in a rural detention center in Louisiana. The rural location is “intended to make people give up,” says Lopez. NowThis Impact added, “These locations are strategically placed in rural areas where immigrants have less access to legal representation causing their deportations to rise drastically.” Even those who do have resources outside of the facility are made to feel alone, in the middle of nowhere.

Pablo Allison, photographer and author, set out to document the experiences of people journeying to the US/Mexico border—he found that many are not alone. He tells PBS NewsHour, “‘Migrant’ is a concept that’s used, like many other concepts, as categories to dehumanize. And so for me, I try not to use the migrant as a concept, but rather use names sometimes, Carlos, Pepe, Javier, Maria, Carmen, who are people that I have met along the way, and people that I have befriended.” He captured beauty, hope, friendship, and love as he followed the route northward. After misplacing his documentation, Allison was detained at the border for a month. During his imprisonment, he pieced together sketches, notes, and written conversations. From those, he composed The Detainee Handbook



Image Credit: Pablo Allison, Motto Distribution



Allison asked Custodio, a fellow detained man, what does it mean to be a migrant?

Custodio replied, “In my first years as a migrant, which began in 1985—in those times it was much easier to migrate. You only had to pay $300. The cost of living in the state of Washington was $200 [per month]. My salary was $5.50 [per hour], and things were good for migrants. Coming to work [in the U.S.] was a reason for hope, saving to buy a house to live a more dignified life. But with time, our goals changed. Children are starting to come [to the U.S.] and I don’t know if I can save money like before. Returning to Mexico gets more and more difficult every time. And now that the children are grown up, we are trapped. Now we have to worry about taking care of our grandchildren, like in the case of my wife, when we return to Mexico. It will be difficult to start a new life because of the kids […]. I don’t know if I can save any money. In a few words, to be a migrant is not hopeful. Everything was a dream and nothing more.”



Image Credit: Pablo Allison, Motto Distribution.



Allison recorded the words of Jimmy Mancia, another detainee:

“We all seek freedom, but it is denied to us by the government. And we are made migrants by the pressure of the government and gangs of our countries.”

“My mother told me, ‘Son, leave for another country, because it cannot be me that buries you. I would prefer a thousand times that you be the one to bury me because I could not stand to see you dead.’”

One of the most insidious methods of dehumanization within detention centers is disguised as a means of protection: solitary confinement. Vulnerable individuals, often LGBTQ+ folks and those suffering from mental illness, are forced to be alone for prolonged periods of time. In conventional prisons, this is a form of punishment—one widely condemned and criticized by human rights organizations. In reality, solitary confinement is frequently abused with the purpose of punishing detainees. It is disturbingly common for individuals who have attempted suicide or engaged in self-harm behaviors to be placed in solitary confinement. 

Global Comparisons & ATDs

The U.S. is the only country in the Global North to use detention and incarceration so liberally. According to the American Immigration Council, “The current standards that govern the conditions of most immigrant detention centers, the Performance-Based National Detention Standards, were explicitly based on criminal pre-trial detention and were written in 2011, with minor updates made in 2016 and no updates in the years since then.” Our immigration system is backlogged—causing prolonged detention and uncertainty—and antiquated.

A multitude of human rights organizations, from Freedom for Immigrants to the ACLU, are demanding that the U.S. abandons detention in favor of more humane alternatives.

The American Immigration Council lists the categories of ATDs (alternatives to detention):

  • Release on your own recognizance (i.e., no detention and no conditions on release)
  • Release on conditions
  • Release on bail/bond or other surety
  • Community-based supervised release or case management
  • Designated residence at a specific accommodation center
  • Electronic tagging and/or tracking
  • Home curfews


Three states in a similar position, being a popular destination for immigrants, practice more humane methods.

Sweden: Uses open reception centers where asylum seekers have freedom of movement and access to social services while their claims are processed.

Canada: Implements community-based alternatives to detention, such as supervision programs and bail options, allowing asylum seekers to live in the community while their cases are reviewed.

New Zealand: Employs a case management approach, providing support and services to asylum seekers within the community, focusing on integration and well-being.

These models emphasize the importance of treating asylum seekers with dignity and providing support, rather than relying solely on detention. “While many countries utilize some or all of these tools,” writes the American Immigration Council in reference to categories of ATDs, “the United States government has a fairly narrow definition of alternatives to detention and has been increasingly focused on programs that expand surveillance and restrictions on movement of noncitizens, as opposed to using alternatives as a means of reducing the overall use of detention.”

The ATDs practiced in the United States are still a form of detention, the AIC points out. Constant monitoring is a less intense form of physical detention, but it certainly plays a role in psychological detention. Where is the freedom in constant surveillance? 

Soledad Quartucci, director and founder of Latina Republic, makes the following recommendations to reform and even eliminate detention practices in the United States:

  • Legislative Reform: Congress needs to pass laws that set clear guidelines for detention, establish limits on detention duration, and promote alternatives to detention.
  • Policy Changes: Government agencies, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), should revise their policies to prioritize community-based supervision programs over detention.
  • Public Awareness and Advocacy: Continued advocacy from human rights organizations, advocacy groups, and the public can raise awareness about the impact of detention and push for reforms. Organizations like Freedom for Immigrants, the Prison Policy Initiative, the AILA, the National Immigrant Justice Center, offer a wealth of information. Advocacy begins with education.
  • Judicial Oversight: Courts must play a role in reviewing detention policies and ensuring compliance with constitutional rights and international human rights standards.
  • International Standards: Align U.S. practices more closely with international standards and best practices for refugee protection and asylum seekers.


Gracie Murnane | Immigration Correspondent

Gracie is a senior at Boston College studying International Relations with a minor in Hispanic Studies. She grew up in seven different US states, sparking her passion for studying the movement of peoples, particularly how it can be manipulated and coerced by those in power. She spent four months studying in Ecuador, where she was honored to join CEPAM, an organization that works to track and combat femicide in Ecuador. As a writer for Latina Republic, she plans to continue her study of violence against gender minorities, particularly within the LGBTQ+ immigrant community. Gracie hopes to bring awareness to the lives of queer Latina/o/e immigrants and dispel destructive stereotypes about their reality.