Elaine J. Cohen :
METRO | The heartbreak of children behind bars

The children we have come to know during our regular visits to detention centers have now spent an enormous part of their short lives behind walls.

family detention cartoon

Political cartoon by Christopher Cardinale / San Antonio Current.

By Elaine J. Cohen | The Rag Blog | May 30, 2015

This is the most recent in a continuum of reflections on the women and children refugees that the government obstinately continues to detain at Berks in Pennsylvania, and at Karnes and Dilley in Texas. Please note the use of the word “detained,” a gentler, softer word than imprison, incarcerate, jail, or oppress.

KARNES COUNTY, Texas — On the way home from the Karnes Family Detention Center recently, we were sharing some of what we had heard in our separate visits with different moms and their kids. Felicia’s Prius gets 51 miles to the gallon; it has been the perfect vehicle to transport a changing crew of visitors from Austin to the hundreds of women and children currently housed in GEO’s version of what a “nice” family detention center looks like.

At one point I knew how many times I’d been to Karnes. Now I’ve lost count. As we drove out of Karnes City, Felicia smiled as she drove and told us of a conversation she had with a wonderful nine-year-old Guatemalan child (nameless, they must always be nameless until they are all freed) in which she had asked him what he would like to be when he grew up. His first response was, “a doctor.”

When pressed for another choice, his answer was, “a visitor.” I was astonished to hear that this child classifies those of us who make the drive out from Austin or San Antonio as a profession, like doctor.

The children we have begun to know, in the past months of fairly regular weekly visits, have now spent an enormous part of their short lives behind walls, under senseless authoritarian rules and cruel threats to themselves and their mothers. Some have been here since August 2014. They have spent Christmas, their birthdays, Easter, and a chain of Sundays in lock up.

Three-year-olds who were happy when I first met them in October are now sullen and
most definitely angry.

Three-year-olds who were happy when I first met them in October are now sullen and most definitely angry. One little girl has chronic stomach pains and bloating. I know of another boy who couldn’t sleep the night before because of a terrible tooth ache. There is no dentist at Karnes. I believe he was given a child aspirin but only after repeated requests.

Has anyone looked to see if dental care is listed as a budget item in the no doubt, lengthy legal documents signed between GEO and ICE?

On a past visit, one little girl, perhaps two years old, finally allowed herself to come and sit in my lap. She let me hug her and give her what love I could. Yesterday she was being visited by Felicia. I was visiting with another family. After a while she came over and crawled in my lap. Within minutes the guard was leaning into us, telling me that she had to go back to the other table. I was not allowed to visit with more than one family at a time.

I gave her one more hug and placed her down and sent her to her mother, who had seen the entire exchange. The girl’s eyes looked at me in that questioning way children have, when they don’t comprehend the odd ways of grownups. I had to say to her, “Son las reglas, lo siento… those are the rules, I’m sorry…”

Not that many weeks ago we were allowed to all sit together. Kids shared snacks and our visits were festive. I’m not certain, but I think that got shut down not long after the hunger strike some of the moms went on. Or maybe it got shut down because the occasional group prayers of the women were too fervent. Probably the jailers were reacting to management fears that there was too much communication going on, too much information being exchanged.

I imagine that Wilhelm Reich, himself imprisoned in the Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where he died in 1957, would have been able to identify the behavior of the guards — as they carried out the directions of a heartless immigration policy. The psychological constitution of those who become prison guards and police is well documented and discussed in Reich’s classic, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, published in 1933.

The guards cannot tolerate the pleasure of the women and children as they sit with all of us to share peanuts and lemonade. It was simply too dangerous to behold by a system that is rooted in intimidation. Yet, the countless illegalities, both national and international, are ignored in this system that exists for the gain of a serpent’s nest of profiteers.

But the momentary expression of freedom experienced by the women and children in Family Detention, when sitting with women and men who treat them as human beings, worthy of love and dignity, is threatening to the bullies that feast on fear.

My little friend came back a second time
to sit on my lap.

My little friend came back a second time to sit on my lap — reaching for a love that I had been allowed to give her another time. Again, I put her down. Again I saw the non-comprehension in her eyes. Today I am angry with myself for falling into the grip of the fear of what displeasure of the guards might bring, or reaction from those that monitor our every movement, every word. Would the child’s mother be reprimanded?

Would I be banned from visiting? It has happened to others. More than once, while visiting women at the T. Don Hutto Women’s Detention Center, I had been yelled at by guards (there, under the authority of the Corrections Corporation of America) and threatened with banishment if I accepted a woven bracelet one of the women had made for me or stroked the hand of a woman collapsed in tears.

On my next visit to Karnes I will visit with this girl’s mother so that I might, once again, hold her on my lap and try to explain to her why I couldn’t yesterday. I hope that she will trust me and worry that I won’t be able to explain that which I find so wrong, so inexplicable.

Can someone please explain to me why billions of dollars are being spent to hold women and children refugees in prison and yet I cannot hold one child on my lap? Can anyone explain this?

Read more Rag Blog articles on immigrant family detention.

Read more articles by Elaine J. Cohen on The Rag Blog.

[Elaine Cohen moved to Austin in 1997 after she found Accion Zapatista’s website. Her involvement with immigrants began when she started work as a bilingual substitute for the Austin Independent School District (AISD). After another stay teaching in Mexico (2005-2010) she returned to Austin and discovered the Hutto Visitation Program. She is into her fourth year of visiting women in Hutto and has begun to visit women and children held at Karnes.]

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2 Responses to Elaine J. Cohen :
METRO | The heartbreak of children behind bars

  1. richard jehn says:

    Thank you, Elaine. Such a sad story. I’m sure you know it, but for your readers, Harsha Walia’s recent publication, “Undoing Border Imperialism,” is enlightening and encouraging. We ARE changing things, little by little. Thank you for being part of that change.

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