The view from the the driver’s side window of my rental car is both incredibly familiar and totally foreign. It looks like the opening sequence from the television series Friday Night Lights, a long, straight, stretch of wide open spaces, mostly grassland, dotted with an occasional oil rig or run-down convenience store adjacent to an empty gas station. There’s a rural high school 20 miles from my destination. It looks like the real-life home of the Dillon Panthers. A faded, vinyl banner hangs from a sagging, chain-link fence that faces the highway: “2010 Texas State Football Champions.”
I’m headed to the Karnes Detention Center, an hour outside of San Antonio. 100 yards from the highway exit there’s a hairpin turn onto a gravel road. 300 more yards in the distance sits a small, concrete building, positioned alone behind a 1000 square feet of parking spaces, mostly empty.
The inside of the building smells like my elementary school cafeteria and looks like a hybrid of my local DMV and an under-funded public library. There are two entrances. The first is a set of swinging metal doors, kept open during business hours. The second is bolted shut. I have to be buzzed in.
The lobby is cold and desolate. To the right, there’s a wall of tiny, rusted, metal lockers. I can barely shove my backpack and a day’s worth of snacks into one of them. Every day I imagine myself leaving my cell phone behind on accident. Cell phones are not allowed past the armed guard and metal detector. No one says so explicitly, but I know it’s because they don’t want us to take pictures. Not of the facility, certainly not of the hundreds of women who are imprisoned inside. To the left, there’s a corner office with big windows. It’s filled with employee achievement plaques and what appear to be family photos. I wonder what type of person wakes up every day to drive business results in a job that requires them to profit off of depriving hundreds of people of their freedom and humanity. I contemplate what horrifying and dehumanizing metrics contributed to the many accolades on display.
The main hallway past the metal detector is wide and empty and eerily silent. There are doors that lead to side rooms but they never seem occupied. The detention center is an around the clock operation but there is rarely a single employee roaming about. The prisoners (“residents” as they’re referred to) are completely hidden. They are locked away from visitors and are only permitted contact with them in the “visitors room,” a sterile, empty space with linoleum floors and plastic chairs and tables. We get yelled at if we try to rearrange the furniture for comfort, or privacy. The prisoners risk losing their visitation rights if they dare (or accidentally) violate any number of arbitrary and ridiculous rules.
Every day for a week I go through the same, bizarre routine. 60 minute car ride to the detention center. 12 hours to see as many clients as possible. 60 minute car ride back to my upscale hotel in downtown San Antonio. Every night I order a vegan burger and curl up in the big, leather chair that overlooks the hotel lobby. Every night I think about the women I met that day. I can never remember their names but their faces, their emotions, their stories, are seared into my memory forever. I think both about their short term health and well-being -what are they doing right now? Are they safe? Are they fed? What horrors have they been subjected to because they talked to a lawyer today? What happens to them tomorrow? -and the long term trajectory of both their legal case and their life – will they ever see their families again? will they heal from their trauma? will they be safe? healthy? happy?
Nearly a year later I still think about all of them, often. The same thoughts that cycled through my mind over room service at the riverfront Hyatt haunt me between conference calls, during episodes of The Bachelor, and in fleeting, quiet moments when I’m alone on weekends.
A couple of months after I left Karnes, every, single prisoner was inexplicably, and unexpectedly removed from the detention center and transported to some undisclosed detention camp, likely in the rural, deep south, basically in the middle of the night. Their lawyers weren’t notified and nor could most of them contact their clients for days, weeks, months, or in the worst cases, ever again.
Every woman I met during my week at the detention center moved me. Their stories of sacrifice and resilience and courage and determination were awe-inducing. In speaking with them, I did my best to stay focused on the legally relevant facts and important details of their stories but I couldn’t help but be drawn in by how remarkable, and brilliant, and brave they all were. Each of them had families and loved ones and dreams and values and futures they were fighting for. Each of them were survivors of violence, persecution, loss, despair and trauma, and yet equally, and somewhat inconceivably, each of them were filled with hope and love and ambition.
People close to me know that I sum up my experience last summer by sharing that since I’ve “been back” I “haven’t been the same.” I am both changed by the experience and shattered from it. I am a better, more capable advocate, but also a terrified, sometimes hopeless, U.S. citizen. I am further committed to the values and reasons I went there in the first place, but more daunted by the reality of the circumstances surrounding them.
One of my most important lessons of my time in the detention center, was being reminded of the way systems and structures in the United States function together to conceal and bury the worst aspects of our grotesque inhumanity. The ways in which those of us with the most power, privilege and access in this country are sequestered away from the atrocity of our policy-making. If you grew up and/or live like I do, you can basically spend your entire life never having to come face-to-face with the real, human, costs of structural inequity, systemic racism and late-stage capitalism. Affluent and middle-class white people can mostly move through a world where the mythology of American exceptionalism is expressed in real-life. If we have to bear witness to the evils of things like poverty, homelessness, police brutality, mass incarceration, we do so through isolated, out-of-context incidents or encounters, typically through media that is neither humanized nor contextualized. The impact is our complete isolation from the tremendous, avoidable suffering of large swaths of people in our nation.
Every morning, for months now, I wake up and contemplate the loss of our collective humanity. I look over the latest coronavirus updates and reflect on the national death toll and do my best to grapple with the immeasurable, unfathomable human loss we are enduring right now. I have a couple of daily rituals I am mostly embarrassed to talk about except with my closest friends. One is that I call to mind all of the women I can think of who I met in detention. I conjure their faces as a way to remind myself of their existence: on this planet, in this country, in the custody of the federal government, during this pandemic. I don’t want to let myself forget about them the way I worry we, as a country, have already forgotten. A second part of my ritual is to think about the prisoners. It’s different in that I don’t have faces and stories to match to them, but it’s the same in that I know, they too, have families, and loved ones, and hopes and dreams and talents and joys and ideas. I wonder if they’re safe, or scared, or hungry. I wonder if they’re worried about their friends on the inside and their families on the outside and if they have a clean place to sleep, or eat, or wash their hands.
A (perhaps obvious) observation I’ve made about the pandemic is how folks’ proximity to its human impact directly correlates with their willingness to adapt their behaviors to mitigate its spread. My friends who work in healthcare, for example, were the first to sound the alarm of its seriousness. They warned of both how medically devastating, sometimes deadly, the disease is, but also of the dramatic effects it would have on our economy because of the measures we’d have to take to stop it.
Meanwhile, in my community of mostly white, affluent, suburban dwelling, friends and neighbors, the responses ranged from dismissive of the seriousness of the virus and skepticism about government regulations, to downright recklessness in both personal behaviors and the consumption and spread of misinformation.
“I don’t know anyone who has it.” “The death count is overblown.” “Healthy people should be allowed to return to normalcy.” “The government is denying me my rights.”
After weeks of feeling outraged and frustrated by what seemed so transparently narrow-minded and ill-informed ideas and actions it occurred to me that what I was experiencing wasn’t purely a result of individual selfishness and the non-critical consumption of social media and Fox News.
In the context of all other American-made atrocities, it made perfect sense.
A substantial amount of the disease, death and tragedy of the coronavirus is taking place out of sight. For many affluent white people, places like nursing homes, jails and prisons, and meat-packing plants, are institutions that exist in the shadows. They are often located in remote, rural places. They are walled off from view in both the literal and figurative sense. The folks who occupy these spaces are among our most marginalized: The elderly, the infirm, the disabled. Black and brown folks. Immigrants. The working poor. Because they are underrepresented in media, in positions of social, political, and corporate power, and because of interlocking systems and structures of oppression, the stories and identities of these folks are often invisible, or erased.
As I’ve increasingly worried about our collective response to the catastrophic human loss and suffering related to the pandemic, I’ve also come to recognize the ways in which our acceptance of the current crisis is a continuation of, not a departure from, our pattern of complacency. We widely accept poverty, police violence, gun violence, poor quality public schools (especially in low income communities and communities of color), an exploitative healthcare system and a host of other preventable harms. As with the most devastating effects of the pandemic, the impact of these issues is intensely concentrated among our most marginalized people and communities. As with the most devastating effects of the pandemic, the impact of these issues can be often, and easily obscured from the view of affluent white people. They can exist for us only in our news feeds and media consumption. They can be bypassed, and dismissed, and scrolled through.
The weekend before the stay-at-home order was issued in California I attended a training in San Rafael, California. That Saturday, the weather was gloomy and rainy. Every where I went in public the atmosphere was hectic and tense. It was already apparent that we were in for something uniquely challenging, uncomfortable, and unfamiliar. Around noon, I drove from the industrial business park where I was training to a small market in an upscale Marin County development. To get there, I drove around the San Quentin prison. I grew up in Northern California and even when I was little I can remember being struck by the horrifying irony of San Quentin. Situated on one of the most beautiful (and expensive) pieces of real estate in the state, it overlooks the San Francisco Bay and the picturesque hills of the north bay area. San Quentin, like the Karnes detention center, and the other institutions in this country where we hide away our most shameful policy and behaviors, looks, from the outside, unoccupied. As I drove by that day, filled with anxiety and trepidation and uncertainty about the pandemic, I wondered what was going on behind the barbed wire and aging, cement buildings. I reflected on how many times in the last twenty-four hours I’d wiped down my cell phone, the surfaces in my hotel room, and furiously washed my hands. I felt a wave of nausea and worry overcome me as I considered what it must be like inside.
In my darkest moments, I fear that through this era, we’ll permanently, and irreversibly, lose our humanity. In my more wistful moments, this fear transforms into the hope that we gain an improved ability to see the ways in which we are all connected to each other. Instead of ignoring or avoiding our collective failures, I envision those of us with the most power and influence taking responsibility to improve them. I imagine what is possible for our country if we see beyond our own families, neighborhoods and individual experiences
I think about what can be different, what will be different, if we’re willing to embrace, understand and address not just what appears immediately in front of us, but the worst of what exists beyond it, out of sight.