Opinion: We Put ICE Detention Centers Into "Orange Is The New Black." Now I'm Heading Back To One.
I first visited an ICE detention facility so I could write it into the show. Then the show ended and I returned, alone, on a different kind of mission.
I’m driving to the Adelanto Detention Center, California's largest immigration detention facility, and my stomach is heavy with dread. The road stretches out, interminable. I’ve been there before, and it’s a place I never wanted — or expected — to visit again.
A year ago, I made the same drive with the Orange Is the New Black writers room. We were doing research for our seventh and final season, in which we expand our private prison universe to include immigration detention centers. Jenji Kohan, our show’s creator and executive producer, had come up with the idea early in Season 6, soon after Donald Trump won the presidency. Watching the subsequent expansion of detention centers, and the boom in the stock price of private prison operators, only strengthened our resolve. The problem was, we knew prisons, but not detention centers. Despite the fact that they’re constantly in our newsfeeds, life inside these places remains largely a mystery.
Thankfully, a mom in my daughter’s elementary school, Lindsay Toczylowski, heads the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, a social justice firm that helps hundreds of undocumented immigrants, focusing on children and adults with mental health challenges. She introduced us to a fearless and resourceful nonprofit, Freedom for Immigrants, that helped us apply for a tour inside the Adelanto facility.
The Freedom for Immigrants founders, Christina Fialho and Christina Mansfield — the Christinas, as they soon came to be known in the writers room — warned us that our chances of getting approved were zilch: These places were so private that even the California state attorney general had been denied access at one point. Yet a few weeks later, we miraculously get the go-ahead. I guess nobody at ICE bothered to Google “Jenji Kohan.”
Which is how all 10 of us ended up in a small bus with too many snacks, bracing ourselves for what we were about to encounter. The Christinas stood in the aisle like tour guides, prepping us for our trip. Their organization monitors human rights abuses in detention and works with lawmakers to change legislation. Their knowledge about our immigration system is encyclopedic, and they give us a quick rundown on how it got so broken.
Here’s the story as they tell it: Back in the early ’80s, there were fewer than 3,000 people in immigration detention on any given day. Then two private prison companies, GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America/CoreCivic, were formed, and they went on to spend big on lobbying, donating generously to politicians pushing laws that would expand immigration detention and general mass incarceration. Their efforts paid off, handsomely. The following decade, a new prison was built every 15 days. Skip ahead to Trump’s America, where currently, 50,000 immigrants are held in over 200 county jails and for-profit detention centers.
As the bus gets closer, our apprehension builds. Though each of us has differing views on immigration, we’re all equally terrified of what we’re about to experience. Adelanto is one of the for-profit centers run by the aforementioned GEO Group under its contract with ICE. A recent Los Angeles Times report cited “significant health and safety risks” at the facility; a Nicaraguan man was found dead here, hanging from his bedsheets. A surprise search found nooses — “braided bedsheets,” in the Orwellian words of the Department of Homeland Security watchdog agency — in 15 other cells. So, what do we do with our building anxiety? We crack jokes about how Vera (who is Indian Canadian) and I (a Guatemalan American) will probably be apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement when we get there.
We laugh. It’s ridiculous. But both of us brought our passports, unprompted, just in case.
When my mother was expecting, she flew to Miami and parked her very pregnant ass there until I was born. Nine days after my birth, she and my dad flew back to Guatemala, relieved that someone in the family now had American citizenship should we ever need to flee the increasing violence of Guatemala’s civil war. Thankfully, we never did. We were among the very lucky. I led a life of privilege, and it kept me safe, indoors, watching more American TV than is healthy. I immersed myself in the worlds I saw inside that box, living vicariously, suspecting that my real home was actually far from the Guatemalan strife and closer to where the Fresh Prince lived. Where there was Law and Order. Where people like Grace loved and accepted people like Will. Yes, I was sure, somewhere over there, in the US, that was my real home.
When I finally moved here at 15, all I wanted was to make the shows that went into that box. A decade later, I began my writing career on Grey’s Anatomy. Now, a decade after that, I’m proud to serve under Jenji Kohan and Tara Herrmann as a writer and executive producer on Orange Is the New Black, a show that has helped shape the conversation around private prisons and criminal justice reform.
We hoped our immigration storylines this season would play a similar role in humanizing the immigrant experience to those who see us as subhuman. Maybe I was naive to think this. But I have to believe that stories amount to something.
A billboard welcomes us to the city of Adelanto, touting it as “The City with Unlimited Possibilities.” The landscape is barren, and a large portion of it is covered by nondescript, windowless structures that stretch into the desert — a string of private prisons. Among them is the Adelanto ICE Processing Center, surrounded by miles of barbed wire.
Inside, we’re joined by Lindsay, my friend from the Immigrant Defenders Law Center. She’s visited hundreds of clients here, but until now she’d never been allowed past the visitation area.
Our guides from ICE and the GEO Group greet us with big smiles as they lead us in through the metal detector. One of them, a mustachioed Hispanic man, seems sincerely proud of his depressing fiefdom. Behind him, a buff white guy echoes his every word, chewing gum, wearing his Oakleys on the back of his balding head. We exchange knowing glances. We’ll definitely steal this for the show.
The heavy metal door opens with a buzz. The place is huge, like six small prisons in one. Armed guards everywhere, and we look at each other nervously. We expected this to be a more relaxed version of “camp,” the Litchfield Minimum Security Prison that was home to our characters for the first five seasons of Orange Is the New Black. But this is more like the Maximum Security Prison of our last two seasons, except worse. Clearly, GEO Group uses the same blueprints for its detention centers as it does for its prisons.
The holding areas are large, bulletproof fish tanks. Inside, tables and benches are bolted to the floor, some with checkerboard tops but no pieces to play with. Individual cells line the walls. Inside, detainees in prison scrubs lay on metal bunks, bored. They turn to look at us as we walk by. We try not to stare, pretending we’re not part of some disaster tourism group.
Next, we go through the solitary-confinement area. The walls are so thick, they could house Hannibal. We visit the medical wing, where we invade the privacy of people in pain, and the dental offices, which are all covered up, as if they’ve never been used.
Our guides proudly show us the fancy electronic kiosks where detainees can order whatever they please from the commissary list: phone cards, stamps, junk food. But the kiosk doesn’t work. It’s like when you take your car to the shop, right? Except that for the people detained here, this kiosk is their lifeline.
And then we visit the women’s wing. The large holding room smells like old soup. Unlike the men’s side, there are no cells, just rows of bunks filling a common area, with no personal space, no items decorating their beds. No pictures. No books. A bird flits across the room. It flew in a few months ago, our mustachioed man says, and the women find it amusing, so they keep it in here.
A caged bird for the caged ladies. We’ll steal that one, too.
We ask questions. So many questions. Do people in detention get an attorney? They can, but the government won’t pay for it. Can they call their attorney for free? No, but there are phones available. What if they don’t have any money on their phone card? They can refill it at the kiosk. What if the kiosk doesn’t work? The kiosk always works, except for today. But hey, who needs a lawyer when they have an extensive law library they can use?
We visit it. It consists of a dozen computers loaded only with access to a complicated piece of legal software called LexisNexis. One of our writers is a former attorney and tells us this software is too complicated even for him. He has no idea how a person with no legal training — and who may not speak English — would begin to understand the complicated legalese of our convoluted immigration system. Which explains why not a single computer is in use.
We end our tour with one-on-one detainee visits, courtesy of a policy directive that Freedom for Immigrants vehemently advocated for back in 2010. Men and women line up to speak with us, asking us to call their mothers, wives, sons. To tell them they’re in here. That they’re OK. That they’re not OK. To help them find an attorney. To help them.
We leave with migraines and dry mouths. We’re depressed, and nobody talks on the drive back. There are no jokes to hide behind. One of our writers is lactating and hooks up to her pump; the rest of us press our heads against the cold glass of the windows. I cry.
What we saw there that day inspired an important part of our final season. But it also changed us. While we came in with wildly differing opinions on immigration, we all left stunned by what we’d witnessed, agreeing that it didn’t stand for our American values. But the truth is, what we saw in there shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Why wouldn’t America treat its immigrants like this, when it already incarcerates so many of its own citizens? For the past seven years, our writers, our cast, and our crew have been immersed in the world of prisons. Federal. State. Private. We’ve toured them. We’ve read about them. We’ve listened as former inmates shared their stories, cracking open their pain and revealing the scars an unjust justice system had inflicted upon them. We should have known immigration detention would be the same. It’s run by the same fucking people.
A year passes. We’re done shooting our final season, a big part of which revolves around the issues we saw during our tour. But the story’s not over, and I’m making the drive to Adelanto once again. But this time is different: I’m alone, and not here in a professional capacity. I’m here to visit a child, someone I know and care about.
After OITNB wrapped, I needed to do something to deal with the anxiety I felt every time I read the news. So I joined a nonprofit organization that pairs volunteers with unaccompanied minors as they struggle to navigate the American immigration system. After some rigorous training and background checks, I was matched with my first case. A child I will call V.
V was 17 when I met her. She’s from Guatemala, like most of the unaccompanied minors crossing into Southern California. Like many before her, V left Guatemala fleeing poverty, desperate for opportunity. Despite our socioeconomic differences, I see myself when I first arrived at 15: big child eyes full of hope, and in love with the dream of America.
My own dream of America soured during my freshman year at Tulane University, while writing a paper for my Latin American studies class. Doing research, I discovered something I wasn’t taught while enrolled at the American School of Guatemala: that our Guatemalan civil war began (as many wars do) with a US-led coup against our democratically elected president. The conflict that ensued was fueled by an oppressive, US-backed military that grew increasingly violent against civilians, especially the indigenous majority who lived in the countryside. By the time the war ended almost four decades later, 200,000 people had died, leaving the country ravaged. Ripe for gangs, narcos, and corruption. Two decades later, we’re still picking up the pieces.
The current migration patterns into the US are inextricably linked to this historical context. I’d call it karma, except it’s the Guatemalan people who keep getting the shit end of the stick.
When I first met V, she was being held in a children’s “shelter" in La Verne, a suburb to the east of Los Angeles. It had plenty of green, open spaces, and there was even a caged pool. It was also eerily quiet. The children were locked indoors for most of the day, and V was impatient to be released, longing to be reunited with her aunt in Virginia. But she needed to prove that familial relation before a judge would allow her to leave the facility, and getting birth and death certificates for indigenous people who lived in the remote Guatemalan highlands more than half a century ago is...well, impossible. So V had to wait until her 18th birthday, at which point she would either be detained by ICE or released on her own recognizance, meaning she could continue to fight her immigration case from the outside.
For the three months leading up to her birthday, I visit V once a week, bringing treats. She’s eager to try different kinds of American chocolate, and I’m eager to comply. Under a shaded canopy, we discuss the merits of Oreos versus Twix. We talk books. She prefers the self-helpy spiritual kind, the kind that tell you if you have a dream and fight hard to achieve it, it will come true.
We listen to music on my phone, and V tells me her favorite song is “This Is Where I Belong,” an ode to immigrants by Gaby Moreno, a talented Guatemalan musician who happens to be my good friend. If you think her song choice is on theme, consider that V’s favorite movie is Tangled, a story about a 17-year-old girl who leaves her small, oppressive tower to embark on an adventure she’s been warned is too dangerous to undertake. And yet she does, determined to fulfill her destiny. In the end, Rapunzel succeeds. V is sure she will too.
V’s 18th birthday is on a Saturday, and I arrive to the shelter on Friday with cupcakes, a copy of The Alchemist, and a video. She is elated by the first two. But it’s the video that does her in. It’s Moreno, her favorite singer, wishing her a happy birthday. But then our party is interrupted — a woman apologizes, saying V’s case manager couldn’t be here to tell her her that her release didn’t come through. This means tomorrow, on the day of her birthday, V will be taken into ICE custody, shackled at hands and feet, and driven to a detention center. V looks at me with her big child eyes. All I want to do is hold her, but we’re not allowed to touch. So for 20 minutes we sit, crying, until V realizes our time is almost up and that she needs to know as much as possible about the place where she’s going. So I tell her. Not that I know which detention center she’ll be sent to. But it doesn’t make a difference. A prison is a prison is a prison. And I suspect her prison will be Adelanto. A few days later, I get a call. I’m devastated to learn I was right.
And so, exactly a year after my first visit, I make the drive to Adelanto once again. The city of endless possibilities. As I walk in, I realize it all looks distressingly familiar. More familiar than it should, given that I’ve only been here once before. And then I realize it’s because this place looks exactly like the ICE detention sets we built. It’s like walking onto our stages, except this is real. The prisoners — sorry, detainees — are being counted, meaning I have to wait an hour. I know from having written a storyline about it, that I should fill V’s commissary card so she can buy a phone card at the kiosk (assuming it works). After an hour, they finally call me in. I go through the metal detector and into the airlock once again.
I find V sitting in a corner of the visitation area. Her prison scrubs are so big on her that she has to fold them several times around the ankles. Her skin is ashen. But her big child eyes remain unchanged and full of hope. I find this unsettling. How can she still be hopeful in here?
Now that V’s an adult, she’s lost the free attorney provided by the Immigrant Defenders Law Center. I’m starting a new job and won’t be able to visit her as much. But still, V hopes. Hopes she’ll get bonded out of here. Hopes she’ll move in with her aunt. Hopes she’ll get a job and study and join the military and one day become a citizen and buy a plot of land for her mother back home. It is so far from what is likely to happen. But nothing will shake her of this hope.
I ask V why she wants to stay in America so badly. A country currently imprisoning her. The world is huge — surely there are job opportunities elsewhere. What about America is so damn alluring? V can’t explain it. All she knows is that this is where she’s meant to be. And then I remember my own inexplicable draw to this place. A pull inspired by the mythical stories I’d seen on the TV. The kinds of stories I now create.
Arguably, American films and TV have had as much to do with American idealization as our actual ideals or policies — if not more. We create the appearance of a land of opportunity, where underdogs who hope and dream can overcome all challenges and fight their way to success. But that’s only part of the story. Because while overcoming obstacles to earn satisfying resolutions makes for great Hollywood endings, the reality is, America is currently nothing like this. At least, not for people like V. She could have read the horrifying and plentiful news articles about what could happen to her on her journey across the border, what would happen should she be apprehended by ICE. But she chose to believe the dream on the TV instead. The Rapunzel dream. So she embarked on her journey, and her dream cost her her freedom.
For years, I thought I was making TV solely for an American audience, somehow forgetting how I myself was changed by American entertainment. How TV helped shape my own values. Only after having written on this season of Orange do I remember that it will cross borders. That it will provide people in countries like Guatemala a real glimpse into the promised land, a look inside our detention centers and the corporate greed and institutionalized xenophobia that fuel them.
It’s not that I want to dissuade people from coming — so many are fleeing because their lives depend on it — but I do want to expose what might be waiting for them on the other side. Because what I’ve seen this year fills me with fear. Despite the well-meaning efforts of countless Americans, despite the tireless work of organizations like Freedom for Immigrants and the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, America is currently in the business of incarcerating people. And business is good.
But I’m not gonna leave you on a down note because, Hollywood. Deep into Season 7, as we mourned the upcoming loss of our platform, our executive producer Tara Herrmann had a brilliant idea: What if, instead of just leaving our audience with stories to inspire change, we actually gave them a way to make it happen? With the help of Piper Kerman, whose book inspired the series and whose own post-incarceration activism continues to inspire, the Poussey Washington Fund was born. It supports nonprofit advocacy groups in order to challenge current policies, reform criminal justice, protect immigrants’ rights, end mass incarceration, and support women who have been affected by it. Now say it three times fast.
Donations to the fund will be split equally among eight worthy organizations, among them Freedom for Immigrants and the Immigrant Defenders Law Center. To them, and to all the other organizations that help advocate for change every day, I offer my sincerest gratitude. Because while stories can help spark change, it’s up to all of us to take that spark and start a fucking fire. ●
To learn more and to contribute to the Poussey Washington Fund, go to crowdrise.com/pwf.
Carolina Paiz is a Guatemalan native and a writer and executive producer on Orange Is the New Black; previous series credits include Narcos and Grey’s Anatomy. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two kids, two dogs, and a cat that thinks he’s a dog.