Searching for Sanity

Meena Venkataramanan
Aug 7, 2019 · 10 min read

Editor’s note: This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255 (En Español: 1–888–628–9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1–800–799–4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

The Eloy Detention Center is contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to the Corrections Corporation of America, also known as CoreCivic.

Topacio* searches for small moments of sanity at the Eloy Detention Center.

Reading the Bible, playing bingo with the other inmates, braiding her hair neatly across her scalp.

When a guard wakes her up at 4 o’clock every morning, Topacio and the other inmates file into the prison cafeteria, where detainees may eat breakfast — cereal, boiled eggs, dry toast — and go back to sleep until lunch is served at 10.

Many return, still groggy and bleary-eyed, to the rigid colchones to which their bodies have become accustomed. But Topacio likes to stay awake in her cell, poring over a book she hopes will help her learn English.

Algún día,” she tells me. Someday. She has just turned 23, and hopes to build a life here in the United States, where she is seeking asylum. She has been incarcerated in Eloy for almost 18 months.

Sometimes, Topacio gets mail — from her attorney, from community members who visit her in detention, from the federal government. The immigration papers are in English — a language that, to Topacio, is still a jumble of cryptic words.

She asks the prison staff to help her translate the documents. She says they refuse. Some of them don’t know enough Spanish to help. Others simply don’t want to.

“Even the Spanish-speaking workers pretend they don’t know Spanish,” she whispers, sitting in the prison’s cold visitation room, her tone bordering on rage that she labors to suppress.

The other detainees who do know English charge to translate, Topacio says. Nothing here is free.

Once, Topacio found a fellow inmate crying. Speaking to her in Spanish, Topacio asked the woman what was bothering her. The woman did not respond. The woman, Topacio later learned, could not understand her.

For detainees who speak only Mam, or K’iche’, or Punjabi — languages very few other detainees, and none of the staff, speak, according to Topacio — life in Eloy is even harder.

“We communicate in signals,” she explains. “[The women] gesture to their clothes, or point to soap if they want more soap.”

Sometimes, the detainees become restless. They quarrel with the prison staff. They refuse to eat the cafeteria food. They start fights with the other inmates.

Topacio tells me that she tries to stay out of the drama. She tries hard not to react to pain, even when she feels the sharp throb of menstrual cramps inside her and must wait in a line, behind 30 other people, for two Ibuprofen pills.

Even when she hears of an inmate’s suicide attempt. (There have been five suicides in the past decade at the Eloy Detention Center, where deaths account for nearly 10 percent of all detention deaths nationwide).

Even when she must force herself to eat the cafeteria food, which she says she sometimes cannot bear, because she has no money to buy food at the commissary.

“It’s delicious,” she quips, glancing around briefly to make sure the guard is not watching before rolling her eyes for emphasis. Then, her smile fades.

“When you are hungry, you like it.”

Topacio has been at the Eloy Detention Center for 17 months. I, for one hour.

Eloy — to Americans with papers — feels like a sleepy Arizona town. It is a truck stop refuge, a cropland haven halfway between Phoenix and Tucson. I have passed by here, many times, on summer road trips along the I-10 to the Grand Canyon — stopped at the town’s Pilot Travel Center for bathroom breaks, Diet Coke refills.

Eloy is also home to four private prisons.

The Eloy Detention Center, contracted out to the Corrections Corporation of America by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is just one of them. Another, the Saguaro Correctional Center, houses a large portion of Hawaii’s male prison population. The four prisons are huddled close together in the same barbed-wire complex, adjacent to vast squares of farmland sliced by the occasional road.

The parking lot at the Eloy Detention Center designates visitor and attorney parking areas. No recording devices are allowed inside the facility.

Eloy’s biggest employer is the Corrections Corporation of America, which accounts for over 60 percent of city employment, offering work to nearly 1,600 people among its four prisons — roughly the size of the Eloy Detention Center itself, whose capacity is officially 1,500. (When I visit, 1,612 people are being detained, the felt letterboard outside the visitation room informs me.)

Almost 60 percent of Eloy’s population is Hispanic or Latino.

“[These private prisons] are in places like Eloy…where there are depressed economies and large numbers of people of color with limited education that are this incredible pool of folk to hire to fulfill those jobs,” Margo Cowan, a pro bono immigration attorney based in Tucson, says. “So [the prisons] become so intertwined as the support systems in those communities and they revive them, and the communities become dependent on their existence…it’s very hard to see how that can be dismantled.”

I drove up to Eloy from Tucson this morning, my car radio thrumming to the staccato rap of Calle Trece, the guitar strum accompanying Juanes’s sultry voice. I vowed to only listen to music in Spanish on the car ride up to prepare for my visit with Topacio, afraid to let the language I had practiced so doggedly for years slip, unnoticed, from my grasp.

Topacio must have noticed how hard I was trying, for she matched her speed with mine, allowing her lightning-quick sentences to slow to a steady drumbeat, trickling like drops from a faucet. She used Spanish words that were easy for me to understand, describing the floods that rocked her home in Guatemala as “a lot of water coming into the house.”

The floods were just one reason Topacio fled Chiquimula — a city in southeastern Guatemala — with her younger sister, Lupe*, to seek asylum in the United States.

There were also the gangs that threatened her mother and sister — attempting to extort 3,000 quetzales from her mother, who sold clothes, demanding her sister turn over the passwords of the bank where she worked, incessantly pounding on the door of their home when they refused.

Another man who lived in the neighborhood robbed the family. He is still on the loose, Topacio tells me, because the police were afraid to pursue him.

So, in November 2017, Topacio and Lupe, 21, left their mother and three siblings — 25, 19, and 12 years old — behind in Chiquimula, where she believes they still live: in a house with gaping holes from the floods that continually rip its foundation apart.

The two women trekked through Mexico, journeying for a month with a group of fellow asylum-seekers. Sometimes, they walked. Other times, they rode buses. Always, they found themselves hiding from the Mexican immigration authorities — la migra.

Once, la migra discovered some of the members and separated them from the rest of the group. When Topacio and her sister found out, they ran through the desert, traversing Mexican mountains with nothing but their backpacks. At one point, Topacio lost hers while running.

She remembers a cavernous hunger swelling in her stomach, feeling unable to breathe while transcending a mountain with no end in sight.

Topacio and Lupe had no money, so the other group members would buy them food from bodegas along the way.

After almost a month-long sojourn across Mexico, Topacio and Lupe reached Altar — a city about two hours south of the U.S. border, known as a hotbed for human and drug smuggling. There, they spent about 12 days.

Topacio did not say she was smuggled across the U.S. border. She does not remember where, within the 100,000 square miles of the Sonoran Desert, she crossed into Arizona.

All Topacio remembers is being picked up by Border Patrol in the desert, being shuttled to the Eloy Detention Center with her sister.

Lupe was released on bond after a few months. She is currently in New York City, living with a family friend.

Topacio, on the other hand, had to learn how to call the Eloy Detention Center home — for now.

I almost wear stripes to the Eloy Detention Center.

But minutes before leaving my house, I read online that, per dress code, visitors may not wear “any garments that in any way resemble a detainee uniform.” Stripes are risky.

So I cover my body from my ankles to my wrists in solid-color clothing, strip every piece of jewelry from my body, stuff my feet into black combat boots I have not worn for years. If a visitor does not follow the dress code, they could be denied entry into the detention center, made to wait up to a week to see a loved one the following weekend.

Outside the facility, I buzz a steel door stapled to a high-rise, barbed-wire fence, identifying myself to the speaker attached to the metal frame. The door unlocks. I pass through.

The process repeats again, and it feels like I am doing a familiar dance, although this is the first time I’ve ever been inside a minimum-security federal prison.

After passing through security, I sit, for nearly an hour, on a soft plastic blue chair in the waiting room. I instinctively feel around for my cell phone, before remembering that I left it in the car. With nothing else to siphon my attention away, I stare straight ahead, mindlessly watching the other visitors shuffle in and out of the restroom in the corner.

Occasionally, I turn my attention to the television, where Ant-Man’s main menu scene is stuck on repeat, trapped in a temporal loop.

Someone has nailed a slab of wood across the center of each visitation table. It sweeps the floor under the table and stretches upward, re-emerging above the table as a partial barrier between the detainees and visitors, designed to prevent them from passing items to one another. All gifts must be pre-packaged and mailed.

Hugs are allowed; there is no glass wall. The timer ticks down from one hour — which I am sure passes by more slowly for our group than it does for the family of three sitting on the other side of the room. A father and a baby are seated on one side of the table, visiting the baby’s detained mother on the other.

A guard approaches the family, motioning to the father that their visitation time is up. The father gently pulls the baby away from her mother. The baby screams, unwilling to let go. Everyone else turns their heads to watch, just for a moment, before returning to their own reasons for visiting the detention center: their loved ones, each seated on the other end of the tables.

For someone who has been in federal prison for the past year-and-a-half, Topacio is surprisingly buoyant. She wears a forest-green uniform: a short-sleeved shirt, despite the constant chill inside the prison; slip-on shoes, because shoelaces are a suicide risk.

Smiling, Topacio informs me she is expecting news this week about whether or not she will be able to be released on bond. The median cost of immigration bond in Arizona is $12,000.

Topacio’s asylum case has been denied — twice — in the immigration court that is housed within the Eloy Detention Center. Here, the average asylum denial rate is almost 94 percent.

Margo Cowan, a pro bono immigration attorney based in Tucson, represents thousands of clients through her nonprofit legal clinic, Keep Tucson Together.

“It is a deliberate policy decision, to take [these immigration courts] out of the public eye, out of the media eye, and put them in communities where there is a pool of workers that are not going to challenge the concept and be thankful for the opportunity,” Cowan, the immigration attorney, says of the decision to house immigration courts in private prisons.

So, Topacio has appealed her case to the Ninth Circuit — a process that could take years. That is why Topacio has been trying to secure bond: so she can join her sister in New York while awaiting her court date.

She has a private attorney who visits her at the prison regularly to inform her of her options, which are becoming increasingly limited: wait for bond, hope the Ninth Circuit will take up her case, or give up her asylum claim and return to Guatemala.

For the last seven months, Topacio has shared a cell with another Guatemalan woman, who cleans the prison to make extra money — a common practice among detainees. The two of them have become close, Topacio says, pooling change to buy food and pay for phone calls to family members.

Topacio has largely lost touch with her mother and siblings back in Chiquimula. She speaks to them infrequently, finding herself unable to afford even the domestic phone calls to her sister in New York.

Sometimes, Topacio wonders if her family is still alive.

A few weeks after I visit her, Topacio finds out she is being deported.

Her request for bond was denied by an immigration judge. The Ninth Circuit did not take up her case.

Soon, Topacio will return to Guatemala, to a house with holes, ceaseless pounding on the door, water spilling inwards.

Her dreams are suspended in limp uncertainty, like a clothesline drenched in monsoon rain.

*All names have been changed to protect the identities of the asylum-seekers mentioned in this story.

Stories from the Border

A multimedia storytelling initiative and journalistic platform to share diverse stories from the Arizona-Mexico border region founded by Meena Venkataramanan and Vivekae Kim in the summer of 2019.

Meena Venkataramanan

Written by

Writer, reader, desert dweller.

Stories from the Border

A multimedia storytelling initiative and journalistic platform to share diverse stories from the Arizona-Mexico border region founded by Meena Venkataramanan and Vivekae Kim in the summer of 2019.

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