By Melissa Bordow
One of the first things Judith Perera noticed about the Florence Correctional Center were the transparent garbage bags clustered in the lobby.
The Arizona State University doctoral student realized they contained the belongings of immigrants processed into the 450-bed facility operated by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Florence, Arizona.
“To see that on the ground is visually powerful,” Perera remembers. “It’s indicative of how we treat our immigrant population.”
She and ten other ASU graduate students toured the center as part of a semester-long, nationwide project examining incarceration in the United States. They were there to experience sights and smells, observe living conditions, and document the immigrant experience.
The result of their efforts can be found in “Arizona: The Cost of Immigrant Detention—How Do Profits Shape Punishment?” which examines the practice of using private companies to detain undocumented immigrants. (In Arizona, ICE also contracts with a private company, Corrections Corporation of America, to run the Eloy Detention Center, the third largest in the country.)
Their project is part of a larger initiative, “States of Incarceration: A National Dialogue of Local Histories,” which brought together students from twenty states, each exploring the history of incarceration in his or her own community.
“The idea is to have a global dialogue on incarceration, recognizing this is a very large, growing issue in this country that has to be understood through its many different facets,” says Professor Leah Sarat, who directed ASU’s project through the Applied Humanities Lab in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies.
Students read widely on detention in Arizona and studied theories of incarceration, but they developed a nuanced understanding of the detainee experience by visiting the detention center, interviewing a former detainee, and spending time with activists and community members who work firsthand with immigrants, Sarat says.
Their travel was enabled in part by the Stowe Endowment for Public History, established by the late ASU Professor Noel Stowe, former assistant dean of the graduate college, chair of the history department, and founder of ASU’s Public History Program.
His endowment also allowed students to travel to the New School in New York City, which sponsored the project, to share results with students from around the country.
These experiences enriched her understanding of a complicated issue, says Perera.
“To see the whole project come together, seeing it there in one room with everyone talking about the issues in their own states, was very impactful, very powerful,” Perera says.
The general public will have the chance to see “States of Incarceration” when it comes to Arizona in the spring of 2018 as part of a national touring exhibit.