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The Carceral Carousel: Q&A with Grantees Immigrant Legal Resource Center and Detention Watch Network

Over the past three decades, the federal immigration and criminal legal systems have become increasingly intertwined. Using the criminalization of Black and brown people as a tool, these two systems, working in tandem, have driven up rates of arrest, incarceration, and deportation, fueling the growth of the prison industry and leading to the separation of both citizen and noncitizen families. Increasingly, advocates have been rising up to resist the growth of jails, prisons, and detention centers, and confront dual punishment systems.

In May 2023, Foundation grantees Immigrant Legal Resource Center and Detention Watch Network released the “Carceral Carousel,” a report detailing how jails and prisons may close for the purpose of criminal imprisonment, only to reopen for the purpose of immigration imprisonment, and vice versa. The report calls for the justice reform and immigrant rights movements to unite and take carceral institutions entirely offline for all purposes.

To learn more about this report, see below for a Q&A with Grisel Ruiz, senior managing attorney at Immigrant Legal Resource Center, and Setareh Ghandehari, advocacy director at Detention Watch Network, who worked on their responses together.

What moved Immigrant Legal Resource Center and Detention Watch Network to co-create the “Carceral Carousel” report at this time? What is the goal of sharing this report?

We have seen the need for something like this for years. We have anecdotal instances of a cage shuttering for one purpose only to rebrand as another cage the next day. Because both of our organizations provide technical support to communities fighting detention and deportation, we saw the need to create a resource which would provide the field with detailed case studies and reflections on what has regrettably proved to be more than a trend – it is a predictable practice.

This moment feels timely. A wave of state laws have pushed back on immigration detention and there have been big wins in combating the criminal-justice system too. We wanted to bridge the movements and call on our community in the immigrant rights space to work with comrades in other movement spaces towards our common goals. This feels like the right moment to pause and ensure that our short-term wins (facility closure) are working toward our long-term goals (closure of cages for all purposes).

The goal of this report is to share case examples, identify throughline reflections, and most importantly, start a conversation about solutions. We know that cage flipping–especially amongst so many different types of cages–is complex. We don’t pretend to have all the answers. But we did want to offer some ideas and are excited to continue the conversation with others to ideate and test more solutions.

The report sets out to detail case examples of jails and prisons that closed for one purpose, only to be repurposed to imprison other groups of people. In the report you say, “When we survey broadscale decarceration wins, the landscape is littered with stolen, marginalized victories and half-told stories.” Could you say a little bit more about this? What counts as a “decarceration win”? What is the reality on the ground?

Broadly speaking, decarceration means reducing the overall scale of the prison industrial complex and reducing the number of people in custody. This includes policies that reduce incarceration capacity and the number of people targeted in the first place.

Over the last several years, we have celebrated several victories: the end of ICE detention contracts, the phasing out of private federal prisons, and big wins to reduce state and local criminal prison populations. We’ve seen the end of several ICE detention contracts, including in Georgia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, California, and Alabama, thanks to years of community organizing. We wanted to look at the aftermath of these wins to inform our next steps as a movement.

The reality, however, is that the entities driving incarceration will try to find ways to keep cages operational. Phasing out private Department of Justice prisons, for example, is a win in the short-term, but the long-term goal needs to be ensuring that the facility remains closed to any population. This is one of the stories that we’re trying to tell, that a cage will continue operating as a cage unless we dream bigger.

To be clear, we do not mean to devalue a closure or diminish the massive organizing it takes to make that happen.

“The organizing necessary to close a facility is tremendous and should be celebrated. These wins show us our power as a community, and they serve as the ongoing building blocks to close these facilities for all purposes. The report means to highlight that these tremendous community wins are one battle on the path to closing these facilities for good.”

What are some of the common themes that emerged when examining the case studies?

The first theme was the role financial incentives play in keeping cages open. Whether it’s the private prison industries or the local governments who receive funding for a detention contract, there are strong financial incentives keeping the carceral industry operating at all ends. This entrenches incarceration in local budgets and economies.

The second theme we saw was abusive conditions of confinement, which remained constant even when the carceral population changed. For example, in Louisiana investigative reporters exposed guards abusing people in state correctional centers, which were later rebranded as immigration detention centers, with continuing stories of abuse. This illustrates why conditions work alone is insufficient for lasting change.

Another theme is the many forms in which incarceration exists and how much of our society is structured around criminalization and punishment. Our report covered local jails, state prisons, federal prisons, and immigration detention, all of which are legally different forms of custody (even though many times it’s the same people who are targeted and caged) and with different jailors (though sometimes these too are the same).

There are more carceral populations beyond this (like youth and involuntary commitment), all broken down in a great graph by the Prison Policy Initiative. This highlights how quickly cages can pivot to another population, how we need to think two steps ahead, and how we need to work with allies in other spaces to fight for the dignity of all these people.

The report argues that the immigrant and justice movements “must strengthen strategic alliances to ensure that jail capacity is reduced and eliminated for good.” How do these movements intersect at the moment? How is their success intertwined?

Our success is intertwined because all of these cages are rooted in the same thing – mass incarceration. For immigration advocates, a further reflection is that the violence inherent in the detention and deportation system is directly rooted in white supremacy and the U.S. criminal system.

“The U.S. has the largest immigration detention system in the world because it’s the largest incarcerator in the world. Immigration detention is a fraction of the carceral pie.”

This doesn’t diminish our work, but it should impact the manner in which we move the work. It is mission critical to move in lockstep with our allies, to inform each other’s strategies, and to build together where possible.

We have some examples of movement intersection. Thanks to the Heising-Simons Foundation, California hosts the Budget to Save Lives super-collective. Founded by decarceration coalitions from both the criminal and immigration space, this collective seeks to create a container for statewide budget advocacy, while educating the public on the need to divest from the carcel industry and invest in sustainable, community-based solutions.

Another example happening right now is the struggle to Stop Cop City in Atlanta. The City of Atlanta has pledged to give $6 million and 381 acres of forest land to build the largest police training facility in the United States. Community members have mobilized to stop its construction which would have devastating impacts on the environment and further entrench policing practices.

Unsurprisingly, authorities have retaliated against organizers and activists in Atlanta, the outcomes of which will have implications far beyond the city. We know that one protestor who was arrested at a protest was transferred directly to ICE and is now in ICE detention. This type of handoff from criminal custody is a common way for people to end up in ICE detention. When our comrades win fights that put a dent in the pipeline to jails and prisons, it’s a win for immigrant rights too.

Could you describe an instance where you think groups successfully worked together to take prisons entirely offline for all people? What do you think was critical to that success?

In Carceral Carousel, we highlighted a report by Nicole Porter of the Sentencing Project, Repurposing Correctional Facilities to Strengthen Communities (Aug. 2022). That report uplifts several examples and key learnings related to taking prisons entirely offline because the facilities were repurposed for a different use entirely. For example, in New York the Arthur Kill Correctional Facility was repurposed as a movie and television studio and the Mid-Orange Correctional Facility is now used as a business park. New York also established a Prison Reuse Commission and related public funding. Other learnings from that report include advocacy to reduce the number of people incarcerated, planning intentionally for the repurposing or reuse of a facility for non-correctional uses with political and financial support, prioritizing community reinvestment, and improving available data and documentation of prison reuse.

Other valuable conversations include Just Transitions work, meaning work to transition economies reliant on jails and prisons towards sustainable, well-paying paying industries rooted in climate justice.

With all of these strategies, the common thread is looking ahead and having agency over what happens after a prison closes. In other words, ensuring that our communities play an active, driving role in shaping the reality that follows a prison closure.

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