Tonight I went back to the detention center with three other volunteers. Thanksgiving weekend. My first visit after the election. These visits are hard. This time I was smarter. I got a lovely massage right before I went. I was feeling strong and relaxed.
Our crew visited with 5 men. I didn’t actually visit directly with anyone just because of the way things worked out, but I was still glad I went. You’ll see why.
When I arrived, the parking lot was packed. There was only one spot for my car. I got out and was greeted by a guard patrolling the lot. I passed a young mom trying to extract an infant carrier from her car and walked into the building. The lobby was also packed. Standing room only. There were a lot of children. I counted at least 10 kiddos circulating between the lobby and the visiting area.
The volunteers and I coordinated our visits with the guard and settled in to wait. I got a locker for us and put our things inside. I surveyed the room. We four volunteers were the only white people to be found. An adorable little girl was skipping around in a hot pink dress with purple shoes. I counted 3 infant carriers. A line of little boys filled up a row of seats. A dad was herding a toddler.
Then I saw a woman sitting in a seat along the opposite wall. She looked sadder than anyone I had seen in a Long Time. She was wearing a gray head scarf. I tried to catch her eye and give her a friendly smile. A few minutes later I walked past her to the ladies room. I don’t consider myself an empath, but maybe I am. I swear this woman’s sadness was tangible. I could FEEL her sadness as I walked by her. I almost cried from the wave of it hitting me. Is that weird? I think it is. Anyway.
I came back and paced around a bit and then had to walk outside. I was in short sleeves and it was chilly but out I went, following some random little tug. I walked out across the lot and up the driveway alone. As I stood there, a young man came out of the next door building without a coat & carrying a small bag of clothes. I thought maybe he was an employee or something, getting off his shift. I didn’t really know what I was doing out there alone in the dark and cold and I started back.
The young man caught up to me. “Excuse me, ma’am?”
I was expecting to be questioned about ambling around randomly like a crazy person in the parking lot.
“Excuse me, do you have a cell phone? Would you mind if I used it to make a call? I just got out and it took too long to process everything and my ride already left and…”
I looked up at his face. He was a young black guy, with big glasses and a goofy hopeful smile. He looked like “any college kid USA” to me. I had a split second thought, “oh boy I am alone talking to a guy who just got out of jail. What did he do?” But I checked myself. Nonsense. This was a happy moment.
“Congratulations!” I said, flashing my best smile. “What’s your name?”
“Thanks. Andre. They just opened the door and I’m out, but I don’t have a phone or a ride or anything! I’m just glad to get out though. I can’t wait to see my kids. I can’t do anything for them in there.”
I handed him my phone. “Ok. Here you go, Andre.”
He made a quick call in front of me. “I’m out-out can you come get me??…yeah, this wonderful lady standing here let me borrow her phone to call you…she’s in short sleeves.”
I was touched that in this moment he was aware that I must be cold.
Apparently his family was waiting at the McDonalds across the street. His face lit up. “The one across the street?…ok!” He handed me my phone, shook my hand, earnestly thanked me and then took off running across the street.
“Godspeed, Andre!” I called after him.
I walked back into the center.
We still hadn’t been called for visits yet but in a few minutes they called 2 of the other volunteers. There was some confusion with the visits but it’s not worth explaining.
The sad woman was now sitting next to a young lady with braces- her daughter. I decided to say hi to them. I learned they were from Guatemala. It’s apparently much colder here than in Guatemala. They were there to visit their 21 year old son/brother and they had come a long way to visit today, the daughter explained. I said to the woman, “You just look so, so very sad.” She looked up at me and nodded. “It is my birthday today.” She said.
Pretty soon they were called to go visit him. I walked back with them and checked on my crew too then came back.
I found myself talking to a lost looking young black woman, about my age, wearing a college sweatshirt, in the lobby. “Do you have family in here?” She asked. She looked like she needed a friend.
“No.” I explained our volunteer role to her and answered some more questions.
“Oh wow. That’s great.” She said.
“What about you?” I asked.
“I’m here to see my brother.” She said. “He got picked up for something he did 19 years ago.” They were from Jamacia. He had come to the USA when he was 11. I guess 19 years ago he got in trouble for breaking into a vacant building. He had already served his time for that but when he got picked up for something else, it came up on his record, and he ended up in here.
“Has he ever even been back to Jamacia??” I asked.
Her face fell. “No. He doesn’t know anyone there! All of our family is here.”
She walked over to the seats trying to compose herself. I followed. “I have a brother too.” I said. I sat down next to her. “May I?” I asked. She nodded. I put my arms around this woman while she gently sobbed and sniffled, scared for her brother. “He must be scared, you must be scared.” I said.
“I just didn’t know it would be like this! I thought there would be a community room or something. Like, he’s really in prison, for something he already did time for 19 years ago. He’s never gotten in trouble since then and we can’t even be with him.”
I talked to her and her sister a while longer. None of it seemed to make much sense. He had a green card. I told her I’d been coming to visit people for more than a year now and if he had a lawyer, he’d likely be out pretty soon. I hope that is true. “His kids are freaking out. He’s very close to his kids.” She said. After a while they left and thanked us for our kindness. I promised to pray for their family.
As I was standing there, waiting for my crew to wrap up with the rest of the guys, the Guatemalan mother and daughter came back. “How is he?” I said. The daughter said he was doing pretty good. The mother just held her arms out to me for a hug. I held this woman tight for a long moment. I offered to pray for her too. She told me her name. Her son’s name. I promised not to forget.
After they left, I checked in with my volunteers who were all done now. One of them shared that her guy was brought to the US when he was 3. Now they are planning to deport him to El Salvador. “He said, ‘I’m going to get off the plane in a totally strange country and I don’t know anyone there and I don’t even speak Spanish’.”He has kids here too.
Wow. All these children. And what did they do wrong??
I didn’t visit one person who was actually in detention this time but the trip was still draining. Maybe even more so. I walked over to that McDonalds myself to decompress and as I wrote this up, I was no longer strong and relaxed. I was crying in my booth with a view of that place.
And, I can go home. And, I am a US citizen. With a good job and I am strong enough to occasionally be there for those mothers and daughters and fathers and sons and those brothers and sisters – and for Andre.
And. We will be back.