In this narrative Essay, the author shares memories and descriptions of her time at Adelanto Detention Center
I think I am dying. My whole body is shaking uncontrollably, all my muscles contracting rapidly. I am unable to do anything besides writhe in pain.
My brain still sees and remembers certain moments about it today: the loud voice of Nurse Thompson telling me to keep breathing and to try to slow down my breath. I am trying, but I only have enough energy to make sure I continue to breathe so that I don’t die.
They are putting a neck collar on me because my neck refuses to support my head. They have to hold my head for me as they put on the collar.
Somebody is trying to take my blood pressure, again and again, but it is not happening: The muscles throughout my whole body continue to contract uncontrollably, and the blood pressure machine is useless. In a haze, I hear them call the paramedics. I understand that it is very serious if they are taking me to the hospital. I had seen people drop unconscious, and even then they weren’t taken to the outside hospital. Things are not looking good for me.
Paramedics arrive. My side vision registers shapes in different colored clothes, somebody moving me, and now I am on a stretcher. I am thirty-three years old and I have never been on a stretcher before; now I am in immigration detention and about to be sent to the hospital for the first time in my life.
Will I die there? No, I am still breathing, I tell myself. Just keep on breathing. It’s hard, yes, but concentrate just on that. I am wearing shorts and slippers—they are taking me to the hospital in shorts? These are just men’s briefs that they sell as shorts in the commissary. I am going to the hospital dressed in men’s underwear. But why do I care about what I wear when I die?
Something cold is touching me. I can’t see well, but I know the terrible feeling of handcuffs on wrists: the cold metal touching your skin, the cruelty of the officers expressed through the cuffs, put on too tight so that every move hurts you.
And now I feel the cold metal on my ankles as well. I can barely breathe, and they are chaining me to a stretcher.
Somebody keeps repeating a question that I hear at the back of my consciousness, asking about the size. I am not sure what to answer, or that I can even talk. I need to continue to breathe.
Why can’t I see well? I only see shapes.
I think I yell but nobody seems to hear me.
I repeat with great effort, the word getting caught in my throat as the muscles in my mouth continue to dance, my teeth clanking together violently. Finally, somebody hears me and finds my glasses.
We are moving in the hallway. I am afraid and trying as hard as I can to calm my breath. My body feels as if it is being hit by electricity and it convulses nonstop. My body hurts from the convulsions. Please, God, do not let me die.
They are taking me out feet-first, and I need to tell them to turn me around. In Russia, only dead people are taken out feet-first. Body, please stop thrashing and calm down. Inhale and exhale . . . that’s right.
White shirt—that means something significant and important for my survival right now. But what is it? My brain doesn’t work as usual. I cannot connect dots in my head. Finally, it comes to me, white shirt means that’s the lieutenant. I need to let my family know about what happened, or, at least, my lawyer.
“Lieutenant,” I try to say. He looks at me and asks what I want.
“Call family or lawyer,” I eventually manage to say.
“You can call them when you come back.”
“What if I die? Another guy just died in a hospital from here. What if I don’t come back?”
“You will call them when you are back.”
“Please, call my lawyer,” I beg him one more time.
Some people move around and I know from the bumps in the road that we are on our way. The ride is very short. We arrive at the hospital and it is hours before anything happens. After many hours, I take a urine test, have a CAT scan, and am asked about what happened by what seems like a dozen different staff.
A girl jumped from the top bunk and landed on my head as I was getting up. I felt a huge impact on the back of my skull, all the muscles in my body started to contract uncontrollably and that was it.
Two doctors later, I am diagnosed with a concussion and I am back at Adelanto Detention Center for the 11 p.m. count.
The concussion turns me from a very active person to somebody who can barely move at all. Any rapid movements cause my head to ache and me to see stars. Officers shout at me to move faster; fellow detainees joke about putting me in a wheelchair. I cry at night, realizing that I am getting just the tiniest dose of what disabled people have to go through here. I am temporarily not the ablest, and it is hard.
Despite all of my symptoms and writing to the medical department (Medical) every single day, nobody will see me. I am prescribed pain medication and nothing more. The girl that fell on me is still on the top bunk, and still jumping off her bed, and nobody even follows up with her.
I am very weak and cannot shower for a while because of the hard-to-press metal shower knobs. You have to press them every 30 seconds for the water to keep coming out. I am weak and cannot do it.
I write grievances asking for help, I throw up and see stars, and I am super sensitive to the light and the noise. I feel so weak that I can barely walk to the toilet and back, and the other girls are feeding me. I hate feeling so useless. I am transferred to a different dorm with a smaller population: ninety people in one big room instead of one hundred eighteen. I still have all the symptoms and now I also start feeling pins and needles in my toes and fingers. I get cold all the time, my eyesight is getting worse, and I have pain in my head and behind my eyes. Surely it is not normal to feel all of this?
I finally see a nurse after days of back and forth with Medical and psychiatrist Dr. Novalis. Just to walk to Medical from my dorm is almost impossible, and I am exhausted by the trip. The doctor is there but the nurse doesn’t want me to see the doctor and tells me to go back. I just start crying and eventually the nurses clear the Medical room of other detainees and call for a lieutenant. After a while, the lieutenant comes in asking what is going on and, very quickly, the nurse informs him that Dr. Deulen, my psychologist and one of the very few people who helped me to stay sane there, has already given the instruction to send me to West Medical Infirmary.
Handcuffs, shackles, and chains, again. I am placed into the van and driven from the East building to a West building where all the males are detained and the medical infirmary wing is. The room we walk into is so dirty that I almost throw up. The bed has reddish stains that are either poop or blood, the wall is peed on, and everything is dirty and smelly. Although I can hardly stand on my feet, I ask for cleaning supplies, because I cannot even sit down in this room crawling with germs and bodily fluids. There is a camera in the cell for them to watch me, and every fifteen minutes an officer slams a metal pipe into the door. I am cleaning and at least twice I become so tired that I am falling down on the floor, and need to rest before I am able to get up and continue cleaning. Nobody checks on me.
I spend ten days in West Medical. I lose six pounds during this time, mostly because they forget to feed me, or forget to warm my food or don’t bother to give me hot water to cook my breakfasts with so I just go without. When I have the strength, I ask the lieutenants to help me with my food. On other days, when I realize the food is cold and inedible, I just go right back to bed. Lieutenants don’t care, officers don’t care, medical personnel don’t care.
When I am taken to see a doctor or mental health provider and I am walking slowly out of discomfort and pain, the officers tell me to hurry up. They talk about me as if I’m not even there or as if I cannot understand English. I feel like some kind of animal.
Adelanto takes from you not only your health, but your dignity. It is impossible to maintain your dignity when you poop in front of a hundred other women; when an officer passing by can open the curtain so that everyone can see you do your most intimate thing. It’s no wonder I have to help women write medical requests all the time complaining of constipation. What human being would feel relaxed pooping in front of an audience of a hundred other people?
But Medical doesn’t like those requests. They respond with “Drink more water and move more.” Drinking more water would have been fine if that water didn’t taste like a pack of rats died a tragic death in those pipes. Now the water smells and tastes tragic too, with a greenish tint from time to time. But you get used to that water, because it is either that or die from dehydration. You get used to pooping in front of a hundred people, of sleeping through other people using the restroom through the night, the metal doors slamming, and the officers laughing loudly and talking all night long. You get used to breakfast before dawn and hearing people fart and cry in their beds. You get used to Medical always giving you ibuprofen no matter what you are complaining about, to metal wires on top of the fences around the perimeter. You get used to the soccer field with fake green grass that in the summer gets so hot that it burns your feet, even through your shoes. You get used to the A/C that is constantly broken, and to spending summer days in the high desert in a room where the windows don’t open and the doors have to stay closed for “security reasons.” We slept on the floor and put wet sheets on top of ourselves to keep us from having heatstroke, and we kept bottles filled with hot water in our beds when the A/C would not stop blowing freezing cold air for days.
But what is hard to get used to is the way we were treated, the disrespect of the officers when they spoke to us. It is called a “detention center” but everything is the same as in prison, including the attitude of the officers. And I had been in both by now, transferred to Adelanto from the federal detention center in downtown Los Angeles. Some officers were nice, but there were just a few of those. Most were mean and vindictive and power-drunk and loved showing that. Some would scream at us and threaten us. Officer McLucas would read our personal mail under the pretense of searching our belongings for contraband. The employees that were responsible for delivering the mail to us, would drop that mail off into our property (which is stored somewhere else in the facility and we don’t have regular access to it) without even informing us about it, including legal mail. Medical would ignore our pleas for help. My stack of grievances grew, but the most common thing I would hear in response was that my complaints were unsubstantiated. And that’s even when the things I complained about were on camera. They didn’t care. And even the things you were entitled to, such as a certain amount of food, were for some reason subject to reductions as the money ran out. That’s why everybody loved working in the kitchen—extra food.
But they would let people who were sick work in the kitchen too. A woman with open sores on her arms put food on the trays, another coughed on the same food. Wonderful. Later, we got chickenpox. It must have come from the kitchen—the girl who got it first didn’t have any visits with people from outside and never left the dorm. And we got mumps too. This facility had no protocol for handling contagious diseases, even those that the outside world had been free of for years. Imagine the inadequacy of their response when the first case of COVID-19 was detected. Now, people are stuck inside, between death and despair. Praying to stay alive. I know the feeling. Now that I am released, people call me all the time from inside, complaining about the conditions during COVID-19. For the longest time, the staff didn’t really care to wear masks in the dorms, and of course one of them inevitably brought in COVID-19. UCLA School of Law, among other organizations, filed a complaint against Adelanto and a federal judge had to threaten fines and incarceration for the staff members if they would not start wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). That just shows you the indifference that the workers felt toward detained helpless immigrants, that they had to be threatened by the judge to start taking some elementary precautions. One of my friends was purposefully placed into a cell with someone who was exposed to COVID-19, and of course he got COVID-19, during which time he couldn’t even get the staff to get him the blanket to keep him warm. I hear despair in people’s voices when they call and I pray that with the new administration we would restructure the immigration system so that people who come from other countries do not have to be thrown into prison-like detention centers while they wait for their immigration proceedings. Because, after spending two years behind the walls of Adelanto, I can assure you it definitely felt like an unusual and cruel punishment to be there.
Since I was released a year ago, I have spent a lot of time and effort trying to spread the word about Adelanto. I talked against expansion of Adelanto in front of the Adelanto City Planning Commission in the presence of the warden and the rest of the staff. I talked to Dianne Feinstein and then-senator Kamala Harris’s immigration staff about conditions of detention. I volunteered with CLUE and Freedom For Immigrants, helping the detainees and their loved ones navigate the immigration system. I am going to school to get my Bachelor’s so I can go on to go to law school and become an immigration attorney, as I want to work at a nonprofit helping those that do not have the means to afford an attorney.
During my journey through the immigration system I was able to help dozens of people from all over the world to apply for asylum, prepare their appeals, and even stop at least two deportations. I met amazing nonprofit lawyers that are spending countless hours selflessly helping immigrants and they inspired me to become one myself. I feel that with my experience I would be a really good fit in helping those who are going through their immigration proceedings and I am planning to continue to work hard to bring about the change that is so needed in our immigration system today.