In US Detention: "That Water Had a Strange Smell"

Updated: Jun 26


Abbas al Aboudi, "Waiting," pen and ink on paper


The United States maintains the largest immigration detention and deportation system in the world.  On any given day, over 50,000 people are held in a network of over 200 federal, local, and privately contracted detention facilities across the country, while over 400,000 people are deported each year. 

Although it is considered a "civil" form of confinement, immigration detention looks and functions like prison.  Human rights and due process are routinely denied in this system that operates largely in secret with little public accountability.  Learn more about the history of immigration detention at FreedomforImmigrants.org.



Watch "Exposed: The Injustice of Immigration Detention" by Freedom for Immigrants


Hurricanes, Prisons, and Environmental Racism


Environmental racism, as defined by environmental justice pioneer Robert Bullard, is "any policy, practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color." In many ways, prisons are sites of environmental racism:

  • Incarcerated people often lack access to clean water and safe environments.

  • Prisons themselves are often built on or near sites of environmental contamination, such as the Northwest Detention Center in Washington that sits on an EPA superfund site.

  • Incarcerated people, and people at higher risk of policing and incarceration such as undocumented migrants, often experience the impacts of climate-related events, such as hurricanes and floods, in disproportionate and discriminatory ways.


Read this report on the impacts of Hurricane Irma on detained immigrants by Americans for Immigrant Justice


When Category 4 Hurricane Irma approached southern Florida in September of 2017, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) told the public it would not escalate immigration enforcement efforts. ICE released a memo on September 10, 2017. The memo—including generic language nearly identical to that found in a memo produced prior to Hurricane Harvey— stated the following:

ICE and CBP also seek to provide for the safety and security of those in our custody and to protect them from bodily harm in the event of a hurricane or a major destructive storm. As such, ICE detainees from the Krome Detention Center, Monroe County Jail, Broward Transitional Center, and Glades Detention Center are being temporarily transferred to various other detention facilities outside the projected path of the hurricane. In the event of transfers, the detainee's attorney of record is notified, the Online Detainer Locator is updated, and the transfer is temporary in nature.

However, when migrants detained at the Broward Transitional Center, the Krome Detention Center, and nearby sites were told they would be evacuated, they were not informed where. Over the coming days and weeks, migrants in ICE custody, many of whom were asylum-seekers from several African nations, reported experiencing frequent transfers between detention facilities, being unable to contact lawyers and loved ones, physical and verbal abuse by guards, and unsafe environmental conditions.


Climate Refugee Stories collaborator and sociocultural anthropologist Maria Barbero worked with people experiencing detention and abuse during and after the events of Hurricane Irma to share their stories. They are presented here anonymously to protect them from retaliation by ICE, or persecution in their home countries, as many were deported after these events.



B. was detained for 19 months detained, and has since been deported to Senegal

“I have lived through very denigrating experiences, my feet and my hands tied, like the animals, each transfer worst than the previous.” “No, no. It’s better to stay quiet. If you are not quiet you can die.” [Taken aback, the interviewer asked, “Did you say you could die?”] “Yes. You know that in America they don’t respect immigrants, it’s better to stay quiet.” – B.

They don’t talk anything. When you are going to arrive, after you arrive they talk, you are in Texas. Here you are not going to know where you are going. You know in the United States immigrants don’t get respect anywhere, anywhere. First, when we got to BTC they said you are going to New Mexico. You are going to Texas by plane and then you go to New Mexico by bus. Like that. You are not going to know anything. You know, America doesn’t respect immigrants. My family didn’t know anything of what happened over there. I didn’t tell them, I couldn’t tell them everything, of what you are living there, suffering, so much suffering. You can’t tell them. It was a secret. - B.

They let you use the telephone. Use the telephone, they give you 5 minutes to talk. 5 minutes are over, you are not going to call anymore if you don’t have money. That’s how we lived in jail. For example, the first time I was in BTC they gave me 5 minutes. If I leave and come back, I don’t get anymore. They only give you one time 5 minutes, no more. - B.

That experience, now I don’t like, not one American, I don’t like, I don’t like it. If I see Americans I don’t like it. Because they don’t respect people. Like, to lock a person up for 19 months, that is a lot of ruin, the American is very sad, very bad. The only experience I gained here, in the United States is to be able to communicate. Because I learned to speak Spanish in jail, and English in jail, that’s good. Don’t worry, life doesn’t end, I will continue, no problem. - B.

I. was in ICE custody for 19 months


“I was transferred from Krome to New Mexico. . . . In that prison the water was not drinkable, nor the water we washed with; that water had a strange smell, when I washed with it my body turned white and I itched all over. What happened during the transfer was horrible. We had taken off in a plane that hadn’t yet reached normal altitude when there was a change in pressure that blocked everyone’s ears and a violent shaking, as if we were in a turbulent zone, but we had just taken off. This went on for half an hour until we landed again and were told we would take off again in an hour. That hour became 10 hours in the plane, shackled, and having had nothing to eat since morning. We spent all day at the airport until around 6:30 PM, when they told us we couldn’t travel that day because the plan had problems and we had to go back to detention in New Mexico where another flight would be scheduled. So we were taken back to detention in a minibus and finally transferred to BTC where I am now. All in all, the conditions we live under in detention are unacceptable. We live in hell because we have no rights. Everything that’s written down about detainees’ rights is only words, because none of it is respected. . . . we are treated like criminals.” - I.

After being transferred from a southern Florida detention center, E. spent 19 days in a county jail in Louisiana


Recounted by Maria Barbero: E. recalled that his cell reminded him of a “dilapidated haunted hospital.” He said he was unable to touch the walls of his cell, which were slimy and smelt like mold. The detainees were given cleaning supplies to clean their own cells, and even after dumping an entire bottle of disinfecting cleaner on the floor, he said that if he happened to drop the hand soap on the floor, he would not dare pick it up. The meals at this county jail were “cold and unfit for human consumption.” It’s not that the meals had just gotten cold during the transport to the cells. They were fridge-cold and disgusting, E. explained, "A cat would probably not eat it," and if you would see it, he told me, you would probably throw-up.


Read more in "ICE Can't Be Trusted to Care for Detainees During Hurricanes" by Maria Barbero in the Daily Beast


Artwork drawn by a man in immigration detention in Louisiana in 2017. Photo Credit: Tina Shull



Coming Soon: More Resources on Prisons and Environmental Racism


One man's account of his experiences in immigration detention

after Hurricane Irma

by Barbara Woshinsky, a visitor volunteer with Friends of Miami-Dade Detainees

Ibrahim,* an African asylum seeker, has been held in ICE detention for 16 months,

partly at the Krome SPC near Miami, Florida, but also in regular prisons.  I have

translated his story as close to his own words as possible.

I was transferred from Krome to New Mexico. . . . In that prison the water was not

drinkable, nor the water we washed with; that water had a strange smell, when I

washed with it my body turned white and I itched all over.

From there I was transferred to BTC [Broward Detention Center] where I am now, but what happened during the transfer was horrible, we risked our lives during that transfer. We had taken off in a plane that didn’t have enough fuel and had mechanical problems, for the plane hadn’t yet reached normal altitude when there was a change in pressure that blocked everyone’s ears and a violent shaking, as if we were in a turbulent zone, but we had just taken off.  This went on for half an hour until we landed again and were told we would take off again in an hour.

That hour became 10 hours in the plane, shackled, and having had nothing to eat since morning.  We spent all day at the airport until around 6:30 PM, when they told us we couldn’t travel that day because the plan had problems and we had to go back to detention in New Mexico where another flight would be scheduled.  So we were taken back to detention in a minibus and finally transferred to BTC where I am now. . . .

All in all, the conditions we live under in detention are unacceptable. We live in hell

because we have no rights.  Everything that’s written down about detainees’ rights is

only words, because none of it is respected. . . . we are treated like criminals.

*A pseudonym has been used to protect Ibrahim's identity




Learn more about supporting people in immigration detention through visitation and other actions at FreedomforImmigrants.org


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