Hunger strikes, ‘el pozo’, and other harrowing realities at a South Texas detention center

Note: A pseudonym has been used to protect the identity of Joel.

“Medio loco sale la gente de aquí,” Joel told Neta over the recorded line at the Port Isabel Processing Center. People leave kind of crazy from here.

He was calling me from the phone on the far end of the line, the furthest away he could from the guard who hovered around at the other side.

It was almost 4 PM when he called that day. He said it had been a day and a half since he had last had food— if that’s what you can call the cold, sometimes frozen, sometimes greenish, bologna sandwiches they are served every day. He had intentionally stopped eating the day before, hoping that one-man protest might finally push guards at the Port Isabel Processing Center to coordinate a call with his partner.

He just wanted to talk to her. That’s what he was asking officials for. It seems like such a simple request, but in the face of bureaucracy and callous indifference of the Port Isabel Detention Center, it might as well be a fantasy. Whenever Joel brought it up with the guard, he said they told him it was not up to them. It’s up to the Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) officer, they said. He should submit an official request, they suggested.

But he’d done that. In fact, in his time in detention, he’d submitted more than 20 different official requests, 10 related to his partner.

The first week of October, he brought it up with the lieutenant one more time. He got the same answer. Wait. Submit a request. The response grated his nerves.

“Oficialmente un ICE no viene aqui,” he said. Officially, ICE doesn’t come here. “Es lo que yo le estuve explicando a la teniente ahora…no vienen. Engañan a las personas. Que vienen mañana, que vienen pasado, y nunca vienen.” It’s what I was telling the lieutenant. They don’t come. They trick people. They say they’re coming tomorrow, that they’re coming the day after tomorrow, and they never come.

I could sense the urgency in Joel’s voice. “Loco estoy por salir de aquí ya. Llevo 70 días aquí, ya no aguanto mas.” I’m crazy to get out of here. I’ve been here for seventy days. I can’t handle it anymore.

It wasn’t just his partner that he was worried about. When Joel and his partner were processed, his partner was the one carrying the list of their contacts in the United States. His bond had been set and he had a court coming up. Without access to his partner, Joel felt isolated.

So after multiple attempts and still no response, he chose to follow in the example of other detainees and do was within his limited control to call attention to himself and his needs: He stopped eating.

“Toda las personas aquí eso es lo que hace,” he said. “It’s what all the people here do. “Todas las personas aquí cuando quieren resolver un problema…[lo hacen] dejando de comer y atentado contra su vida.” All the people here, whenever they want to solve a problem…[they do it by] not eating and acting against their lives.

Joel isn’t the first nor only detainee to talk to Neta about this tactic. Prior to talking to him, Neta had spoken with two other men who had also undertaken a short hunger strike due to a lack of answers from the guards. In their particular case, they had already signed their deportation orders several days before, but still had no knowledge of when they would be sent back to their country. They were on strike so that they would get deported. After months of detention and no communication with their family, they were desperate to leave already.

Prior to that, Neta had also learned of another case of a man who had allegedly undertaken a much longer, life-threatening, strike. Although Neta was unable to speak directly with him, two detainees and friends of his told Neta he’d been on strike somewhere between 10 and 12 days.

Throughout, detainees shared the same stories of testing days spent in a dirty, frigid hieleras where they packed up against other bodies like sardines, of food that depressed more than just the palate, and of the overwhelming confusion and anxiety they felt trying to navigate an immigration system they did not know or comprehend.

Just Another Day at the Port Isabel Processing Center

Detainees said that an overwhelming bureaucracy and incompetence also permeates the corridors of Port Isabel.

Regardless of whether the requests are simple or urgent, it’s something detainees cannot escape— at least not without extraordinary actions.

According to one of the detainees that Neta spoke to, for example, in August, the central unit for their hall broke down. For a prison in South Texas, not having air condition was impossible to ignore.

When the sixth day arrived, the detainees realized that they would have to organize if they wanted to stop breathing the hot air of the more than 75 detainees they were incarcerated with, living bed-to-bed with, each day. That day, when the guards tried to conduct one of their routine counts, one by one they refused to stand at their bed to be counted.

Shortly after, fans were finally brought in.

The way that detainees describe it, it sounds like business as usual for the Port Isabel Processing Center.

It seems far from what should be normal, but for many, it’s a part of the Port Isabel experience. Something that’s typical. Expected, even.

Sort of like the dozens of threats of being sent to solitary or “el pozo” (the hole) as detainees call it, which Joel said detainees get every single day for all any sorts of minor and major infractions. According to Joel, sometimes all it takes to get in trouble are pants that are so long they “arrastran por el piso” (drag on the floor). Sometimes detainees tuck them into their socks. If a guard sees this, it can prompt a loud threat. Other times, shirts are not long enough and can’t be tucked underneath their khaki brown uniform, also prompting reprimands and threats.

Or like the onerous checks that the guards run multiple times throughout the day. “Seis AM, cuenta, 10:30 AM, cuenta, 11 AM, cuenta, 6:30 PM, cuenta, 10 PM, cuenta, 11 PM: cuenta, aqui te matan. Aqui es cada rato CUENTA, CUENTA, CUENTA,” Joel said. Six AM, count, 10:30 AM, count, 11 AM, count, 6:30 PM, count, 10 PM, count, 11 PM, count. They kill you here. It’s all the time. COUNT, COUNT, COUNT. Between lights on at 5 AM and the various counts of the days, he said it’s impossible to rest.

The guards routinely also run bunk checks. If a bunk check happens in the morning and Joel was saving any part of the breakfast he didn’t have the appetite to eat at 4:30 AM, he knew he can pretty much say goodbye to that. “Ellos lo botan todo. Ellos revisan todo. Nos sacan para afuera, cierran la puerta, ponen el…basura, y pasan cabeza por cabeza entre todas las camas y van botando todo lo que tenga comida,” he said. They throw everything away. They check everything. They take us out, close the door, pull up…a trash can, and go head by head throughout all the beds throwing anything that has food.

Incompetence & Neglect

On the call, another detainee told Neta that the guards confiscated his passport. After three days of allegedly looking into the matter, they apparently still had no idea where it is. According to this individual, it’s the only thing missing for his bond to be set and for him to be released. Joel said this kind of incompetence happens all the time.

Sometimes Joel wonders whether it’s a psychological game the guards are playing. “Aquí juegan con tu psicología, juegan con tu cerebro, te hacen pasar por lo loco. Lo mínimo que haces que te voy a mandar al pozo. Al inmigrante aquí lo tienen como si fuera una cosa mala.” Here, they play with your psychology. They play with your brain, they paint you as crazy. Whatever small thing you do they say they’ll send you to the hole. They see immigrants like a bad thing here.

Following assurances from detention officials that they would look into coordinating a call with his partner, Joel temporarily halted his hunger strike. When the days passed and still guards could give him no clear answer of when he’d finally be able to speak to his partner, Joel made his frustration known.

Port Isabel’s response? According to Joel, a throng of guards escorted him out his hall, stripped him naked, placed only a straight jacket on him, and put him into a frigid room for three days of solitary confinement.

For almost an entire week, Neta knew nothing of Joel. During that time, an A# search on ICE’s automated detainee locator system returned no results. It turned out he had been sent to “el pozo.”

When he finally called, he explained he’d just gotten out of solitary that morning. He had spent a day at the infirmary, too. Following his multiple hunger strikes, he was dehydrated and needed intravenous therapy.

Later that day, ICE finally arranged a call between him and his partner. It only took five days of not eating and a trip to “el pozo.”

Today, Joel is free. Unfortunately, hundreds of others with stories no less painful or incredible than his remain incarcerated.

The stories of those detained predate and transcend the Trump administration and zero tolerance. While mainstream media has moved on from the practices and policies unfolding at the border and advocate rights groups remain focused on families separated at the border, individuals like Joel struggle through the realities of detention. Some will have family that can support them. Others will be able to connect with groups that can help. But still many others, will inevitably, fall through the cracks.

Graphics by Alma Montano and Kurt Ramirez for Neta.