by Gregory Mullaley
For the past 10 months I’ve had the privilege of being associated with a group of people who’ve been visiting the ICE detainees in the Baker County Jail located an hour north of Gainesville. ICE, part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, has contracted with the Baker County Sheriff’s Office to hold people they’ve taken into custody, often for the simple crime of being in the United States without legal status.
Twice a month, on the 2nd and 4th Mondays, this group travels to Baker on their own time to visit with men and women who are locked away 24 hours a day. These detainees are never allowed to go outside, and the only sunshine they see is from a single large window located in the recreational room some 12 feet above the floor. These men and women are desperate to see anyone from outside the jail as they are not allowed an attorney, unless they or someone else pays for one. And since the jail is located in a remote area, it’s difficult for their families to travel several hours just for a short visit, so we are a welcome sight.
Once our group arrives at the jail, we are given a list of anywhere from 25 to 40 names, and we divide them up among ourselves. Several of us speak Spanish, which is the most commonly spoken, but certainly not the only language spoken by the various detainees. At times, Baker has had detainees who’ve spoken some dozen or so different languages. Many also speak English to varying degrees.
Once we get the list of names of those who wish to speak to one of us, we work quickly as the list is broken up into four 15-minute increments so that we can decide which ones each of us will be speaking with. The list contains the name of the detainee, a booth number, and a dial-in number. We do not get to speak with them face-to-face; we chat over a video-phone and as soon as we dial in, the clock starts ticking at the bottom of the screen. Once the clock gets to zero, the screen cuts off and the visit is over.
Our main purpose is to let the detainees know that they are not forgotten, that there are people who care about their welfare. In those short 15 minutes, we let the detainees tell us their stories however they wish to tell them. We try not to ask too many personal questions, but it’s sometimes difficult when you see another human being worried or afraid. We are neither professional counselors nor legal experts, but we are good listeners, and oftentimes that’s enough.
We offer to contact family members to let them know that they’ve been seen. We find out when their next court date is and if they’ve been able to get legal help. At times, we’ve also sent small amounts of money to the detainee’s account, which allows them to buy extra food or to make phone calls, which are very expensive. At other times we’ve even bought them clothing because when they’re released, which is rare, many times they don’t have adequate clothing or shoes for the journey.
The name of this wonderful group of visitors is the Baker Interfaith Friends, and it’s part of the Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Service. We have folks from all backgrounds, both religious and non-religious. What we provide is a friendly face and a good ear to those who are foreign born and incarcerated in our country. We believe that everyone needs a friend. To learn more or to participate, contact BakerInterfaithFriends@gmail.com or the Gainesville Interfaith Alliance for Immigrant Justice via Richard MacMaster, firstname.lastname@example.org.