Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

The Journalistic Trope of Comparing Jails to Hotels

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Sometimes journalists who cover jails, prisons, immigration detention centers, etc. spice up their ledes by making some imagined comparison to hotel amenities. In fairness, their sources who are also fond of the comparison (see, e.g., this post). Anyway, here’s an example from today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

New menus. Redesigned living areas. Bingo nights. Dance classes. Continental breakfasts. Self-serve beverage bars.

These aren’t features of some swanky new hotel. They are among a host of new amenities that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is considering at two immigration detention facilities in Georgia.

I would really like to see a moratorium on this trope. It’s somewhat offensive and virtually always inaccurate. This article refers to eight private immigration jails run by Corrections Corporation of America that are due to be redesigned. Whatever the new amenities after the renovations, I can pretty much guarantee they will not resemble “swanky new hotels.” Hotels typically aren’t surrounded by concertina wire. And I’ve known some swanky people in my time and they do not typically build their travel itineraries around where they can get bingo and self-serve lemonade.

At most, the redesigned CCA facilities will resemble prisons somewhat less than they do now. This makes some people angry. But note:

(1) Immigrating into the United States without the proper documentation is not a crime, and immigration detainees are being civilly detained in advance of their civil deportation proceedings. Granted, the difference between deportation and criminal punishment may not be very meaningful to the folks being deported, but at least in a technical legal sense, the distinction exists and that’s why immigration detention centers aren’t supposed to be the same as prisons which are designed to punish people convicted of crimes.

(2) There are other immigration-related offenses that are crimes, such as illegal reentry after a previous deportation. People arrested for those crimes go to regular jail for pretrial detention and, once sentenced, serve their time in regular federal prison.

(3) Lots of the people in immigration detention centers are women with young children. To get a better sense of how these families have historically been treated by ICE, read this 2008 New Yorker article about the now-shuttered T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Texas. There’s also a documentary on family detention, “The Least of These” (I haven’t yet seen it so can’t vouch for it). Given the track record of ICE, I do not believe that treating immigration detainees like they are in a “swanky hotel” is the risk we should realistically be worried about when it comes to designing immigration detention facilities.


Written by sara

July 5, 2010 at 4:55 pm

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