Katherine Weathers is a detention center volunteer in Alabama. She is part of a group that visits men awaiting deportation in a socially isolated facility.
Listen to This Episode
- Facebook: TheEtowahCountyDetentionProject
- Community Initiative for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC): endisolation.org
- Detention Watch Network: detentionwatchnetwork.org
Check out these articles for more on the issues of immigrant detention and the penal system in Alabama.
- “Inside Alabama’s immigration jail, recently labeled one of the nation’s 10 ‘worst'”. Details on the Etowah County Detention Center.
- “Gifts for Etowah County Detention Center detainees take Christmas spirit inside”. Coverage of the groundwork for the Etowah Visitation Project with one of the co-founders, Lynn Anderson.
- “Alabama’s prison problems: AL.com investigates”. Details on the penal system in Alabama.
- “The Long and Winding Detainment of Diana Ramos”. A story about one woman’s experience in immigrant detention.
- Google Image Search for “border wall near Sasabe, AZ”. Images of the area Katherine visited near the Mexican border. Katherine said about the area, “Migrants who try to cross are exposed to extremely harsh conditions, exposure to elements, heat and cold, lack of water, snakes, spiders, drug traffickers, their own coyotes (who smuggle them in and sometimes abandon them).”
This transcript may differ in minor instances from the audio content. Please notify Josh Morgan of any errors you may find.
Monologue by Josh Morgan
This is The Plural of You, a podcast about people helping people. I’m Josh Morgan.
Katherine Weathers is a detention center volunteer from Huntsville, Alabama. She and a friend decided to start a visitation program at the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama a few years ago. It’s a facility where men are held as they await deportation to other countries or detention centers, most of them thousands of miles from their homes and families. Eventually, Katherine and her friend founded the Etowah Visitation Project with the help of advocates across the country, and the project is now a part of a movement to get people who are in prison and detention involved in the communities where they are being held. I spoke with her about the project via Skype, and I’ll play that conversation in a moment.
I found out about Katherine and the Etowah Visitation Project through the concept of prison volunteering. I saw that term somewhere and had no idea such a thing existed, so I searched for it online. That’s when I learned that there are hundreds of people all over the country who volunteer through different visitation networks at prisons and detention centers. From what I gather, most volunteers go to facilities and keep the people who are held there company. This is necessary because many people in prison or detention have zero contact with the outside world, especially those who aren’t local to the area, and the human need for social bonding is rarely satisfied behind bars.
I came across the Facebook page for the Etowah Visitation Project while reading about all of this. The detention center this group visits is in Gadsden, which a secluded city of about 37,000 in northern Alabama, not far from where I grew up. The more I read, the more I realized that I had discovered a confluence of many issues in our society, and the more I came to admire what the group was doing. I also realized that prisons and detention centers serve two similar but different purposes, and that I knew very little about detention centers. Katherine will provide some context about this difference later on.
There are a lot of topics to consider with people in prison and detention in the United States. For example, there’s the prison-industrial complex, which refers to the political and business interests behind prisons and detention centers. There’s also immigration, social justice, poverty, education, international relations, mental health, and so on. With that in mind, each person behind bars represents more than just a series of poor choices. They also represent our fears and prejudices as a society. Without going too far into the debates on prisons or immigration, I’ll just point out that prisons and detention centers are where we send the people we are most afraid of, or that we are most frustrated with. This is especially true in Alabama, which has the fourth-highest incarceration rate among the fifty U.S. states.
No matter what the men being held at the Etowah County Detention Center did to wind up there, members of the Etowah Visitation Project would assert that they are still human beings. Some of the men willfully broke the rules or harmed others—it’s true. Many are there because they found themselves in situations they couldn’t make right with the law, no matter what they did. Many are as American as George Washington but aren’t recognized in writing as such. Many only have friends and family in the United States, and as Katherine will explain, deportation almost always makes their lives and their families’ lives worse in the long run. I’ve put up a few links in the show notes for this episode, if you’re interested in reading more about these topics. That address for this episode is pluralofyou.org/009. [Note: You are here.]
Having said all of that, I’m glad that the Etowah Visitation Project and groups like theirs are doing what they can to raise awareness about these people and are showing them that they are not forgotten. Katherine and I spent a couple of months talking about the project and the issues surrounding it, and I’m humbled that she was so generous with her time both before and after we recorded this interview. Here’s Katherine Weathers, coordinator and volunteer at the Etowah Visitation Project.
Interview with Katherine Weathers
JM: How’s your week been?
KW: It’s been busy!
JM: I know you said you were going to Birmingham.
KW: I did, I did. I went to a meeting down there. They’re planning a rally outside the walls of the detention facility for Father’s Day weekend. It was a planning session. A lot of different social justice groups are going to be participating in this. It’s mostly for the men in detention as well as the general population—kind of an outreach to show them that people on the outside know they are there and that people care.
JM: That’s great.
KW: It’s kind of a follow-on. In March of 2014, the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice came to Etowah and did a rally outside. The men on the inside were so excited about it. They were holding up signs on the inside, saying who they were and their phone number. We weren’t a part of that at all, but when we would visit, the men were so excited about it. They told us about it. It really meant a lot, just having this connection with the community.
JM: So this isn’t the first event like this that’s happened, or will happen?
KW: Probably not, but this is a different kind of event. This is all about music and entertaining the detainees.
JM: I gotcha.
KW: But it’s also about bringing community awareness, so it’s a little different.
The other thing we’re trying to do is gather family photos from these men so that people will understand that it’s not just the person in detention that’s suffering. Whole families and whole communities are affected by detention and deportation.
JM: That’ll be nice.If they can’t go outside, how will they be involved?
KW: There’s a bank of windows at the top. They can look out the windows.
JM: Oh, okay. That’s a little different that I was imagining. I imagined the windows being higher.
KW: No. For their cells, there are windows on two sides. I understand they have two sides, so they will be able to view it.
JM: It sounds like it’s going well so far, so that’s good to hear.
KW: One of our big thrusts is to inform the public about the facility. Many people that we talk to have no idea, even people in Gadsden are not aware that the county jail is a detention facility for immigrants. The county actually has a contract with ICE, Immigration and Customs and Enforcement Agency, which is part of Homeland Security, to house between 300 and 350 immigrant detainees at any one time. That’s the group that we visit. The larger facility is the home for county inmates from Etowah County.
JM: I’m not clear on what the distinction is between a prison and a detention center. Can you help me separate the two?
KW: I don’t think there’s a huge difference. For all practical purposes, the men being held in ICE detention are in prison with everything that implies. They have no freedom of movement. In fact, they probably have fewer resources available to them than the general population does. They are isolated from their friends and families.
Most of them come from other states. We have many there from the northeastern states, such as Connecticut, New York, New Jersey; many from California and the western states. In fact, I have only visited one person who had a family member in Alabama. That’s not to say there aren’t more.
For the most part, they are totally isolated from family and friends, attorneys, all of their support system. That’s part of our purpose, to end that isolation, to be a face of the community to these men so they’ll know they’re not totally alone, and that there’s somebody out there who knows they are there.
JM: Are their stays more temporary than longer prison sentences? Are they more transient?
KW: I’m trying to see the larger picture about Etowah because I’m new at this.
JM: Oh, okay.
KW: The sense that I have is that the men they send to Etowah are longer term detainees, but there is movement between facilities. Often, the men we’re visiting get moved to Louisiana. That’s the typical thing. We’ve visited men who are sent from California, Florida, and from all other states of the Union.
A lot of the men at Etowah have been in detention for three to five years. Many of them have served prison terms. What happens when they complete their prison terms—sometimes it’s a short amount of time, and sometimes it’s longer. When they finish their criminal sentence, they are immediately picked up by ICE agents and put in detention for deportation.
Many of these men have cases pending in the courts. Many do not have attorneys, and they file their own paperwork. They don’t feel like they’re getting the kind of support they need through the court system.
JM: I could see that.
How did you get involved in volunteering there?
KW: [laughs] I’ve been interested in immigrant rights for a long time. I actually went on a trip to the border in Arizona with a group out of Tucson called BorderLinks.
JM: The Mexican border, you mean?
KW: Yes, we went to the Mexican border. We went across the border, and we went to a place called Altar, Mexico, which is the staging area for coyotes bringing migrants across the border.
We went to several other places in Mexico and talked to people there who were ministering to these people, these young kids in some cases, men and women who were coming across the border seeking a better life. We went to the border wall, and we learned about how difficult it is for people who are making this crossing. Many people die in the desert. That was one of the main things that we learned on this trip.
In Alabama, there was a legislative action to implement anti-immigrant laws.
JM: Was that HB 56?
KW: HB 56. I went to Montgomery and talked to my congressman about it. I’ve been interested in these issues for a long time.
A good friend of mine called me up. She had read an article about Etowah and asked me if I would join forces with her to try to set up the visitation program. I said “Yes!” We spent the next year, all of 2013, trying to get the visitation program established. We went to the Etowah County Sheriff’s office, the group that’s involved with the immigrant detention part. We filled out the proper applications. We spent months working on this. They sent us to the ICE field office down in New Orleans to apply through them. The bottom line was that we were not successful going at it that way.
A national organization called CIVIC, Community Initiative for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, came to our rescue. They know how to talk to ICE and how to get these programs started. They intervened for us. They came and had a tour of a facility and were able to get us started.
We were able then to work out an arrangement with the facility to put up signup sheets in the units. If someone wanted a visitor, they could put their name on that. We have an arrangement where, when we’re ready to go visit, we contact the facility—we have our points of contact there—and let them know that we’d like to come on such-and-such a day. We’d give a list of our visitors, and then we specifically ask for individuals we want to visit. They’ve been really good to work with. They’re very flexible in helping us to meet with these men.
JM: Oh, that’s good to hear.
KW: Yeah. We’ve got a really good relationship established with the facility for our visits. You don’t have to be an approved group to visit, but it’s more cumbersome [without approval]. We actually did several visits before we were an approved visitation group. We had to contact someone there and tell them to put [us] on a visit list, then we would go in a visit. Now we have this list that is provided to us. We don’t have to have the detainee make an appointment for us. That’s major. That’s a big change. It facilitates our visits.
JM: Why was this so difficult to get started in the first place?
KW: I don’t know. There was a resistance to approving our visitation group. I can’t tell you exactly why. I guess change is always hard. Through the intervention of CIVIC, we were able to. One of the founders of CIVIC, Christina Mansfield, actually came to Alabama and had a meeting with the officials. She’s good. [laughs] She was able to make it happen for us.
Through CIVIC, we’re part of a large network. CIVIC has sponsored visitation groups across the country. There are over fifty now that are established. We can talk to each other through our listserv. There’s a lot of exchanging of ideas. If we run into something we don’t know how to handle, we can go online and potentially get some help. There are lots of people with lots of different skill sets who are part of these visitations programs.
JM: That’s great.
You said you’ve been interested in immigration as an issue for a while now, so I have two-part question. What is your background, and how did you get interested in this as an issue?
KW: I’m 69 years old. I graduated from college many years ago with a Liberal Arts degree. I worked for many years as an Army civilian employee. During that period of time, I raised my family, I worked, and I was able to retire.
I can’t tell you how I got interested. I just have a heart for it. That’s one of the main things that you need to do this. You need to be a good listener—this is something I’ve learned. Listening is the most important thing. You have to have an open mind to different races and cultures and religions, and you need to be aware of what’s going on in the world with respect to migration.
JM: Any experience working at a prison or detention center before you started volunteering?
KW: None at all. It’s not something I ever thought I would have any interest in doing. It just never occurred to me. Now that I’m doing it, it’s something that’s really important to me.
JM: I could see that, yeah.
How many volunteers do you work with? How many are in your group?
KW: It varies. We have about ten who visit, not all of the time but occasionally. We have a much larger group of what I call friends of the project. We have people writing letters who for some reason can’t visit. For one thing, from Huntsville it’s an hour and a half drive, so it’s an all-day commitment. People have young children or they’re older, and they’re just unable to make that trip.
For example, this weekend we’re putting together packages of homemade cookies for all of the detainees. We’ve got people out there baking cookies. For some, this is their first exposure to this project, their first understanding that we have men in detention down in Etowah. It’s kind of a community outreach, too.
JM: How do you coordinate who receives services?
KW: We have several sources of names, [like] the signup sheet. We also have referrals that have come to us through other groups in the CIVIC network because there is movement between centers. We’re visiting people that were referred to us from other states and other detention facilities. The UNHCR, they have received phone calls through their hotline requesting support.
JM: Oh, they contacted you to reach out.
KW: Yes! They contact us. They know about us. [laughs]
JM: Wow! That’s cool!
KW: Our main limitation is that we’re not attorneys. We are laypeople, so we need more legal support. That’s one of our biggest challenges is to find legal support for these men.
JM: I was about to say. I imagine when you started volunteering that you didn’t foresee all of these different challenges.
KW: Yeah, it’s difficult. It’s also frustrating to know that there’s such a need that these men are experiencing, and we’re not able to meet those needs. That’s another reason why just getting the word out to as many people as possible is important. There’s a lot of talent out there, and maybe someone can step forward and do some of these things that we are not educated to do.
JM: What are some common stories that you hear among the people that you’ve talked to at the detention center?
KW: Well, every person is unique, so we hear all kinds of stories. [laughs] I’ve met with several who have said that my visit is his first contact with the outside world in, like, three years.
JM: Oh my goodness.
KW: The isolation, the lack of legal support, the poor quality and quantity of food: this is their complaint, and the lack of outdoor exposure. They never get to go outside. Their recreation is in a large rec room with windows high up that are open for them. This is the only exposure to the outside they have, which is really not outside.
JM: Yeah. I had no idea.
KW: The other thing is the high cost of phone calls and the high cost of commissary. Many of these men are indigent. Unless they have someone on the outside who can send them money occasionally, then they really are isolated.
JM: How does this type of work affect you emotionally?
KW: It’s very stressful, especially when you hear a story and you don’t know what to do with it, you don’t know how to help this person. On the other hand, these men are very resilient, they’re very hopeful, very spiritual. That’s the other side. We get a lot in return through our visits.
JM: Are there common reasons why the men are in this facility?
KW: I don’t know if there’s a common denominator like that. I know many of the men have resisted deportation. Many are seeking asylum because they are very fearful of going back to their home countries. Many of them came on work or student visas and overstayed their visas. Many got caught up in some kind of criminal activity. Some of them did not receive the kind of legal help that they needed. They didn’t understand the ramifications of perhaps pleading guilty to something.
I met a man the last time I visited who was born in Tijuana. His mother was in transit to come to the United States. He was born in Tijuana, and she crossed the border when he was two weeks old. The United States is the only country he knows. He grew up here. Now he’s in deportation proceedings, and that’s just very troubling to me. He has no framework, no context of family in Mexico.
We’re also visiting a man who served in the US military.
JM: Oh, really?
KW: Yes. He’s from Jamaica, and he’s also mentally ill. He’s been in detention for quite a number of years. He was held out in Arizona, so there’s someone out there who is working hard on a compassionate release for him. That hasn’t happened yet.
JM: Has doing this kind of work changed any beliefs or misconceptions you may have had before you started?
KW: I thought, and I think most people think, that the majority of people in detention are Hispanic, coming from Mexico, Central America, and South America. I can’t tell you the exact percentage at Etowah. It is a large percentage, at least fifty percent, but the composition is international.
I guess our biggest challenge right now—we are working on this. We have several people who are Spanish speakers, but that’s one of our biggest limitations. You asked how we make the decision of who we visit: language is a definite, limiting factor. There are many who speak English, so it hasn’t been a problem, but we need to expand our group to include Spanish speakers.
JM: I hadn’t thought of that, that language could be a barrier, but that makes sense.
KW: Language is a huge barrier. I actually have recruited someone down at Auburn. She came to us. She’s a French speaker from the Congo, a US citizen now. We’re looking for people who have these special language skills, as well.
JM: You mentioned earlier that you get a lot in return from your visits. What have been some gratifying moments that you’ve had while visiting these men?
KW: One of the men that I visited—I’ve got a couple of things I’d like to tell you about. One of the men was from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, which is in the West Indies. He’s just a sweet man to visit. He was deported. He was sent to Louisiana and deported from there. They charter planes to take these men to the islands. Before he was taken from Etowah, he was in the middle of a dental procedure. They were creating a bridge for his front teeth, and he was deported without his teeth.
JM: Oh, no!
KW: He was deported without his identification papers in his home country. That’s been a real challenge for him to get that paperwork in order. I think he’s finally gotten that done. He contacted me, and it took six months. We were able, finally, to reunite him with his teeth.
JM: Oh, good!
KW: So he got his bridge. It had to be adjusted after he got it because there’s always a final adjustment.
I think that’s one. I look for tangible ways that our visits have helped, and that’s one very tangible way. You’re crippled if you don’t have you front teeth. He’s a very outgoing, friendly person. He’s having real challenges back home, but he’s got his teeth now.
We were [also] part of a national group that was advocating for the release of a man at Etowah who had been in detention for nine years.
KW: We didn’t make this happen, but we were a part of the overall national effort to get him sent back to California for a bond hearing, which actually happened in March. He’s out on bond now pending resolution of his asylum [status]. He’s able to work on that from the outside now. If he’s not able to stay in the United States, he’s trying to find other countries that would be willing to take him.
You know, both of these men are the same ages as my children. My children are 36 and 41. I can relate to many of these men because they’re the age of my children. I’m visiting a 30 year old who could be my grandchild. It’s really heartbreaking to hear their stories and the fact that some of them have children that they are separated from.
We also feel the gratitude from these men whenever we visit. We’re getting something back from that.
JM: How often do you visit?
KW: We try to visit at least once a month. We visit in the morning, and then we visit in the afternoon. Each of us visits at least two people. Occasionally, we have visited more. For me personally, that’s a little bit emotionally overwhelming.
It’s a non-contact visit. We go into the visitation room, which has twelve phones and monitors. We sit at those, we can see them and they can see us. This is also the same room where families visit their loved ones in the general population. It can be chaotic in there. [laughs]
My dream is—what I’m working on right now is setting up teams in various communities so that we’ll have a visiting group every week.
JM: Oh, that would be great.
KW: Growing our base.
JM: So there are strong attitudes in our society, as you know, about immigrants and about people in prison or detention. Why should we care about their well being?
KW: Will you bear with me just one minute? I wrote something up on that.
KW: Would it be okay if I read what I wrote?
KW: Okay. These are the reasons I care.
I care because these men are imprisoned like criminals, most without access to legal assistance. They are in administrative detention because of irregularities in their immigration status. They suffer the loss of their freedom, homes, jobs, families. I care because they are isolated, far from families or friends, or legal support they may have had in their communities.
I care because of the quality of their lives. Many of the men complain about the quantity and quality of food, constant hunger, and the lack of access to the outdoors. I think about the high incidents of seasonal affective disorder in the overall population in the winter. The daily reality of these men is no exposure to sunlight.
I care because many of these men came to this country as children, as economic or political refugees, or with student visas, and no longer have families or cultural ties to their countries of origin. They are American in every way. Many had businesses or were otherwise gainfully employed, contributed to American society, and paid taxes.
I care because many have families and children here. They want to remain in the United States to care and provide for these children. These families are torn apart.
I care because we are a country of immigrants, and sometimes it seems like we lose sight of that reality. I care because the lives of these men have been put on hold. I have met many brilliant and warm, courageous men. I see their incarceration as a huge waste of human resources. I care because this is a humanitarian and social justice issue, and a betrayal of the values we claim as Americans.
In short, I find it appalling that immigrant detention is such big business in this country, and that people are profiting from the misery of others.
So that’s what I wrote. [laughs]
JM: That’s very touching. Thank you for sharing that.
KW: Yeah. These are just regular people. Many of them are highly educated, brilliant. They are just—I don’t know. It just gets under your skin when you talk to them. I think everybody needs a second chance.
JM: You mentioned a key word there. Listeners may not be aware that there’s profit to be made in keeping people behind bars. Would you mind elaborating on that a little bit?
KW: Well, I can’t tell you the extent of how Etowah County benefits from it. I know that they have a contract with ICE. I can’t tell you how exactly they benefit, but there must be a profit motive there somewhere.
The prison industry is big business in this country. We’ve got the CCA and the GEO Group operating prisons throughout the country. They are definitely corporate, for-profit exercises. There’s also a mandate through Congress that 34,000 immigrant detention beds be filled every day.
KW: To me, it’s almost like a speed trap, a make-money kind of speed trap because it’s driven by numbers.
JM: I’m just sitting here with my mouth open. Yikes.
JM: Looking forward, what is one change you would hope to see related to the people that you’re helping?
KW: What I would really like to see is a reform that would reunite families. Many of these men have American born children. I would like to see everyone have a hearing in immigration court to hear their cases. I’d like to have legal help doing this. They’re seeking asylum, give them a day in court.
Another option would be, in lieu of prison or detention, put them on a leg monitor so they can be with their families.
JM: Are you aware of anything that I or listeners could do to help make that happen?
KW: I think listeners need to educate themselves about what’s going on. They need to support immigration reform that reunites families and addresses some of the legitimate economic concerns of the countries from which these people are coming. Migration is a worldwide issue. In the United States, we’re feeling the effects of that, too. We’re feeling the effects of the economic problems faced by Mexico and Central and South America. I think it’s really important that people educate themselves.
JM: I know we’ve only talked about the Etowah Visitation Project so far. Is there anything else that you’re involved in? Anything else you volunteer with?
KW: This is a full-time job right now. [laughs]
JM: I could see that, yeah.
KW: I have a lot of other activities that I’m involved in. I’m a quilt maker. I belong to an all-girls ukulele band.
JM: [laughs] Really?
KW: [laughs] Yeah! Life is good, but this is the only volunteer thing I’m involved in right now.
JM: This is me asking as a native of Alabama: how do you handle being involved in these issues and living in Alabama? Alabamians are a tough crowd.
KW: Fortunately, I have a pretty good network of people who are sympathetic to this. It’s difficult because so many people have closed minds to this subject. It is difficult in this state.
In Alabama—I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but Alabama faces huge challenges for its overall prison system. This is a very tiny subset of the overall picture in Alabama: overcrowded prisons, sexual assaults in prisons. This is a subject that the Alabama legislature is taking up right now. That’s separate from this challenge that we’re facing with immigrant detention. That’s a very small number.
People are coming to an awareness in this state about prison issue, but I don’t think about immigration detention. [It] hasn’t been high on the radar screen. Alabama is—it can be difficult to even talk about it with people.
JM: But I’m glad you have a network of people that are helping to support you, at least.
KW: Oh, yeah. We do. We have a really good network.
JM: If anyone would want to contact you, maybe ask questions about the kind of volunteering that you do, what would be the best way to get in touch?
KW: To visit Etowah, they can reach us through our Facebook page. If they’re in other parts of the country, which is likely, they could go to the CIVIC and Detention Watch Network websites, and find a way to link with visitation programs that are in their state or community. Does that make sense?
JM: Yeah, that sounds great.
KW: We’re really visiting a very small facility with only 300 people, but there are these centers all over the country. Some have formal visitations programs that they could join with.
JM: Well, we covered a lot. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
KW: That’s all!
JM: I’m just amazed that this is going on and I know so little about it, but it warms my heart to know that you’re out there trying to make a difference.
KW: Thank you. There are lots of people throughout the country who are doing similar work.
JM: Okay. Thank you so much again, Katherine. I really appreciate it.
KW: Thank you, Josh. I’ll talk to you soon.
Conclusion by Josh Morgan
This episode of The Plural of You was produced by me, Josh Morgan, in sunny Edinboro, Pennsylvania.
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In closing, here’s a homework assignment.
Follow the Etowah Visitation Project’s example. The next time you decide to bake something, double the recipe and give the extra half to someone else. It can be a neighbor, your co-workers, your mail carrier, someone at your local prison or detention enter, or anyone, really.
Let me know if you complete this assignment. You can email me about it or anything else at josh at pluralofyou.org.
That’s all for now. Thanks for listening.