Why are Juanes and John Legend touring prisons and immigration detention centers?

This week I managed to go inside Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, the second largest in the country with a population of 1500 undocumented immigrants. A place where journalists like me don’t usually get access.

I went in with two huge artists: Latin superstar Juanes and R&B singer John Legend. The obvious question was, what are these two celebrities doing inside a detention center in the middle of nowhere in Arizona?

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Musicians Juanes and John Legend stand in front of the entrance to the Eloy Detention Center in Eloy, Arizona.

It turns out John Legend has traveled to jails across the country with his initiative #FreeAmerica to denounce our prison system. He told me the treatment given to immigrant detainees is directly linked to the business behind mass incarceration. Legend invited Juanes who told me that because he’s an immigrant he feels very much connected to the cause.

By 7:45am I was on a bus headed to the desert, about 90 miles from the Arizona-Mexico border, with Legend, Juanes and a film crew that has been documenting Legend’s nationwide “listening and learning tour” to prisons to end mass incarceration.

The Eloy building—even from afar—is imposing. It stands alone like a mirage on the horizon; a complex so large it’s like a fortress. In fact, many of the guards refer to it as “a city of 1500 inhabitants.”

It wasn’t planned that I go inside, but surprisingly, I was allowed to tour the facility with the group. No cameras allowed, of course.

The first perimeter is comprised of an enormous electric fence with metal spikes at the top. It’s followed by thick concrete walls. The main entrance is the only part that has a vivid color, it’s dark red with big white letters that read “CCA.” The abbreviation stands for “Corrections Corporation of America,” one of the largest private companies that manages immigrant detention centers in the U.S.

The letters atop the building’s entrance reflect one of the big problems in the system: the involvement of the private sector that makes money off undocumented immigrants. Eloy is one of 18 immigrant detention centers under the authority of ICE, a part of Homeland Security, but run by massive corporations. These businesses, like Geo Group or CCA, receive funds from the Government for each detained immigrant. The average rate is $160 a day per person. It gets worse. After a 2009 bill called “the bed mandate,” ICE is obligated to keep 34,000 immigrants behind bars every day. That’s around $5 million a day or $2 billion a year. A booming business.

But numbers don’t prepare you for what you feel inside.

Security is tighter than it is at airports. You must fill out a form and hand in your ID for them to keep until you exit. Also, remove shoes, jackets, and belts before going through the metal detector. We weren’t allowed to have cellphones either.

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Musician Juanes's view from the bus, on our way into the detention center

Once inside we met the tour guides: the director of ICE detention centers in Arizona and the warden at Eloy, Michael Donahue. They tried to mask the everyday reality at the center, giving us the impression that immigrants should be happy to be in there. At the same time they told us we couldn’t talk to any of the detainees about their stories or cases, or else the visit would end and we would be asked to leave. With this warning in mind, Legend, Juanes and I tried to make visual contact with the detainees we ran into during the tour.

They wore prison-like uniforms in three colors: green, beige and blue, depending on how dangerous they were considered. Almost all of them looked to the floor every time we walked by. They were scared, absent.

We went by the cafeteria, where 4,500 meals are served every day. The cafeteria supervisor laughed as she stated that they “beat McDonalds,” in terms of the number of meals served.

We had to wear hair nets to go inside the kitchen, where some immigrants were cutting vegetables and washing lettuce leaves. It all seemed so staged. Even though the warden had told us that detainees spend an average of 60 days at Eloy, the kitchen supervisor said her employees had been there “for a couple of years.”

Most of the undocumented detainees have a job at the center. They either wash the dishes, do the laundry, clean the toilets, etc., for which they get paid $1 a day. Minimum wage in Arizona is $8.05 an hour. On top of that, it’s almost impossible not to spend it all inside. Calls are charged at 40 cents a minute. A Pepsi can costs 50 cents and a container of Ramen noodles costs 57 cents.

“They get to have dorm food,” the warden laughed, referring to the offering at the commissary. We all looked at each other. It would take someone more than a day’s work to pay for a soda and Ramen.

They finally took us outside to the recreation area. Juanes and Legend were visibly affected. They both told me how “cold” the place seemed, “Orwellian” even, referencing George Orwell’s totalitarian universe.

At the yard we saw larger groups of people. Some were praying in Spanish. Most were just staring at us. I looked back. Even though their faces were filled with sand from the desert, I could read the desolation in their eyes. Many of them were young people my age, who came from countries like mine, fleeing violence and lack of opportunity, just like I did. But I would leave in a couple of hours. They would have to stay there for months, even years, inserted in a system that seems impossible to stop and reaps money from their existence behind bars, just because they don’t have any papers.

Eloy is the detention center where most immigrant detainees have died; 14 in the last 12 years, according to Prison Legal News. Almost all deaths were related to medical issues, but 5 were ruled suicides. One of the most alarming was that of 31-year-old José de Jesús Deniz-Sahagún on May 20, 2015. According to official documents, he choked on a sock. After his death, around 200 detainees staged a hunger strike.

One person in our group, Carlos Garcia, from the Arizona NGO “Puente,” had the courage to ask the warden and staff about Sahagún. The tension was evident. The room became silent when Garcia uttered his name. The warden told us that we were looking at the issue “with a slanted eye,” because we had no idea what the staff had gone through the day Sahagún died. But the ICE representative then went on to say that “they would never apologize for the work they do there,” that they were “proud” of their job because they were ensuring our national security.

The only spontaneous moment came toward the very end of the tour when we entered a sort of classroom where volunteers were teaching women to pray. The female detainees were more relaxed there and when they saw Juanes they couldn’t hide their excitement. They hugged him and asked for his autograph. The funny thing was that nobody recognized John Legend for a while. He was standing in a corner, watching the scene and smiling, until he said “buenos días” in Spanish.

The women thanked them repeatedly for the visit, for having “filled their day with joy.” They asked the musicians to “raise their voices for them” because “their mouths were sealed shut” in there. When Juanes and Legend wanted to sing them a song a cappella, the guards didn’t allow it.

I left Eloy with an aching heart. I was upset at what I saw and what I didn’t see. But one thing was for sure, these two artists didn’t drive all the way to the desert not to be able to sing for detainees. Their teams set up an impromptu stage across the street from the center. A group of local reporters and family members who had found out about the visit formed the audience.

When Junes and Legend got on stage, the song they chose to sing as a duet was “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley, a universal hymn for the oppressed that speaks to the power of the individual versus the power of the institution; the power of the soul versus the power of the status quo. It was one of the most surreal scenes I had ever witnessed: two of the biggest recording artists of our time singing in front of a prison in the middle of the desert.

I took my eyes off the stage for a moment and turned toward the detention center. I didn’t see any of the detainees in the yard watching, as I expected. I later found out the guards didn’t let them out of their cells. But from afar I could still see some of the immigrants waving at us from the windows. I knew then that nothing could stop the music from getting through the walls of concrete.

Musicians Juanes and John Legend hold an impromptu concert outside Eloy Detention Center in Arizona to protest the prison system.

Musicians Juanes and John Legend hold an impromptu concert outside Eloy Detention Center in Arizona to protest the prison system.

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