January 29, 2022

“The Facility”: Meet the Former Prisoner Who Details Fight for His Life Inside ICE Jail During COVID

10 min read

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.AMY GOODMAN: As we continue on the issue of how the U.S. deals with immigration, this is Democracy Now! I am Amy Goodman. The network of ICE jails across the United States is vast as we turn from New Mexico to Georgia where immigrants held at the Irwin County Detention Center were held in solitary confinement after they protested their conditions during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic. Their fight is the focus of a new documentary called The Facility. This is the trailer.

PERSON: We are asking for these petitioners to be released.

PERSON: I’ve already ruled on that and I haven’t heard anything to change my mind.

SETH FREED WESSLER: How’s everybody doing? What’s happening here?

NILSON BARAHONA: Somebody here tested positive for coronavirus.

PERSON: I’m really scared I’m going to die.

PERSON: This is what we came up with to try to protect ourselves.

NILSON BARAHONA: The women, they’re going to go on strike.

PERSON: [translated] Detained immigrant women are in utter despair.

PERSON: [translated] We are recording this video in fear.

PERSON: [translated] I have to speak out.

PERSON: She described the experience here as torture.

PERSON: [translated] They hit me. Can you see?

PERSON: Can you just keep it running?

NILSON BARAHONA: You think we all fit in the hole? They can’t put us all in the hole.

PERSON: [translated] What have you heard? They isolated them all.

ICE OFFICER: The facility is going to continue addressing issues as they arise. What that entails, I have no idea.

AMY GOODMAN: The Facility is directed by journalist Seth Freed Wessler who began investigating the story last year. This was six months before a whistleblower, a nurse working at the Irwin ICE jail, said women held there were being subjected to forced sterilization. At the start of the pandemic, Seth connected with people inside the jail by talking to them through video calls that he recorded. This is a clip.

SETH FREED WESSLER: How’s everybody doing? How are you thinking about what’s happening out here, this coronavirus thing?

NILSON BARAHONA: Everybody is here under a lot of stress. We see what’s happening outside and how fast it has been moving. Once it gets in here, we all are going to be at risk.

PERSON: [translated] Our safety here is not up to us. It’s up to third parties and these third parties lie to us.

NILSON BARAHONA: The guards, they only wear their face mask on Monday and allow them—they don’t even have it on, at all. As we see, there’s one up there. There’s one up there checking through the rooms.

ANDREA MANRIQUE: They are not practicing it, which is the social distance, the six feet. With 32 people in here, there’s no way we are going to practice that.

PERSON: [translated] I made this myself with a sock to cover my face because I refuse to run the risk.

AMY GOODMAN: In that clip, you hear Seth Freed Wessler talking to Andrea Manrique and Nilson Barahona. In a minute, Seth and Nilson will join us. But first, this is one more clip from The Facility where Seth is talking to Nilson just as a guard comes in and Nilson confronts him. Listen carefully.

SETH FREED WESSLER: Can you just keep it running?

GUARD: There is nobody infected in this facility.

NILSON BARAHONA: Let me tell you something. My name is Nilson Barahona. I put a lawsuit to this facility. Both of the wardens were in a federal court on Thursday, and they declared that they have tested three people and one came positive.

GUARD: [inaudible] The people responsible are nowhere to be found. They are all sitting at home somewhere barking orders telling people like me what to say to you. It’s a [beep] situation. It really is. The facility is going to continue addressing issues as they arise. What that entails, I have no idea.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we are joined by Nilson Barahona, one of the two people featured in The Facility. Originally from Honduras, he has lived in the United States since 1999. He has since been released from Irwin, helped found the group called ICE Breakers. Also with us is Seth Freed Wessler, who was a longtime reporting fellow with Type Investigations when he directed this new documentary, produced by Field of Vision, based in part on his reporting for The New York Times Magazine and HuffPost, now a reporter with ProPublica. Seth, this film is about to come out on MSNBC, I believe. Can you talk about how you did these remarkable videos? And then we will talk with Nilson about being at the other end.
SETH FREED WESSLER: When the pandemic really began to sort of turn the world upside down, I as a reporter decided I wanted to try to connect with people inside of the detention centers, the ICE detention centers that I had already been reporting on. I had reported on ICE for many years. I began to make calls using this pay-per-minute video visitation app that is installed in cell blocks in many detention centers around the country. I knew about the app already because I had used it to talk to people before the pandemic as I was reporting on ICE. So I began to make calls to people inside of the Irwin County Detention Center to try to figure out what was happening as the pandemic was spreading in this very tightly-packed place, and did report a series of stories for the web and for The New York Times Magazine about conditions of confinement, about the failure of ICE and private detention operators to protect people from the spreading virus.
But it struck me very early that what I was seeing through these cameras that are attached to tablets inside of the cell blocks, really I could not communicate what I was seeing through print reporting, that this needed to be a story that people could experience visually. So I embarked on this film project to pull together what ultimately was hundreds of hours of footage that included conversations, interviews with Nilson and Andrea Manrique and many other people held in Irwin, but also at times just footage of life happening inside. I would sometimes spend many hours a day calling and calling and then people on the inside, including Nilson, would pick up my calls. At times, I would ask him, we just saw a clip of this, if we could just keep the camera running and I would keep recording the footage.
Over time, that practice of just being sort of digitally present made it possible to be present for real things happening inside, events like the one you just saw and also just to get a sense of the routine daily life inside this detention center. So The Facility which will come out on MSNBC on Sunday night at 10:00 p.m. but is also now available at Field of Vision’s website, tells the story of a group of people inside of the Irwin County Detention Center trying to raise their voices to hold the Irwin County Detention Center accountable but also, I hope, can bring people who see it in a sense inside.
In a sense for me and I think for Nilson and others I talked to, this camera, not so unlike what we’re doing right now, between the detention center streaming onto my computer screen and then streaming back into these tablets inside of the facility functioned almost like a portal for a moment in and out of a place meant not to be seen in this way.
AMY GOODMAN: It is just an astounding documentary with this firsthand video footage. Even when you’re not talking directly to someone, as you point out, you say “leave the camera on” and you hear the guards talking who admit they have no idea what is going on. Nilson Barahona, you were there at the other end and we feel you in this documentary, the fear and trying to get an honest answer about if people have COVID at the height of the pandemic and how you can protect yourself. Can you talk about that fear and what they did at Irwin? Now you are out, probably because of, among other things, your resistance and the nurse who came forward and talked about the abominable conditions and the fact that women were being sterilized against their will there.
NILSON BARAHONA: Yeah, it was definitely a very frightening time. In order for me to fight this fight—and I have said this many times, I had to block my emotions because what we were living in at the time, it was overwhelming. It was easy to freeze and not to do anything, but I am a man of faith and I give thanks to God that I was able to connect with Seth and Diego Sanchez [sp] and Laura Lay [sp] my lawyers at the time. They were a great help. They were [inaudible] every step I take. I am grateful that this documentary came out because there is no words that can explain what we went through at that time.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what it meant to demand answers about how you could be protected during COVID. You see Andrea, the other woman in detention who gets punished for resisting and going on hunger strike and the agony she goes through in this facility for almost two years. You were on hunger strike as well, Nilson.
NILSON BARAHONA: Yeah, it was a decision that was not really easy to make. Also the fact that we were all able to do this together as a family, I would say. There is no other way to say it because we knew that all we had was next to us. Everything that we had that we can use to fight, it was next to us, and it was each other. That was basically it. So we’ve got to come together and we’ve got to raise our voice in order to get the attention that we needed to get to solve that problem.
AMY GOODMAN: When you describe, as you are talking to Seth on this video call about your son and what he said to you as you spoke to him in Spanish. You’re inside. He’s out. You’re married. He’s an American citizen. He’s a tiny boy. But the little bond that you had and what you felt was being disrupted?
NILSON BARAHONA: It is still hard to this point to think about it. Thanks God, I am able to say right now that that bond is stronger than ever. My boy, he is seven years old at this time. His courage and his character is so strong and I am proud of him, you know? But the truth is that it should never have happened. I should never have been taken away from him. He was five years old at the time when I was detained. As the months went by and I tried to keep that relationship going, but we were limited in the kind of communication we could have. Since he was born, I only speak Spanish to him, so this is our thing. My wife is a United States citizen. She is from Connecticut. She speaks a little Spanish, but not much. So I tried to make sure that he knows his background, where he is coming from and our culture and all that. I felt like I was losing that with him. I felt so impotent. There was nothing I could do at that time. But what hurt me is the fact that how come your own government can be doing this to you? My wife went through so much. When I came out, she was financially, emotionally, physically drained because all of the things that we were supposed to do and take care of as a couple, she would have to do on her own. Not only that, but now she had an extra care of having her husband in detention.
AMY GOODMAN: As you ask, and as Andrea asks, when you are just released after—how long were you in Irwin?
NILSON BARAHONA: 13 months. I was in Irwin for seven months and then after the hunger strike, I was moved to Stewart Detention Center which was not better at all.
AMY GOODMAN: And saying, why couldn’t you be at home while going through the process? Andrea, they are breaking her. In these last few seconds, Seth, the agony we watch Andrea, who had been put in the hole, who had gone on hunger strike saying, after they released her, why couldn’t she have been waiting for her court date all this time from home?
SETH FREED WESSLER: ICE detention in many ways is unique in the complex of ways that we lock people up in the United States in that it is routinely the case that people don’t know how long they will be held, don’t know when they will be released. People can be held for many months and sometimes multiple years. This is a detention system that is at the discretion of ICE. ICE can decide to hold people or not. Everybody who is in ICE detention could be released and allowed to be home with their families and that is a decision the government makes every day about thousands of people.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there but you can see the documentary The Facility at MSNBC and Field of Vision. Seth Freed Wessler and Nilson Barahona, thank you. I’m Amy Goodman. Stay safe.