Mapping the Spaces of Texas Detention

Architectural footprints illustrating very idiosyncratic prison-detention center design. Credit: Sarah Dubicki

Casa Marianella, an immigrant shelter alternative to detention centers, Austin, 2015. Credit: Sara Zavaleta

An example of a GEO Group prison advertised on their website, 2015. Courtesy of: GEO Group

Written by - Sarah Lopez

At a distance, the process may appear to be simple: a migrant crosses the border illegally; then, U.S. federal authorities apprehend and subsequently detain her or him in a “detention center” pending processing by the courts. Upon closer inspection, there is no aspect of migrant detention that is not complex, contested, and problematic in legal and logistical terms, but also in a moral sense as well. For all of these reasons, the spaces of migrant detention have ambiguous and ambivalent meanings—both as potential gateways to a new life for migrants and asylum seekers, but also as dehumanizing, punitive heterotopias—a purgatory in which an individual's fate quite literally hangs in the balance.

For built-environment historians and designers, the stakes of U.S. asylum and immigration policies are most evident in the infrastructure and architecture of migrant detention. This infrastructure encompasses a spectrum of facilities run by different agencies, including detention centers (to house men, women, and women with young children), immigration prisons known as Criminal Alien Requirement facilities, juvenile facilities for unaccompanied minors, Border Patrol stations with “holding cells,” and county jails that rent out wings, rooms, or beds to Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE). Additionally, transportation systems and courtrooms facilitate detention, whereas religious organizations, activists groups, and immigrant shelters provide critical support for migrants.

Understanding the infrastructure of detention from an architectural point of view is critical to understanding detention at large. Most importantly, buildings shape human experience. A detention center built out of heavy masonry materials, with few or no windows, no fresh air, fluorescent lighting, reverberating footsteps, and living spaces (known as “pods”) where up to 100 men sleep, eat, wait, and use the restroom with no privacy, influences human cognition and emotion, and shapes subjectivity. In addition to individual experience, the architecture of detention also shapes human interaction and engagement. The presence or absence of a community room, use of outdoor space, daily sleeping arrangements and the spatial distance or proximity of guards-to-migrants choreographs all human interaction which is the basis for building community, discourse, and solidarity.

With the awesome power architecture has to condition human experience, it is sometimes difficult to simultaneously conjure the importance of architecture as the crystallization—the material expression—of contemporary societal beliefs. The infrastructure of detention is the clearest expression of how the U.S. government believes migrants should be treated, and the policies and practices instated to realize this vision shape its material expression. The number of places used to process and detain migrants, their geographic location, architecture, and management actually influences who wins asylum, who can be visited by loved ones or lawyers, and whose voices—often cries for help—are heard.

In Texas, we have a vast network of approximately 33 places to detain migrants (this includes 26 detention centers, 5 immigration prisons, and a handful of county jails and does not include juvenile facilities, or Border Patrol Stations). Out of these 33 centers—the places commonly referred to as “detention centers”— approximately 28 are managed by private corporations. This is considerably higher than the national average, where 62% of migrant detention centers are privatized. The government’s belief in privatizing the processing of “immigration offenses” (as well as “criminal offenses,” evident in the privatization of prisons) outsources their responsibilities regarding the design, construction, and management of these centers. GEO Group (one of the two largest correctional facilities corporations) has a “management philosophy that emphasizes security, functionality, durability and cost effectiveness” recognizing the significant relationship “between both life-cycle costs and operational effectiveness and design.” In everyday speech, “life-cycle costs” and “operational effectiveness” relationship to design alludes to cheap and instrumental facilities that get the “job” done. From above, facilities housing migrants are often indistinguishable from light industrial factory buildings or storage facilities.

Forming an accurate picture of what detention means for migrants, the human rights abuses that are taking place, and the policies shaping the scene, requires that we see clearly the infrastructure of detention—and all of its constituent elements. This project begins to render detention visible by simply mapping the main detention centers in space and time. This mapping illustrates individual centers as a part of a much larger network of places used to realize the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s, as well as the private corporations that perform the government's agenda, vision of how we should, and do, treat migrants.

1 GEO Group website. Design Construction and Project Financing. ; accessed October 10, 2015.