Earlier this year my partner and I drove to the remote desert town of Calexico, Calif., to visit a detained Honduran migrant (who I will call “Pedro” here).
Pedro had just turned 18, a boy really, and he hadn’t had a single visitor since he’d turned himself in at the border seeking asylum several months before. We’d been asked to visit by his boyfriend, another Honduran migrant living in Salt Lake City, who was working tirelessly to get him released.
The Imperial Regional Detention Facility is located along a dusty road in the Imperial Valley. The barbed wire fencing looked strange and imposing amongst the irrigated fields. We entered through two steel gates and metal detectors, then we sat to wait for the visitation. That’s when we saw a familiar face.
Right there on the wall of the detention facility was a portrait of one of Utah’s most prominent progressives: Jane Marquardt.
Jane Marquardt is well known for, as her website states, serving “on many community boards in the areas of education, legal services delivery, and civil rights,” and for being “a voice for the LGBTQ movement in Utah.”
But Jane Marquardt is also the vice chair of Management and Training Corporation (MTC), a for-profit prison company that operates 22 “correctional facilities” throughout the United States, including the Imperial Regional Detention Facility where Pedro was being held. Her brother, Bob Marquardt, is the president and CEO of MTC and serves on the boards of the Utah System of Higher Education and Rowland Hall.
Though my partner and I were amazed and a little bit disturbed to see her smiling face in such a horrific setting, there was no time to process the irony before the visit began.
We saw a teenager walking hesitantly towards us with a shy smile. We sat with Pedro and discussed his boyfriend, family and legal case. He told us he was very depressed, but trying to keep hope. Hope that he would get out and be with his love, that he would not be sent back to the homophobic violence and gangs in Honduras.
Before we left we were able to give Pedro a hug. He hadn’t hugged anyone in a long time, and we all came away from the embrace in tears. It broke our hearts to leave this boy, whose only crime was wanting to live, in a prison where he wouldn’t have access to a lawyer, free phone calls or visitation from loved ones.
We didn’t know it then, but we wouldn’t see Pedro again. He was deported just a few weeks later.
It was clear to us, as it should be clear to anyone reading the news these days, that these detention facilities are cruel, unnecessary and dangerous. Anyone should be ashamed to be associated with them. But the Marquardts are not.
When my partner and I were leaving the MTC facility we noticed an Orwellian sign near Jane Marquardt’s portrait that reminded employees to wear their “BIONIC” pins. BIONIC stands for “Believe It Or Not I Care.”
This superficial “I care” is the standard defense that the Marquardts and MTC give when asked how they can stomach making their fortunes imprisoning migrants, many of whom have not even been charged with a crime?
When a dozen protesters occupied MTC’s offices in Centerville a year ago, the company responded with a statement saying, “Our hearts go out to anyone separated from their family,” and, “that the detainees are treated with great care, respect and dignity.”
What exactly is the definition of “respect and dignity” when boys who’ve fled discrimination and violence are sitting in cages, isolated from loved ones and essential resources?
How can Jane Marquardt be a “a voice for the LGBTQ movement in Utah” when gay and transgender detainees at the MTC-run Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico face what lawyers called “rampant sexual harassment, discrimination and abuse”?
MTC is a Utah company. Jane and Bob Marquardt are prominent members of our community. As so many of us see the atrocities occurring on the border and ask ourselves, “what can I do,” here we have an answer:
We can make it clear that MTC and the Marquardt’s prison-for-profit schemes are not our values. Institutions should refuse these actors’ charitable donations, remove them from their boards and put all possible pressure on them to change their business model to one that does not profit off the suffering of human beings.
You can learn more and sign a petition at shutdownmtc.org.
Easton Smith, is a writer and community organizer in Salt Lake City.