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Books And Films About Detention

by Andrea Black et al. of the Detention Watch Network

  1. American Gulag (2004) By Mark Dow

An exhaustive nationwide account of the US immigrant detention system, including detention conditions and accounts of abuse, bureaucracy and secrecy, and power dynamics and forces for change.  Dow’s detailed investigations mixed with personal stories told by detainees make clear how corrupt and abusive the system truly is.  One of the very best books to learn about detention, but read it slowly; it’s a lot to take in.

  1. We Are All Suspects Now (2005) by Tram Nguyen

Beautifully narrative and yet deeply investigative simultaneously, Nguyen explores immigration detention and deportation specifically post 9/11 and the subsequent loss of civil liberties, human families and whole communities, as US policies and practices on every level hinged on fear and discrimination.  A small book (~150 pgs) with a big message—indeed, no one is exempt from being a suspect now.

  1. Do They Hear You When You Cry (1998) by Fauziya Kassindja

This is Kassindja’s memoir of her struggle for freedom, beginning with a narrow escape from forced marriage and female genital mutilation as a young woman in Togo to seeking asylum in the US and suffering 14 months in the Elizabeth Detention Center and other jails, before winning the very first asylum case based on FGM.  Her story is both terrifying and inspiring, one of those you cannot believe until you read. 

  1. America: A Freedom Country (2004) by Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services (compilation of stories)

These stories, highlighting the varied reasons people seek refuge in the US and their subsequent experiences of immigration proceedings and detention, are each powerful testaments on their own and together offer a collective immigrant voice for the need for humane alternatives to a detention system that is extraordinarily ineffective and destructive.

  1. “Why Am I Here?”: Children in Immigration Detention (2003) by Amnesty International USA

“Over 5,000 unaccompanied children arriving to the US are detained each year by immigration authorities - some for months or even years. Escaping political persecution or fleeing war, abusive families or other dangerous conditions in their home countries. Approximately one-third are detained in harsh conditions in secure, jail-like facilities designed for juvenile offenders.  They are also often denied access to attorneys and other assistance, and may be subjected to routine shackling, strip-searches, and solitary confinement.” (AI)

  1. Other People’s Blood: US Immigration Prisons in the Reagan Decade (1996) by Robert Kahn

“Drawing on declassified government documents and interviews with more than 3,000 Central American refugees, Kahn portrays the chilling reality of daily life in immigration prisons during the 1980’s and reveals how the Department of Justice and the Immigration and Naturalization Service intentionally violated federal laws and regulations to deny protection to refugees fleeing wars in Central America financed by U.S. military aid.” (

  1. Abandoned: The Betrayal of America’s Immigrants (2000) by David Belle and Nicholas Wrathall (documentary film)

Most people believe that much of what is horrible about our immigration system developed after 9/11, but in actuality, the immigration laws of 1996 have forced 1.4 million people to be detained and deported, many legal permanent residents with US citizen children, for misdemeanor crimes.  This film analyses the ’96 laws through the stories of a few of these people.

  1. Chasing Freedom (2003) by Asylum Productions Alberta Inc. (film)

This film follows the story of a young Afghan woman who is tortured by the Taliban for secretly teaching girls and a high powered young attorney who reluctantly takes her first asylum case.  While a fictional story, the film offers a realistic view of life in detention and the struggles faced by asylum seekers (and their lawyers) in proving their fear of return. 

  1. Websites as Resources:

About The Author

Andrea Black is the Network Coordinator of Detention Watch Network(DWN), the only national coalition in the United States that addresses the detention crisis head-on and helps detainees and their loved ones make their voices heard. It is a network of individuals and organizations working in support of, and in service to, immigrants in detention.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.