For nearly a year, the digital library End Family Detention has collected letters from mothers and children confined in family detention facilities around the US. The handwritten accounts often relay the emotional trauma many detainees face and offer glimpses of the poor living conditions inside various centers. To further highlight such issues, CultureStrike, a nonprofit aimed at improving the migrant experience in the US, has launched Visions from the Inside, a project that invites 15 artists around the country to each engage with and illustrate one letter by a detained migrant at Karnes County Residential Center in Texas. For the past week, the organization has been releasing a work per day on Tumblr and Instagram, accompanied by an excerpt from the source letter, to raise awareness of the stark realities of detainees. Similar to a pen pal system, communication between the artists and detainees occurred in both directions: artists made sketches based on the letters and sent them to the detainees, who provided feedback. The process thus exists as a true collaboration, showcasing the voices of those who remain unseen.
“It takes courage and responsibility to move to another country, and the fact that these women went through all this, and they’re being called criminals instead of heroes for doing this for their family — that, to me, is the narrative that we don’t hear,” CultureStrike’s Julio Salgado, who spearheaded the project, told Hyperallergic. “If we want to change the narrative, the way people think about immigrants, we need to hear directly from them.”
One letter written last year by a young girl expresses her lack of hope as her mother faced the threat of deportation. “We need the help of all of you because we feel depressed and forgotten in this place,” she wrote. “Although our beloved lawyer is doing everything humanly possible our case has dragged on because my mother has a deportation.” In response, artist Fidencio Martinez created a linocut illustrating a birds-eye view of 12 beds with mothers and their children. Rendered in black and white, it evokes strong feelings of isolation: none of the figures interact; they remain confined to their rigid cells.
Another letter, originally in Spanish, was penned by a boy who describes feeling like a “prisoner” at Karnes, where he lived in one room with multiple families, never knowing when he and his family might leave. The accompanying image, drawn by Robert Trujillo, consists of overlapping scenes, from depictions of officers rifling through the boy’s belongings to images of the same meals he ate almost every day.
“I think the part of the letter that hit me most is the idea of not being able to control what is happening, not knowing when they will be able to leave, and the cramped feeling of all of these conditions on top of each other,” Trujillo said. “I want [people] to get a sense that there is not a lot of freedom of space, choice, or room from this child’s point of view.”
The letters relay personal perspectives, but Salgado noted that one of the most striking things he observed was that many of them echo each other in describing serious issues within the facilities that only make End Family Detention’s cause more urgent. Stories of people falling ill from water they drank and feeling depressed or like criminals are common, and describing them in letters is perhaps the only way they may be heard beyond the walls of the detention centers. Digitizing and sharing the letters online increases their reach while also preserving them as evidence.
“They are part of a visual narrative that can never be burned,” End Family Detention’s Iris Rodriguez told Hyperallergic.
Visions from the Inside will continue to share letters for another week, bringing to light the realities faced by people we may not often consider. In spreading these stories, the organizers and artists hope to inspire action to dismantle the detention system, which Rodriguez emphasizes is funded by taxpayers. Some of the mothers and children whose letters are featured have been released, but others are still living within those facility walls — and they make up but a handful of the many families still waiting, with uncertainty, for their freedom.
“My hope is that more people are aware of these conditions, that they stop, that the people behind all those statistics are seen for what they really are: incredibly brave mothers fighting to give their families a better future,” Martinez said. “They are mothers and children no different than you or I.”