Spiritual caregivers talk about experiences of visiting detention center

The Suffolk County House of Corrections

By Yuxiao Yuan


Juliana Morris, a medical student at Harvard School, had visited the Suffolk County detention center 10 times last summer through a spiritual caregiver program provided by the Refugee Immigration Ministry, a Malden-based interfaith organization founded in 1986.

Morris is the granddaughter of European immigrants. She had volunteered in the migrant shelters in Mexico. The migrant shelters are temporary housing sponsored by churches and other nonprofits in Mexico for immigrants who are waiting to cross the border.

“Some are recently being deported and trying to get some money together or just recover from what they’ve been through before trying to cross again,” Morris said.

Morris said she once saw a tree with women’s underwear hanging from its branches. The local people told her the underwear belonged to women who were raped or sexual assaulted by the migrant smugglers.

Seeing firsthand what the immigrants went through before they managed to enter the United States drove Morris to be more involved in immigrant rights. So after coming back to Boston, she participated in the spiritual caregiver program, which sends volunteers inside the Suffolk detention center to listen to the immigrant detainees sharing their feelings.

The Suffolk County House of Corrections
The Suffolk County House of Corrections

“A lot of people expressed profound stress and feeling of being forgotten and treated as if they didn’t matter,” Morris said.

Morris said the stress came from the hopelessness that they couldn’t afford a lawyer, didn’t know how long they would stay and couldn’t help if their families had troubles.

Morris spoke about a Jamaican she visited whose mother got cancer during his detention. “He’s really stressed out because he wanted to help pay for her treatment,” she said. “But he felt totally useless in detention because he can’t do anything to support her.”

Ruth Bersin, the executive director of the Refugee Immigration Ministry, said many detainees experience  grief over losing their families. “They won’t be around when their parents die. They won’t help when their children are growing up,” Bersin said.

Judy Goldberger, a registered nurse in the Boston Medical Center, participated in the spiritual caregiver program two years ago. She said she had seen not only undocumented immigrants but also immigrants with green cards held in detention.

For example, she visited a father of a 2-year-old boy who had been on probation for fighting when he was a teenager. Despite a green card, Goldberger said the father was picked up at the airport when he came back from visiting his grandmother in his home country. He was taken to detention because of the criminal record as a teen.

“He had paid his dues and gone on to contribute to the community. But there was no forgiveness for that,” Goldberger said. “He had to be more perfect than other U.S. citizens in order to stay in this country.” Goldberger said the man also worried that being  in jail did not set a good example for his son.

Because the program doesn’t provide the detainees with legal assistance and cannot help to get them out of detention, Morris was not sure if it would be really helpful before she started visiting.

But she found after the first visitation that the detainees were grateful to have someone appease their guilt of not being around their families and remind them that they are not forgotten.

Bersin said it’s helpful emotionally to get the detainees to share their stories. “They don’t have many opportunities to talk to people about what they are going through,” Bersin said. “Being put in detention, deprived of family in some cases and there is no criminal conviction involved. This is a very dehumanizing process.  Reaching the community is a way to help people maintain their humanity.”

About Yuxiao Yuan 4 Articles
Yuxiao Yuan is a multimedia journalism student at Emerson College and an intern in the Blueberry Hill Productions. She enjoys seeking out inspiring stories of ordinary people and believes that any big issue can be addressed through individual experiences. Yuxiao tells stories in writing, video and audio.