15 Images That Illustrate What Life in Detention Centers is Really Like

Statistics, news reports, stories about someone’s friend’s cousin – all of these secondary references give us an incomplete and biased glimpse into the harrowing lives of those locked away in family detention centers, facilities that, for most, seem to rest on faraway land.

MORE: Artists Depict the Experiences of Detained Immigrants in Hauntingly Beautiful Works of Art

But, as Julio Salgado, an undocumented Mexican artist, says, "we can’t expect mainstream media to tackle these issues in a deep way, because only we, the immigrants, can tell our stories."

With this in mind, Salgado, who's the events and project coordinator at CultureStrike, a network of artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians who use their artistry to fight anti-migrant hate, joined forces with Mariposas Sin Fronteras and End Family Detention to create Visions From The Inside, a cultural project that visually illustrates letters written by families detained in for-profit detention centers.

Ahead, pore over 15 images that authenticly describe what life is like locked down and that celebrate the mothers and children who bravely and resiliently journey into the U.S., rather than criminalize them for seeking better circumstances and opportunities. 

1. 1

"I am trusting my God who will quickly end this nightmare," wrote the author of this letter, a Honduran mother currently detained at Karnes County Detention Center with her son after trying to cross the border to be reunited with her family.

Artist Jess X Chen, who brought the letter's words to life visually, added that "despite the traumatic and abusive conditions she faces at Karnes, she and her younger son reach across the US/Mexico Border to join hands with her older son who made it to Los Angeles. Their bodies are preserved with the light of a million stars, representing the millions of mothers, fathers, and children throughout history who attempt to cross the border into the US."

2. 2

The author of the letter inspiring this artistic piece wrote, "I do not think it is fair to see my son incarcerated here when he could be free…" 

Artist Zeke Peña hopes their illustration reminds people "that these detention centers are prisons and sometimes have harsher conditions."

3. 3

"Our great fear is that they will deport us without giving us any notice and without us having any communication with our families or lawyer," one letter-writer explained. 

Rose Jaffe, the artist, wants this piece to "capture the journey this family has gone through – from the violence they experienced in their home country and natural desire for change, to the courage it takes to move from somewhere unsafe and come to the US." The illustration also reveals "the 'hopes' for a safe haven versus the reality of the situation."

4. 4

"The water has bleach in it, and I don’t have money to buy water from the store," one detained woman disclosed in her letter.

But "water is life and water crosses borders. Clean water should be everyone’s birthright," added artist Micah Bazant. "When I imagined what I wished for this mother and her child, I imagined a mighty waterfall breaking through the prison walls."

5. 5

"My son’s first birthday was here. I would like to get out of here. I’ve been here for a long time. I would like you to help us get out," one woman remarked in her letter. 

Artist Julio Salgado wrote that "we cannot be okay with the thought that a mother has to celebrate their child’s birthday behind bars," adding, "how dare a government punishes a mother’s heroism? Instead, we should be building monuments that celebrate their resistance."

6. 6

"We are not a threat for this country, all I want is refuge in this country for my children and for me," one letter-writer made clear.

Artista Mata Ruda wants her composition to demonstrate the "strength, selflessness, hope, and love of a mother who is enduring tortuous conditions because of a lack of a piece of paper."

7. 7

“I hope that you get out of there soon, don’t worry and don’t lose faith that God will make it up to you, always pray to Him that He give you strength to continue moving forward,” wrote one woman in an immigration detention center.

The author's discussion of God and prayer was powerful for the illustrator, Gabrielle Tesfaye, who "found it important to include something in the sketch representative of faith, hope, beauty, strength and a higher divine purpose throughout the ordeals of the struggles of life."

8. 8

"When I got here they initially told me that I didn’t have a right to anything because of my deportations," the writer of the letter behind this image disclosed.

Francis Mead, the illustrator, was inpired by the woman's resiliency and wants the piece to reflect "what we are fighting for; our communities and families."

9. 9

"We need the help of all of you because we feel depressed and forgotten in this place," another woman wrote in her letter. 

Artist Fidencio Martinez, who was once detained herself, created this illustration because she remembers the comfort she desired of being with her mother. "I think that the women are incredibly brave, strong and noble in those situations. [Even in detention] they are still fighting for the safety and well being of their children," Martinez said.

10. 10

"They go through our drawers just like a prisoner. Sometimes they treat us with kindness, but other times they don’t treat us well due to the fact that some are good and others are angry" are a boy's words that inspired this piece.

"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," said artist Robert Trujillo. "From the letter I got a sense that this child is feeling overcrowded, watched, ordered, and controlled; all in a very small space."

11. 11

"There are some workers at this detentions center who think poorly of immigrants. We are also human beings, just as they are, and we have feelings," this letter-writer reminds us. 

Artist Breena Nuñez hopes her visual expresses the quote and helps those in the U.S. remember "that these brave souls are seeking opportunity to enhance the quality of life for their children."

12. 12

"They are thinking of making this place much bigger, and for what? To hold more immigrant families, because they want to keep more people in these precarious conditions," this writer asked.

Artist Chucha Marquez gave the writer butterfly wings in their illustration to show the "beauty and nature of human migration."

13. 13

"I dream of getting out of this place…to be able to study one day…to have a better future for my life," wrote a young girl whose words inspired this image.

"In my illustration, I wanted to evoke the sensations of feeling trapped and suffocated to show that immigration detention is not a humane place for anyone to exist in, let alone a child," Dolly Li, the artist behind this piece, shared. 

14. 14

"I am afraid that if I stay in this center something could happen to me or my daughter because ICE tries to cover up everything and all news that happen here," one mother revealed. 

Her words inspired this piece, illustrated by Favianna Rodriguez, who said, "The women detained in Karnes County Detention Center have endured physical abuse, rape by prison guards, and the constant sicknesses of their children. In this piece, I wanted to show the ways in which prison degrades and abuses women."

15. 15

"The times they offer us food is scarce and the best food there is to eat is in the commissary," a woman currently detained imparted in her letter.

"Few of us can imagine the nightmare of what it means to be detained, of being exposed to all the violence, the darkness, the abuse and trauma. Of having to spend every day in a place where food is sometimes a luxury, where your children are scared and cold, where mothers try to remember the warmth of home to keep themselves going – a place that does its best to strip you of all your dignity and light little by little," the artist, Rommy Torrico, said. They created this piece to "celebrate the power of love and hope that burns in the hearts of [detained] women."