Life Behind Bars

A new exhibit uses art to bring attention to the abuses of the private prison system

If you drive north from Tucson toward Phoenix, up past the craggy outlines of Picacho Peak, you pass an innocuous sign for Eloy.

Not many travelers flying up I-10 to the Valley of the Sun take note of the exit, and few have reason to turn off here. It's something the Corrections Corporation of America counts on.

Because if Arizonans did routinely travel the small road past Eloy, driving east eight or so miles past run-down farmhouses and trailers, they'd come upon a gigantic detention center rising up in the rural flats like a nightmare mirage.

Behind the building's layers of barbed wire, on the other side of its thick gray block walls, are thousands of undocumented migrants.

The for-profit CCA holds them there for Uncle Sam, charging a tidy daily fee for their meager keep.

Several hundred of the detainees are women, many of them mothers separated from their children. And because they're not charged with a criminal offense, these prisoners don't enjoy the same rights that criminal defendants do: They have no right to an attorney or to a speedy hearing. As a result, they can languish behind bars in Eloy indefinitely, hidden away and mostly forgotten.

Tucson artist Wesley Fawcett Creigh first began learning about the detained women from their children.

"I work in a group home for children in CPS custody," says Creigh, who curated the Detention Art Exhibition at Industria Studios in Tucson. Creigh speaks fluent Spanish—she bummed around Mexico and Guatemala for a couple of years a while back—and she began hearing from some of the kids just how they ended up being ripped away from their homes.

"Some had mothers in detention," she says. "They told stories of their mom being taken away," by the Border Patrol or agents from ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Or when a new child showed up, Creigh would hear from another staffer that "the Border Patrol just brought him over, or the Department of Homeland Security."

It's a "traumatic experience for any of these kids to be placed among strangers," Creigh says, but most of the CPS kids are taken away because their parents are abusive or neglectful. Not so with the children of the mothers in immigrant detention: these kids are in CPS custody only because their mothers have been removed—by the government.

And the two massive bureaucracies—the state Child Protective Services and the federal Department of Homeland Security—don't exactly work well together to promote the best interests of the family.

"Indefinite ICE detention is taking a big toll on families," Creigh says.

The artist researched the issue, drawing on two groundbreaking studies by Nina Rabin, a professor now on leave from the UA College of Law. Focusing on immigration detention, Rabin's Unseen Prisoners highlighted the poor conditions for women detainees and Disappearing Parents documented the separation of families.

"As immigration has inflated, so has detention, and people have found a way to profit," Creigh says.

Creigh decided to use art to bring these hidden issues to light. A mural artist who graduated from Prescott College, Creigh won a P.L.A.C.E grant of $2,790 from the Tucson Pima Arts Council to create a yearlong interactive art project. Called "Painting by Numbers: Women in AZ Detention Centers, Bringing Numerical Statistics to Life," the project is just what it sounds like: a large-scale paint-by-numbers mural with a twist. It was made in an unusual crowd-sourcing collaboration between Creigh and members of the public.

To start, Creigh put together four plywood panels, each 8 feet high and 4 feet across; joined together, they make a mural 16 feet wide. She projected her own larger-than-life drawings of women onto this wooden "canvas," placing the figures against a backdrop where prison bars intrude onto a desert landscape.

With the help of Shloka Ettna, Creigh hauled the panels around to five public spaces—Raices Taller gallery, the Tanque Verde Swap Meet, Armory Park, Fluxx Gallery and a street in Nogales, Ariz., just steps away from the border wall. In each location, she and Ettna set up an outdoor painting studio open to one and all. Kids, teens, adults: all were invited to fill in the blanks of the big painting on wood.

"The painting was extremely appealing to the kids," Creigh says. "They'd say, 'I want to go home and paint, Mom.'"

But the bigger kids and the adults also learned something along the way. Each number on the drawing corresponded not only to a color but also to a particular fact about detention. When the community painters dipped their brushes into the can of dark-red paint marked with the number 300, they could read on the side that 300 women are typically detained on any given day in Arizona. The can of light-brown paint labeled 2001 revealed that captured women immigrants have been formally detained only since 2001. (As a result, Creigh notes, the detention centers still have not gotten around to meeting the particular physical and psychological needs of women.)

Many of the adults, especially at the swap meet and in Nogales, would "talk of women they know in detention," Creigh says.

During her paint-by-numbers year, which ended in February, Creigh met other artists who are also illuminating the agonies of immigration in their art. Mark David Leviton, who taught the now 28-year-old Creigh at Prescott College, invited her to stage an exhibition in his Industria Studios, a gallery and studio south of the UA.

Creigh's Detention Art Exhibition not only gives pride of place to the finished paint-by-number mural, it also displays 16 other pieces in multiple media by 10 other invited artists.

Julio Salgado of California displays five hard-hitting posters documenting life among the undocumented. One pictures a mother holding her child. The text reads: "You backpacked across Europe and they called you adventurous. I crossed a border to save my daughter's life and they call me a criminal."

Pancho Medina dedicated his searing installation to all migrants who have died in ICE detention. A skeleton lies in a coffin made of prison bars, flanked by American flags.

In her acrylic painting "In My Backyard," Nicole DiSante conjured the tedious days in detention centers, where few if any activities are offered. It's an aerial view of a dormitory, filled with immigrants idling on beds.

A small painting by Ettna, who helped manage the paint-by-number project, imagines a happy ending to the detention tale. It's like a Mexican religious retablo, but the miracle it celebrates was not occasioned by a saint. Instead, it pictures a Latina woman breaking out of detention, bending the bars with her own two hands.

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