It was a sunny afternoon when my colleague and I walked into the Otero County Processing Center. A single-story building with a fenced and barbed wire yard, it looked like a prison. It was right next to a prison after all. We entered through one of the four doors, the one with a sign noting visiting hours. The guards were in the middle of “the count” when we arrived, and so we had to wait before visiting the young man we were there to speak with. If you’re wondering, “the count” is the same thing that occurs in prisons; it’s an accounting of all inmates. And at the Otero County Processing Center, they are inmates.
We waited for around an hour for the count to finish, and during this time my colleague and I reviewed our interview questions and took in the atmosphere around us… a poster displaying a bail and commissary app… an older man waiting for a relative’s release… a sign describing appropriate attire for female visitors aged 12 and older… a middle-aged woman coming in to check on someone’s release status... a sign noting ICE’s “zero tolerance policy” for harassment.
The mood was heavy, and it’s hard to know whether it was solely the environment of that place or if our purpose for being there was a big part in that mood. Finally, the count was over, and we each provided staff with a copy of our driver’s license and went through the metal detector before being provided with our visitors badges. “You’ll be in the room labeled Legal 3” the guard instructed.
We entered a hallway which was about 50 feet long. On the left was a row of plexiglass windows with a stool on either side; one for the visitor and one for the inmate. Little privacy existed. On the right, several small rooms lined the hallway. We went into “Legal 3” and stood on our side of the plexiglass waiting for the young man to enter on