Mentions of showers and soap and toothpaste tumble into our newsfeeds. Reporters who’ve been allowed inside the detention facilities at the border tell tales of migrants held in cages, 60 to 70 deep, forced to sleep on concrete.
The same word surfaces in these stories: stench. The lack of hygiene punches every visitor in the face.
I remember those days myself. I couldn’t brush my teeth when I was in solitary confinement. I ended up losing teeth and having them replaced because of it. I often smelled so bad I that it kept me from sleeping. I couldn’t escape the source of the odor: myself. Most of it came from working in the kitchen, but some of it was natural achievement when I wasn’t allowed to bathe.
Highlighting the human rights abuses in our immigration crisis feels like looking in a mirror for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. The same thing happens inside the nation’s prisons.
In Brooklyn this past winter, both the heat and the electricity shut off at the Metropolitan Detention Center for days. Inmates couldn’t bathe, either, because the water was so cold. Keri Blakinger, the Houston Chronicle reporter who was incarcerated in another New York prison, has described incarcerated women using notebook paper to wipe themselves.
I’ve often wondered why the concept of “America First” doesn’t filter down to the American prisoner. “America First” was a slogan used by people who opposed the U.S. entering World War II. They wanted our country to engage in self-care instead of battling Nazis and keep the concentration camps in Europe.
President Donald Trump resurrected the idea in his inaugural address. “America First” has become the official foreign policy position of his administration, and it’s in the name of a super PAC that supports him and his various agendas.
Scholars and pundits have described “America First” policies as nativist, nationalist and anti-Semitic, which are just 50-cent words used to describe a stance that values only white, Christian citizens of the United States, the people to whom you can’t tweet “go back to where you came from.”
The “America First” stance may be racist, but it’s also hypocritical. If the logic is that we are to protect ourselves before others, then much of our incarcerated population deserves better than they’re getting, right? Eighty percent of the people in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons are United States citizens. Almost 60% of them are white. And they lack toothpaste, too, and use Xerox copies as toilet paper, and we generate less anger over that than what’s happening at the border. I imagine that a more humane prison system would be a cornerstone of the “America First” ideology since there are so many citizens locked up.
But it’s not. “America First,” as its been conceived, is a farce. And as long as we think that any type of dehumanization - to anyone, anywhere - is acceptable, the American prisoner will always come last.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries and is the Vice President of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.