Prison Drug Treatment Programs Are Failing People of Color

I met Karen, a 46-year-old Black mother, while I was studying the re-entry journeys of drug-involved men and women who were formerly incarcerated.* I recruited her to participate in a 60-minute interview, but even after having worked all day, she sat beside me in my office and spent several hours generously sharing her life story.

Karen had cycled in and out of prisons for crimes committed in the Greater Philadelphia area, ranging from identity theft and fraud to prostitution and strong-armed robbery. In her early 20s, a Delaware judge handed down a drug trafficking conviction that came with her first of several prison sentences. That’s when she was invited to enroll in a collective-oriented recovery program—a method that was relatively new to that prison in the early 1990s, and Karen’s first exposure to drug treatment. The program was designed to be a “total treatment environment,” where participants were separated from the distractions of normal prison life with other inmates, and instead lived and worked in a space focused on recovery, mutual support, and accountability for self-change.

Karen didn’t make it through even 5 weeks of the 12-month program before getting kicked out for insubordination to a counselor. When I asked her to reflect on her thoughts about leaving the counseling program to return to work assignments and the general prison population, her response startled me. “I loved [leaving]” she said. “It was just time for me to leave … I ended up losing weight in there. I had lost 19 pounds and ain’t nobody know who I was.”

What Karen encountered—and happily left—was a type of treatment program on which a lot of U.S. prisons rely: the therapeutic community (TC). Based on her story, and the stories of those like her, its success seems to depend on the race of the participants.


More than 1 million adults with serious mental illnesses are currently under criminal justice supervision, and the criminal legal system has emerged as one of the largest dedicated providers of substance abuse treatment for American citizens. Treatment for inmates with substance use disorder ranges from cognitive behavioral therapies, which teach patients to identify how thoughts and beliefs affect behavior, to medication, such as methadone, and even to mindfulness, which teaches students how to acknowledge and accept their present-moment struggles and design healthy ways to cope with those feelings and triggers.

Currently, more than 25 percent of state inmates and 1 in 5 federal inmates receive group-based drug treatment, typically offered in the form of a therapeutic community. The guiding approach of the TC is to provide drug-addicted inmates with a substance-free environment and group-based counseling. What sets this prison-based model apart is its focus. Unlike other programs that treat addiction, with TC, it’s understood that the person is sick, and that addiction is only a symptom of that sickness.

For White graduates, the certificate served as a badge

For example, during half-day “group shares,” participants are supposed to publicly examine their personal choices. If someone’s behavior doesn’t support the stated values of the TC, they are confronted by the community to help them “get back on track.” This recalibration takes shape first in the form of a verbal “pull-up,” where one community member makes the transgression of another known to the rest of the community. This exposure usually takes place during “encounter groups,” or “EGs,” as Karen referred to them— mandatory group-based meetings marked by harsh public shaming.

My research team interviewed 300 men and women who participated in these encounter groups while incarcerated in Delaware, and several described the experience as being situated in the middle of a pinball machine, where when in the “hot seat” (literally in the center of the group of other TC residents circled around you), you are emotionally hurled from one peer’s criticism to the next. Karen described why she was glad to not have to deal with it anymore:

EG is when everybody is sittin’ around in a circle, and you sit right in the middle of that circle, and when they call your name you would turn around to ‘em and they just blow you right out. Anything that they wanted to say—cuss at you—all you do is sit up in there and you don’t do nothing.

The rationale for this element of “treatment” is to require participants to publicly admit that their choices and negative behaviors got them to where they are now. This is a critical part of TC programming, and newer residents are socialized into these norms by older residents and TC staff, many of whom are in recovery themselves.

Respondents I spoke with shared that the initiation practice breeds bitterness and despair.

Leaving the TC, however, is no simple feat. Participants aren’t assessed as making progress unless they accept that they are “sick” and that they are personally responsible for their current imprisonment and the circumstances that brought them there. But in an age of massive cuts to public benefits and derogatory myths about “welfare queens,” female drug treatment clients are already often characterized as pathologically inferior and dependent. Those without jobs, or children they care for, must tread this territory with a very light step. And for formerly incarcerated non-Whites who must also carry the disproportionate burden of discrimination in post-prison housing and labor markets, the “addict” label is even more dangerous.


My interviews with current and former White TC participants suggest that, even though they also find pull-ups horrific, they are more comfortable adopting the label of “addict.” They shared that adopting a sick role allows them to enjoy a collection of rights and pardons, including protection from having to assume full responsibility for their life circumstances, and access to more inclusive, less blame-laden care. We’ve seen the same thing with the emerging conversation about the opioid crisis and how much collective empathy has been extended to White opioid users, despite being denied to Black heroin users for decades. Justine, a 51-year old White women from the suburbs of Wilmington, Delaware, shared that she knew that her addict status would have hurt her recovery and post-prison reintegration prospects much more if she were not White:

When I got out of state [prison], it was like people forgave me in ways I never expected.  They thought that because they saw me doing the work, going to meetings, walking the steps—they thought that I deserved a second chance … I learned that nobody wants a pretty White girl to go to waste like that. Strangers will fight for me even if I won’t.  That’s a truth that still gets me out of trouble today.

Experiences like Justine’s underscore the benefits of White privilege and class privilege. Studies show that White job candidates, regardless of their backgrounds, are given the benefit of the doubt in the labor market in ways that are denied to Black applicants. On the other hand, Black jobseekers are more hesitant to disclose anything that confirms the drug-using or criminal stereotype that they believe employers are already harboring.

Melanie, a Black woman who had served over 10 years for a cocaine possession conviction, shared that the illness language was synonymous with “junkie” and would never help her once released from prison. Instead, she believed that those labels would only lock her out from viable job opportunities and housing options, which are already limited for poor racial minority women with criminal records. Melanie was one of many who either “faked it,” relying on a script that she believed TC counselors wanted to hear, or dropped out of the TC altogether and forfeited the opportunity to claim a formal rehabilitation status.

Other Black respondents left the program because of their desire to get out from under the state’s gaze as soon as possible. The appeal to White TC graduates of prolonging treatment for the sake of earning a certificate of rehabilitation that could be displayed to prospective employers and landlords didn’t have the same luster for Black graduates. For White graduates, the certificate served as a badge. For Black graduates, the certificate lingered as a foul stain, proof of their diseased persona that could resurface at any time.

We already live in a society where Black people simply don’t get to be pardoned, sick, redeemed, or fully human. Incarcerated people who are Black and assessed as drug-addicted are self-selecting out of the corrections-based recovery process because it simply costs them too much and nets them too little.

Damon, a Black man who had worked in construction since his teens but couldn’t find work upon returning home from prison, had this to say about flaunting the TC graduation credentials: “I can tell you this much … I don’t know what the silver bullet is, but I know that that ain’t it.”

* All first names are pseudonyms and used to protect research subjects’ privacy.

**“Black” and “White” are capitalized throughout to illustrate that they represent political categories, just as you would see when identifying an “Irish,” “American,” or “Chicano” individual.



The Founder of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism Explains Why Journalists Should Take Sides

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King gave his life fighting for racial and economic justice, yet 50 years later the living wage he called for is still out of reach for tens of millions of Americans. Forty percent of American workers earn less than $15 an hour today. For black and Latinx workers, the statistics are even worse: More than half of African American workers and nearly 60 percent of Latinx workers make less than $15 an hour.

That’s what’s behind the MLK50 Justice Through Journalism project, a year-long reporting project on economic justice in Memphis, which takes a hard look at the institutions that are keeping so many of the city’s residents in poverty.

I spoke with the project’s founder, editor, and publisher, Wendi Thomas.

Rebecca Vallas: Just to kick things off, tell me a little bit about the project and the story behind its founding.

Wendi Thomas: I guess its initial origins were out of a writing project I was doing at The Commercial Appeal when I was a Metro columnist there. I was covering the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, and I was thinking even then what we would do to mark the 50th anniversary. And so I’ve been ruminating on this for about ten years—what would it look like to honor the dreamer in Memphis? If you know anything about King’s legacy you know that that means you better reckon with jobs and wages, because that’s why King was in Memphis. It was for underpaid public employees who wanted higher wages and the right to a union. So many of those issues are so relevant still today that my team has had no shortage of stories to write and things to cover.

RV: Why commemorate Dr. King’s legacy and the anniversary of his passing through journalism? And what does journalism have to do with justice?

WT: I think King spoke truth to power. A lot of the things he said were controversial, some of the parts we don’t remember: his opposition to the Vietnam war, his critique of capitalism … and I think good journalism also speaks truth to power, at least the kind of journalism that I’m interested in doing. And while there’s a notion that journalism is completely impartial and doesn’t take sides, I think there are some things we can take sides on. I think we can take sides and say that all children should have an education, right? That shouldn’t be a controversial political position.

Similarly, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that all workers should make enough to live on. If you work full time you should make enough to make your ends meet. To the extent that we can help eliminate the systems and structures that keep that from happening, that keep poor people poor, then there is a role for justice in journalism.

RV: Did you launch the project as its own separate entity because you didn’t feel that these stories were being told adequately in mainstream media?

I think we can take sides and say that all children should have an education.

WT: After I left the daily paper here in Memphis I did a fellowship at Harvard at the Nieman Foundation. That’s where I incubated this project and figured out exactly how it’s going to work. And I don’t think that you would find this kind of journalism in most mainstream news publications, because it is very critical of the status quo. Advertisers and readers aren’t used to having their perspectives and practices challenged. That’s all new for them. And I don’t think traditional mainstream news outlets would want to rile up their advertisers like that—they’re trying to keep them happy, which unfortunately has the side effect of reinforcing the status quo, which is to keep poor people poor.

RV: As part of this project, your team conducted a living wage survey of Memphis employers. What did you find in that survey?

WT: Yeah, so we took a look at the 25 largest area employers who collectively represent about 160,000 employees. And what we found was that most companies don’t want to say how much they pay their workers. So I talked to an economist about that—what can you conclude if a company doesn’t want to tell you how much they pay their workers, whether they pay a living wage? And the answer is they’re hiding something. If companies have good news to report, they’re glad to share that.

We were actually surprised to find that the City of Memphis government, Shelby County government, and Shelby County schools all do pay their workers fairly well. I mean we’re not talking $20 an hour—but we’re talking 85 percent more than $15 an hour. And the Shelby County schools have recently made a commitment to pay its workers $15 an hour, so that’s a good thing. But when you get into other employers, say private employers like FedEx, which is headquartered here and employs 30,000 people—FedEx doesn’t want to say. They answered some of our questions, but when pressed for more information about benefits and whether they use temp workers or outsource work, they sent us a statement about how much money they give to charity events. And charity isn’t justice.

RV: A lot of the stories in this project are focused on Memphis in particular, and they really put a face on the fight for a living wage. I’d love if you would tell some of the stories that your reporters have been telling through this project.

WT: Let’s see, gosh, where would I start? We’ve written a series of stories about companies that pay their workers enough to live on—unfortunately it’s not a long list of companies and they tend to be really small, maybe nonprofits or family-owned businesses—to show that it is possible, you can have these discussions within your organization. We ran a story about a woman who works at a company that she started making $15 an hour, and now she’s able to afford a home. And so these wages aren’t just so you can get your hair done or your nails done, it’s so you can have some kind of stability for you and for your family. So those stories are always fun to tell.

Charity isn’t justice.

We did a story about hotel housekeepers, and what it’s like to work as one where you’re having to do more work with less. One of the hotel housekeepers told us that she has to bring her own cleaning supplies because they don’t supply her with those.

We even have some stories on the site in the last couple of days about how this anniversary commemoration is really not for the people who live right around the Civil Rights Museum. So if you just walk a block over from the museum, Lorraine Motel where King was killed, you walk just a block over and it’s just abject poverty, and people who feel like this commemoration is not for them. The signature event tonight is going to be $100-a-plate gala. You’d have to work 14 hours if you make minimum wage to afford a ticket. And so there’s this tension between honoring this man who came here about labor and then also respecting the labor that’s still here today.

RV: How do you think that Dr. King would want us to be commemorating his legacy and the anniversary of his passing 50 years later?

WT: Yeah, I don’t think he would give two whits about, what would be the nice way of saying it. I don’t think he would care about these galas and these celebrations and these big shindigs with lots of people pontificating. I would like to think he’d be out here in the streets with the protestors and the activists. We have about 8 protesters that were outside the jail yesterday that got arrested, dragged on the street by police, cuffed in plastic zip ties. I like to think he would be with them today were he alive. I think he would be disappointed to know that Memphis is the fourth largest metropolitan area in the nation and 52 percent of the black children here live below the poverty line. But that’s what we’ve got. And the question we need to answer is the question posed by King’s last book, which is, where do we go from here?

This interview was conducted for Off-Kilter and aired as part of a complete episode on April 5. It was edited for length and clarity.



Trump’s Executive Order on ‘Welfare’ Is Designed to Pit Workers Against One Another

On Tuesday night, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that sums up how little he understands about poverty in America.

The order, titled “Reducing Poverty in America by Promoting Opportunity and Economic Mobility,” carries little weight by itself. It directs a broad range of federal agencies to review programs serving low-income people and make recommendations on how they can make the programs harder to access, all under the guise of “welfare reform.”

The order’s main purpose appears to be smearing popular programs in an effort to make them easier to slash—in part by redefining “welfare” to encompass nearly every program that helps families get by. To that end, the order reads as follows:

The terms “welfare” and “public assistance” include any program that provides means-tested assistance, or other assistance that provides benefits to people, households, or families that have low incomes (i.e., those making less than twice the Federal poverty level), the unemployed, or those out of the labor force.

Redefining everything from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) to Medicaid to Unemployment Insurance to child care assistance as “welfare” has long been part of conservatives’ playbook, as my colleague Shawn Fremstad has pointed out. The term has a deeply racially charged history in the United States, evoking decades of racial stereotypes about poverty and the people who experience it. By using dog-whistle terms like welfare, Trump is erecting a smokescreen in the shape of President Reagan’s myth of the “welfare queen”—so we don’t notice that he’s coming after the entire working and middle class.

Decades of research since TANF was enacted show that work requirements do not help anyone work

The fact is, we don’t have welfare in America anymore. What’s left of America’s tattered safety net is meager at best, and—contrary to the claim in Trump’s executive order that it leads to “government dependence”—it’s light-years away from enough to live on.

Take the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP provides an average of just $1.40 per person per meal. Most families run out of SNAP by the third week of the month because it’s so far from enough to feed a family on.

Then there’s housing assistance, which reaches just 1 in 5 eligible low-income families. Those left without help can spend up to 80 percent of their income on rent and utilities each month, while they remain on decades-long waitlists for assistance.

And then there’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the program that replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children in 1996 when Congress famously “[ended] welfare as we know it.” Fewer than 1 in 4 poor families with kids get help from TANF today—down from 80 percent in 1996. In fact, in several states, kids are more likely to be placed in foster care than receive help from TANF.

Families who do receive TANF are lucky if the benefits even bring them halfway to the austere federal poverty line. For example, a Tennessee family of 3 can only receive a maximum of $185 per month, or a little over $6 a day.

Yet TANF is the program Trump is holding up as a model—hailing 1996 “welfare reform” as a wild success—despite the fact that TANF has proven an abject failure both in terms of protecting struggling families from hardship and in helping them get ahead.

In particular, this executive order directs agencies to ramp up so-called “work requirements”—harsh time limits on assistance for certain unemployed and underemployed workers—which were at the heart of the law that created TANF. But decades of research since TANF was enacted show that work requirements do not help anyone work.

Make no mistake: Pushing for “work requirements” is at the core of the conservative strategy to reinforce myths about poverty in America. That “the poor” are some stagnant group of people who “just don’t want to work.” That anyone who wants a well-paying job can snap her fingers to make one appear. And that having a job is all it takes to not be poor.

Workers are forced to turn to programs like Medicaid and SNAP to make ends meet, because wages aren’t enough

But in reality, millions of Americans are working two, even three jobs to make ends meet and provide for their families. Half of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck and don’t have even $400 in the bank. And nearly all of us—70 percent—will turn to some form of means-tested assistance, like Medicaid or SNAP, at some point in our lives.

Trump claims his executive order is intended to eliminate “poverty traps.” But if he knew anything about poverty—aside from what he’s learned on Fox News—he’d know the real poverty trap is the minimum wage, which has stayed stuck at $7.25 an hour for nearly a decade. That’s well below the poverty line for a family of two—and not nearly enough to live on. There isn’t a single state in the country in which a minimum-wage worker can afford a one-bedroom apartment at market rate. Many low-wage workers are forced to turn to programs like Medicaid and SNAP to make ends meet, because wages aren’t enough.

If Trump were really trying to promote “self-sufficiency”—a concept he clearly doesn’t think applies to the millionaires and billionaires to whom he just gave massive tax cuts—he’d be all over raising the minimum wage. In fact, raising the minimum wage just to $12 would save $53 billion in SNAP alone over a decade, as more low-wage workers would suddenly earn enough to feed their families without nutrition assistance.

Yet there’s no mention of the minimum wage anywhere in Trump’s order to “promote opportunity and economic mobility.”

Which brings us back to the real purpose of this executive order: divide and conquer.

Trump and his colleagues in Congress learned the hard way last year how popular Medicaid is when they tried to cut it as part of their quest to repeal the Affordable Care Act. And it’s not just Medicaid that Americans don’t want to see cut. Americans overwhelmingly oppose cuts to SNAP, housing assistance, Social Security disability benefits, home heating assistance, and a whole slew of programs that help families get by—particularly if these cuts are to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations. What’s more, as polling by the Center for American Progress shows, Americans are less likely to vote for a candidate who backs cuts.

By contrast, vast majorities of Americans across party lines want to see their policymakers raise the minimum wage; ensure affordable, high-quality child care; and even enact a job guarantee to ensure everyone who is able and wants to work can find a job with decent wages. These sentiments extend far beyond the Democratic base to include majorities of Independents, Republicans, and even Trump’s own voters.

That’s why rebranding these programs as welfare is so important to Trump’s agenda. Rather than heed the wishes of the American people, Trump’s plan is—yet again—to tap into racial animus and ugly myths about aid programs in order to pit struggling workers against one other. That way, he can hide his continued betrayal of the “forgotten men and women” for whom he famously pledged to fight.


First Person

Medicaid Work Requirements Would Have Killed Me

In the Japanese practice of Kintsugi, broken pottery is repaired with gold. During this process, the pieces of the broken vessel are held together patiently by the steady hands of the artisan, and filled in with lacquer, which is dusted with gold.

I am that vessel, broken and restored.

I was born addicted and given up for adoption.

Dismissed from social groups and bullied in high school.

Sexual trauma as my first sexual experience.

Subsequent suicide attempt.

My sense of self began to leak, falling away from me, slipping through the cracks.

I survived Hurricane Katrina.

And the looting.

My husband was deployed to war.

My child almost died at birth—and so did I.

Another deployment.

My marriage is crumbling.

I’m a single mother.

I can’t take it anymore.


On December 7, 2011, after 7 years of addiction, I was arrested and taken to Campbell County jail. I stayed there for 9 months and was released to shock probation Shock probation is when a judge orders a person serve a short stint in jail, then releases them to serve the remainder of their sentence on probation. The theory behind the practice is that the short prison sentence will reduce recidivism for first-time offenders. in a halfway house.

I tried so hard to adjust, but I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have health insurance, so my ADHD and anxiety disorders were not being treated. I was getting recovery material from participating in substance abuse treatment, but I couldn’t concentrate or remember things. Three weeks later, I returned to jail because I wasn’t doing the laundry chore the right way—I kept forgetting to empty the lint trap in the dryer and use the sign-in/sign-out book.

Once I was back in prison, I had health care and didn’t need insurance. I was able to complete a six-month program for women who have dual diagnosis—mental illness and substance abuse. I graduated and was released in May 2013, a completely new human being with an education on the most important subject I could ever learn about: myself. I had a 30-day prescription and a suggestion to follow up with my primary care physician and go to a meeting.

All I needed, yet again, was health insurance.

I couldn’t work for several months after being released. My only experience was serving in bars and restaurants, but I was terrified that the job would make me relapse. I have severe back pain, and I’m allergic to the only medicine that’s legal for me to use to relieve it. Even when I was mentally and emotionally capable of going back to work, I struggled to find employment as a convicted felon on parole. I had no license, no transportation, no birth certificate. I had no money.

I lived at home with my parents and felt like a tremendous burden as they shuttled me to and from probation and parole, to free clinics, to prescription pharmacy program buildings, and to my meetings. They watched me struggle in disbelief at first, thinking I could try harder. But soon they realized how hard it was to get a job interview, let alone a job.

That’s how, almost 10 months after my release, I found myself sitting in my empty bathtub. I was fully dressed and weeping, screaming silently at a god I didn’t believe in anymore to “fix it,” or I was going to end it all.

That’s when I heard the mailman. He rang the bell and brought me a package for my father, and on top was my approval notice from Medicaid. In that moment, I literally felt like President Obama had done that just for me—to keep me here, so I’d keep fighting for myself.

I can tell you with absolute certainty that people will die if these restrictions are implemented

Just as the vessel is held together by the hands of the artisan, I was held together by Medicaid.

My doctors and I worked together fill the cracks in my life with things far more valuable and precious than gold.

Love for myself, my family, and the rest of humanity.

Coping skills for the times when I am not well.

Dedication to a beautiful, intelligent 11-year-old son.

Now, I’m pursuing a bachelor’s degree at Northern Kentucky University, with two years of experience working on the front lines of the opioid epidemic as a Kentucky State Certified Peer Support Specialist. I have helped people navigate their own road to recovery by partnering with them to identify and knock down the very same barriers I faced.

But last night, President Trump issued an executive order that could make stories like mine a lot less common. It asks any federal agency that provides assistance to low-income people to re-examine their programs and add work requirements whenever possible. It builds on a letter that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued to state Medicaid directors earlier this year, allowing states to strip coverage from people who can’t find a job.

People like me.

People who aren’t working because they can’t: because they’re sick or they have a record or they have a disability or they can’t find a job or they’re taking care of their aging parents.

People who need help.

I’ve been on both sides of the opioid epidemic, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that people will die if these restrictions are implemented. I had to fight way too hard and for far too long to get where I am today.



Sending Troops to the Border Will Cause More Migrant Deaths

Late Friday night, Defense Secretary James Mattis approved the deployment of up to 4,000 troops to the U.S.-Mexico border. The order, which came after President Donald Trump called for an increase in troops in response to a caravan of refugees making their way north to seek asylum, is not the first time the National Guard has been sent to the border (President George W. Bush sent 6,000 troops in 2006 and President Barack Obama sent 1,200 in 2011). However, many people living in the borderlands believe the action escalates an already-weaponized war zone, and at a time when the United States is seeing the lowest border crossing numbers since 1971.

The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR) defines border militarization as “the systematic intensification of the border’s security apparatus, transforming the area from a transnational frontier to a zone of permanent vigilance, enforcement, and violence.”

The NNIRR further states that “the outcome of border militarization has not been to deter migration, but instead to create more vulnerability.”

Sixty miles south of my home in Tucson, at the U.S.-Mexico border, a crude steel wall cleaves the town of Nogales in half. Once a single town, relatives now stretch their arms through slits in the wall to hold hands. North of the border, Interstate 19 runs through a scrubby desert, past dusty Arizona ranch towns and gated retirement communities, paralleling the green line that marks the Santa Cruz River. The desert stretches out as far as you can see: thousands of acres of rocky mountain ranges, remote wilderness areas, First Nations land, and cattle ranches.

In 1994, the U.S. Border Patrol began a new strategy called Prevention Through Deterrence. Urban areas from Brownsville, Texas, to San Diego, California, were outfitted with more Border Patrol agents and military-style equipment, including cameras and walls. As a result, it was no longer possible for migrants to cross the border in urban areas. They now had to traverse remote stretches of desert by foot.

In the Sonoran Desert, summer temperatures can climb up to 120 degrees near some of the most commonly used crossing routes. Monsoon storms turn bone-dry arroyos into dangerous flash floods. In winter, below-freezing nighttime temperatures can induce hypothermia. There is little shade and the only water might be found inside the belly of a cactus, or an algae-filled cattle tank. There are rocks to turn ankles, rattlesnakes, and miles upon miles of spiny cacti.

In the last two decades, more than 7,000 bodies of migrants have been found in the Arizona desert, most having died of exposure or dehydration. Thousands more men, women, and children have disappeared. In 2015 alone, more than 1,200 missing persons cases were opened by the human rights organization La Coalición de Derechos Humanos, in response to people looking for loved ones who went missing on the journey through the desert.

A report co-authored by La Coalición de Derechos Humanos and humanitarian group No More Deaths reads, “The region has been transformed into a vast graveyard of the missing.”

*                    *                    *

In the late 1990s, southern Arizona communities began to witness the effects of increased border militarization. Human remains were found in the desert. The Medical Examiner’s morgues continued to fill up throughout the early 2000s, as missing persons reports and phone calls increased from frantic family members. Border Patrol checkpoints appeared along rural roads and highways. Reports of racial profiling in urban areas increased, as did raids in neighborhoods and workplaces.

A widespread citizen response began—one that, full disclosure, I joined as a volunteer for La Coalición de Derechos Humanos and No More Deaths when I moved to Tucson in 2005. Several groups were formed to provide legal support, missing migrant searches, public education, and direct humanitarian aid. Others continued the work they’d been doing to support border crossers since the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s. Local volunteers—including retirees, pastors, nurses, and youth activists—drove desert roads and hiked into remote areas to leave gallons of water along migrant trails, hoping it would save lives. “¡Hola, hermanos! Somos amigos de la iglesia. Tenemos comida y agua,” they called as they walk through the desert brush. Hello, brothers! We’re friends from the church. We have food and water.

In the last two decades, more than 7,000 bodies of migrants have been found in the Arizona desert

Over a three year period between 2012 and 2015, No More Deaths tracked approximately 31,000 gallons of water they placed in an 800-square-mile radius. Eighty-six percent of the water was used, demonstrating high need. But over that same period of years, water jugs were vandalized by humans at an average of twice per week. “Although it is likely that multiple actors are responsible for the destruction of humanitarian aid at our water-drop sites, the results of our [geographic] data analysis indicate that US Border Patrol agents likely are the most consistent actors,” states the report.

A series of videos taken by wildlife cameras and personal cameras clearly show Border Patrol agents destroying water jugs and other humanitarian aid supplies. In one video, a female agent kicks a line of water jugs one by one, smashing the plastic containers against the rocks. In another, a male agent looks into the camera and sneers at the unseen videographer. “You’re gonna’ get a good shot. Just picking up this trash somebody left on the trail,” he says. “It’s not yours, is it? All you have to do is tell me that it’s yours.” He pours out water from the jugs as he talks, his forehead glistening with sweat.

On January 17, 2018, just hours after the above video footage was released, eight No More Deaths volunteers were apprehended by Border Patrol. All are being charged with federal misdemeanors, except for Scott Warren, a faculty associate at Arizona State University and a longtime No More Deaths volunteer, who is being charged with a felony for harboring migrants after agents witnessed him providing two people with water and food. If convicted, he could face five years in prison. In Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge—where the volunteers had been looking for distressed migrants and leaving humanitarian aid supplies—No More Deaths volunteers discovered 32 sets of human remains in 2017.

This is not the first time that the federal government has brought charges against No More Deaths volunteers. In 2005, Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss were arrested while transporting three severely dehydrated migrants to a medical facility, and charged with smuggling and conspiracy felonies. They each faced a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison and a $500,000 fine. After over a year of legal proceedings and a widespread grassroots campaign in support of humanitarian aid, the charges against them were dropped. In 2008, Walt Staton, then a seminary student, was cited for littering after U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers found him leaving water containers on trails in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. Several months before Staton’s citation, Dan Millis was cited for littering, also by U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers, for leaving water containers in the wildlife refuge.

For Millis, the citation came just two days after he and three other No More Deaths volunteers found the lifeless body of a 14-year-old Salvadoran girl in a nearby remote area. Josseline Hernandez and her 10-year-old brother had been traveling with a group of other border crossers when Josseline became ill and was left behind. The siblings were on their way to California to meet their mother. Millis spent months in court fighting the littering charges, arguing—as Sellz and Strauss did—that “humanitarian aid is never a crime,” and that water containers left in the desert with the intent to save lives is not litter. He won the case in an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court, which ruled that the water containers were not garbage.

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Todd Miller, a journalist and the author of two books about the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, says the Trump Administration’s decision to send the National Guard troops to the border “reinforces, supports, and frees up the U.S. Border Patrol, a self-described paramilitary agency.”

Since 1993, the U.S. Border Patrol’s annual budget has increased more than ten-fold, from $363 million to over $3.8 billion, and the number of agents increased from 4,000 to 21,000. The combined budgets for Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2017 was $19 billion—more than the FBI, DEA, and U.S. Marshals Service combined.

“The Border Patrol not only operates on the international boundary line, but also in 100-mile jurisdictions, and they do it with extraconstitutional powers above and beyond what normal law enforcement can do,” says Miller. “They can put up checkpoints, pull people over in roving patrols, and essentially violate the 4th amendment—the right to not be searched or seized. This is why the ACLU calls the borderlands a ‘constitution-free zone.’”

The effects of militarization also spill into courtrooms in communities along the border. In 2005, under President George W. Bush, Operation Streamline began, a daily assembly-line courtroom processing of undocumented migrants found crossing the border. During the Obama presidency, Operation Streamline increased dramatically. In just two hours, up to 70 people can be tried and sentenced.

Miller has spent the last eight years researching the private military companies that also want to cash in on border militarization. He describes attending border security conventions with “vendors and companies adamantly discussing their desire to break into the border security market.” In the early 2010s, as U.S. military operations were winding down in Iraq and Afghanistan, Miller says many of those companies expressed that they were in search of new markets. “One vendor, who had before sold his company’s products to the U.S. military, told me ‘we are now bringing the battlefield to the border.’”

In the years since Prevention Through Deterrence began, poverty and violence have continued to force those fleeing for their lives to head north. And so they come—exhausted from the journey, some with babies in their arms, seeking work, seeking a good safe life—and when they reach the border, they are inhumanely squeezed into the gauntlet of the desert, where, as Miller says, “death has become one of many deterrents.”

“When you consider human security, such as the right for a person to have shelter, food, health, education, a future, you see quickly that the billions of dollars put into border militarization are drastically misplaced,” Miller says, joining the many border residents who say that the U.S. government should address the socioeconomic and political reasons driving migration in the first place.

But instead of tackling those root causes of migration, Miller says the U.S. government has focused on putting up walls and bringing the military to the border. In an April 5 interview with Democracy Now, he said, “There will be more agents. There will be more walls. There will be more technologies. There will be more checkpoints. There will be more drone surveillance. There will be more expansion of this apparatus into these 100-mile jurisdictions. And I think that’s the intention.”