The prison door opened, soaking the gray cell with bright fluorescence. Jean stiffened against the thin mattress, its coils pressing across his back. Several guards appeared inside. Breath caught between his lungs. He’d be taken now, transported back to Haiti without a parting word to his daughter. His hands reached along the edge of the narrow, steel-framed bed and squeezed. Instead, the guards made for the opposite bunk, and wrestled Imad to his feet. Low, impatient voices accompanied their shuffled movements. Now. Let’s Go. A groan surfaced from the metal cot, and Imad followed, escorted between them, in silence. The mechanical door rolled shut, taking with it the outside light.
Jean found Anel in the mess hall the next morning, just before dawn. A quiet, somber tension subdued the neighboring rows of men, as it often did when one among them was deported.
“They fly them out of Newark. In Jersey. Don’t even remove the handcuffs to let you eat,” Anel said. Hs eyes shone bright and fierce.
“How do you know? You been on them planes?” Jean said.
“I got ears, brother. And I know Imad was still meeting with that lawyer about his case. It ain’t right.”
Jean nodded. In the few weeks since his arrest by ICE, he’d tried to acclimate himself without complaint to detention center life in the Boston jailhouse, as if that might help his asylum plea. He focused on the chore of breakfast — a cornmeal patty strewn together with dry chunks of peanut butter. Tasteless and stale, it offered just enough protein to start the day. Jean choked down his portion, knowing of the hunger that awaited him later in the evening.
“Imad told me he couldn’t get an appointment with the caseworker for weeks. Like she was avoiding him. Maybe she already knew,” he said.
Anel scratched at his thick beard and rolled his eyes. “Hell, all she ever says is that she’ll look into it. Don’t matter what it is. You still waiting on that lawyer, right?”
Jean nodded, his frown deepening. A thick bland taste traveled through his mouth as he chewed. Heat shimmered beneath the lamps of the small serving station nearby. He thought about the yellow notepad that the caseworker brought to their meetings, how she recorded his requests for legal representation before facing the judge — the detained received no jury. Perhaps his messages didn’t get forwarded to the right place. Jean longed again for his smartphone, taken from him upon detainment. He’d suffered a withdrawal from the device at first, severed from the outside world and his presence in it.
A pair of guards circled the perimeter of the long cafeteria tables that crowded the sterile grey and crème-brick cafeteria. Sergeant McLaughlin appeared from across the room, enormous in his blue-black uniform with its badge positioned over his chest like an unblinking eye. Jean tensed at the sight of him.
“More of us here than them,” Anel said. He nodded at a group of Haitians nearby. Jean seldom sat among those so fresh from the island, as if the twenty-plus years of living in the States had made him more deserving of becoming American. Still, he ached at the sound of French Creole. Years ago, he’d left with his mother from Port-au-Prince. He gazed at the other Haitians, stiff with jealous wonder over the relatives and friends that awaited their forced return.
“Striking won’t get us nowhere. We been through this before,” Jean said.
He studied Anel’s long, bony face lined by age and hustle. Bonds formed fast in detention, and Jean knew much about the man, how he’d worked security jobs until his visa expired. Then he landed himself in the streets. Striking was always on Anel’s mind. It was all talk until it wasn’t.
“All the power sits in this room,” Anel said. His heavy gaze shifted to the guards. “You want anything to happen, you got to get them to notice you first. I been here over a year now, and I know how it all works. We got to do it in a place where our absence will be felt.”
A short alarm overhead signaled the end of their fifteen-minute reprieve.
“Brunch is over, ladies. Get your asses up. You don’t pay taxes here,” McLaughlin said.
“All I’m saying is that something needs to be done,” Anel said. His eyes went wide again, a violent unhinged look returning that made Jean nervous. Such desperation was contagious, though Jean steeled himself against the restless uncertainty packed into each moment. He gathered together his plate and fork, and rose to leave.
Jean fit the mop head into the wringer, squeezing hard and lifting it out from the bucket to push along the gray shower tiles. He worked his arms in a steady circular motion, ignoring the stray dreadlocks that fell loose from his ponytail and across his brow, grateful to be outside that cell. The job eased the long hours between the case worker’s visits and the absence of a lawyer or his deportation officer. Steam hung in the air from the morning. The showerheads ran so hot then that one could not stand beneath the water without getting burnt, so instead the men edged around it to wash. Jean traced long, wet streaks across the length of the enclosed square room. He forced away another thought of Elyse, his three-year-old daughter, with her easy grin and braided pigtails, woven through with small pink beads. He thrust the mop hard along the floor as his sight became wet.
For years he’d applied for citizenship, never receiving anything but a renewed work visa. His arrest for “disturbing the peace” served as a permanent mark against him. He couldn’t forgive himself for getting involved in that bar fight, even after the decade he’d spent remaking his life, raising Elyse and working different construction jobs. Sweat greased his hold on the mop, though he refused to slow his pace.
Devi entered the room, shouldering more cleaning supplies. They were often put on the same custodial jobs together. Five-headed serpents covered the length of his muscular arms and neck. The bold, jade-inked scales contrasted hard against the orange sleeves of his prison jumpsuit. He poured a container of pink liquid soap into a smaller bucket of water and dipped a scrub brush inside, swirling the mixture around. Then he crouched beneath one of the showerheads and scoured the long tendrils of brown rust stains along the wall. His tall, broad-shouldered frame appeared boyish and awkward in his squat.
“Anel wants to strike,” Jean said.
“He’s always running his mouth,” Devi said. A vein pulsed from the top of his clean-shaven head as he worked. The word “Nāga” stood etched in an elegant filigree across the back of his scalp, symbolic of the Cambodian gang he once ran with on the streets of Lowell. Years after an earlier prison release, he’d folded down any connections to his thug life. His recent arrest by ICE happened like Jean’s — unexpected one night on account of a crime paid for years ago.
“The Nāga bring the rain. They guard the most holy places. What’s holier than the body?” he’d once said.
Jean sunk the mop head into its bucket. “You know what they done to Imad?”
Devi nodded, the black letters winking, caught in the creases of his neck. “McLaughlin had it out for him. Remember when he went into Imad’s cell and ripped up all his work? You know they’re not supposed to be touching nobody’s shit —”
“I was there,” Jean said, recalling the tear and crinkle of paper between the guard’s furious hands. He still kept one of Imad’s pen-sketched portraits. Faces of men, most deported and forgotten, stared out from squares of toilet paper or scripture handouts distributed by the weekly prayer group. Imad sold them as a means of affording a phone call to his mother or kids. A minute alone cost five dollars. McLaughlin had searched through the cell that day, destroying every piece of art he could find.
“Dude should’ve kept his mouth shut,” Devi said.
Jean nodded. Everyone knew that after Imad filed a grievance to the sheriff against McLaughlin.
“You know how Anel gets, riling everyone up,” he said.
“Well, he hasn’t been able to get a strike together yet, has he? Don’t worry about the others. They’re only bored. We’d be better off in a normal prison where there are programs and libraries. Shit to occupy your mind,” Devi said.
“People might listen this time,” Jean said.
Devi said nothing. He tore away at another streak of rust.
“When I was arrested, this immigration officer tells me, ‘Haiti is good now, you can go back,'” Jean said. “But who do I know there? I haven’t been back in over twenty years, not since my mom and I came over when I was five. I got no one back there. They all dead.”
“That don’t matter now. You just keep your case moving. Whatever it takes,” Devi said. He rose, stretching out his tall physique, and faced Jean. “Here, we all in the shit.”
Jean punched in the access code on the silver keypad of the phone, and pressed the receiver hard against his ear, as if that might block out the noise of rec hour in the congested space outside of the cells. A large wall-mounted TV, always set at a loud, intrusive volume, blanketed over the men’s voices. Most sat around in plastic chairs, playing cards or waiting to use the phone or laundry machine. Several adjacent, glass-framed rooms stood nearby, one housing a prayer group, where others sat together, holding hands in a circle. Several guards monitored them from a desk shielded by a Plexiglas window.
The line opened, accompanied by a strange, static undertone. Anel once told him how a guard listened to all outside calls in case you tried to conduct illicit business or complain about the conditions inside. They could cut you off at any time. Jean’s chest tightened with each long ring until Alisha, Elyse’s mother, answered.
“You just don’t quit, do you?”
“Don’t come at me like that. Listen—”
“It’s no place for a child. How many times you going to make me tell you that?”
Jean sighed. He could hear the gin in her voice, making it shrill and bitter. He imagined her fingernails clicking with impatience along the edge of the phone. They were long and red, belonging to tender hands that dressed and washed their daughter. He pictured Elyse content in her bedroom, playing with her favorite Elmo doll.
“Just let me talk to her. I don’t know how much time I have,” he said.
“You did this to yourself,” Alisha said before hanging up.
The dial tone hung in his ear. He stepped aside for the next man in line. Anel sat across the room with a new group of Latinos. They donned fresh new orange slacks and shirts with ‘ICE’ printed in thick, black letters across the back. A muddle of Spanish and English traveled between them. Already, Anel had their ear, though they frowned in suspicion. He explained the daily routine and warned against the trickery of the detention officers, who preyed upon those who couldn’t read English, fooling them into signing self-deportation documents.
“For a good six months, I met with an immigration lawyer who promised to take my case pro-bono. One day he up and disappeared. No reason for it. Ain’t nothing I can do about it either,” Anel said.
His words gnawed at Jean, and soon he moved away from them. He went to the guards’ station and asked for a request to meet with his deportation officer. His last several applications had gone unanswered, but still he completed another form and passed it through the Plexiglas window without complaint.
They ate dinner in the late afternoon—a small Sloppy Joe concoction of nameless meat and rubbery pasta overrun by a heap of peas. One of the men found a hairnet in the fruit juice container but no one allowed it to curb his appetite. By eight that evening, the men were restless with hunger. Some had no family to wire money into their accounts. Anel convinced a few to pool together what they could and buy snacks from the canteen to share with the newcomers. Jean winced at the expense — a cup of Ramen noodles cost a dollar; a thin bag of chips cost five.
A fingerless man from El Salvador took Imad’s bed that night. He’d lost his right extremities to a defective leaf blower while on a landscaping job. Hospital care offered no protection against ICE, so he’d taken his chances with an underground clinic and saved what he could of the hand.
“Una nevera, no?” He gestured with his stump to the ceiling vent, where the air conditioning continued to blast despite the winter nights.
“Yeah, an icebox is a good way to put it.” Jean rubbed his palms against the tops of his thighs for warmth. The prison garb was cheap and thin, already fraying at the edges. “My boy Devi told me they keep the cells cold to stop germs from spreading. Who knows if that’s true.”
Jean pushed again at the small button near the thick metal door to alert the guard that he needed to use the bathroom. There were no toilets inside of the cells, a fact that went against all that he’d seen in TV police dramas and his own brief time incarcerated. He squeezed a sliver of blue soap that left his skin dry, and some tissue paper he kept rationed inside of his pocket. The bathroom wasn’t always stocked, though a supply could be found with the nurse if you got her in the right mood.
Outside, the corridor echoed with the heavy slam of prison doors opening and closing, as if to mock his need. The noise strafed at Jean’s temples. He punched at the button with his fist, but still the guards ignored him. Eager voices swelled in his ears — the others sat in their bunks and made plans for when they were released. Jean strained to make out what he could of the conversation — his own Spanish, picked up while working on various construction sites, was childlike at best. Some spoke of their children, while others described living again in the fear of another arrest once released.
“Somos ni aquí, ni allá,” one of the newcomers said. We’re neither here nor there.
The Salvadoran spoke of what awaited if he was deported, how members of the MS-13 gang had it out for him. They’d once pressured him to join, and shot his sister in the head when he refused. His mother never again left the house after that.
Jean listened in silence. His own father was killed for his suspected allegiance to Aristide. He thought of the old man washing himself from a porcelain basin each morning before leaving for work. They never had running water, but his father began each day moving a wet sponge over his armpits and neck. Would the men who killed him be waiting for Jean in Haiti? He forced aside the memory of slow-moving water, and shifted the weight of his restless limbs, his groin burning with pressure.
“Goddamn,” he said, and waved a frantic hand at the ceiling camera. Sweat wet the space above his lips. He turned from the others and urinated against the door.
Jean realized Devi’s absence the next morning as he stood in his boxers, leaning against the washing machine, and waited for his uniform to clean. Only one pair was allowed. He ignored the derisive looks of those who passed through the rec room. Mitchell, who manned the Plexiglas station earlier that day, confirmed Devi’s fate. He tossed Jean a towel but spoke nothing of the incident. Mitchell was cool that way. He often let the guys stay in bed at night when he did headcount, noting off each man with his silver mechanical clicker.
Jean nodded in thanks and draped the towel around his shoulders. He thought to ask about the status of his request, but Devi’s absence muted him. How much Khmer could Devi speak? Jean wondered whether anyone in Phnom Penh or elsewhere in Cambodia might receive him at the airport. He’d never see the man again.
McLaughlin approached him, his small blue eyes twinkling in the middle of his wide, pink face. “You’re supposed to be working,” he said.
Jean crossed his arms and gazed at the Plexiglas station, where Mitchell sat, busying himself with some paperwork, ignoring them.
“Mess hall needs to be cleaned,” McLaughlin said.
“Yes, sir,” Jean said. He remained still.
McLaughlin’s lips curved into a knowing smile. “The boys tell me you pissed all over the cell last night. Really stunk the place up. How about we start there first?”
“No one opened the door for me when I pushed the buzzer.”
“Next time push harder.”
Jean bit down on the insides of his mouth. He thought of Imad and looked away.
“Go fill one of those buckets and get moving,” McLaughlin said.
Instead, Jean remained still and continued to stare past Mitchell and the other guards at the desk, who now eyed him with suspicion, and focused upon the metal automatic doors that sealed off the outside world. His chest emptied.
McLaughlin shot a hand over Jean’s shoulder and tore him away from the washing machine. Jean pulled away from him. One of the guards stepped out from behind the desk. McLaughlin chuckled. A cold clarity broke over Jean. He turned for the mop and bucket nearby.
He made his decision later that week. A deportation officer visited the detention center during rec hour, making rounds with those requests printed on a list. Jean’s name was not called. The guards behind the Plexiglas window only regarded him with boredom.
“Never got it,” Mitchell said.
“I submitted it last week,” Jean said.
Mitchell shook his head. “Don’t know what to tell you. A man’s got to wait his turn like everyone else.”
They gave him a new work assignment in the mess hall as a server. Jean parceled out scoops of overcooked peas and Sloppy Joe meat, steam rising from the aluminum platters, coating his face with greasy moisture. Thoughts of Elyse plagued him. How much time was left before they forced him on a plane to Haiti? Afterward, when he told Anel, the same bright, unhinged look returned to his friend’s eyes. It no longer frightened Jean.
“If you want them to listen, you got to get yourself heard,” Anel said.
The men sat in their cells the next morning and waited there through breakfast, then shower time and rec hour. Several announcements appeared over the loudspeaker and were ignored. Soon the guards stood before them. McLaughlin bent over Jean’s face, close enough to reveal the black fillings in his molars. The heat of his nicotine breath probed Jean’s skin like dirty fingers.
“I will put every one of your immigrant asses on lockdown,” he said.
They waited through the threats. The air blew colder from the vents, and the hot fluorescent lights burned hard throughout the night, making it impossible to sleep. Hunger spasms twisted across Jean’s midsection, nausea drawing out each hard-won hour.
“All we have to do is make it past seventy-two hours,” he said, echoing Anel’s instruction. “That will demand some outside attention.”
Before the second day reached evening, the guards came for Jean, pulling him from his cot and binding his wrists in cuffs. They escorted him to a new floor, past foreign corridors to a new cell with only a toilet and a slender cot. A ceiling camera captured the totality of the space. Solitary.
The first week passed without harm. Three times a day, a canteen-grade meal arrived through a small plastic window in the door. Often, Jean drew out Imad’s portrait, and studied the reimagined lines and contours of his own face. His greatest challenge entailed keeping his mind distracted. Once, he discovered a layer of mold growing on the underside of his meat patty. He drank milk but refused the rest.
“If you don’t eat, we will stick a fucking tube down your throat and make you eat,” the guard said.
Jean ignored them. Ennui spread through his limbs, making his movements thick and slow. He tried to sleep away the hours, distorting his sense of time. Voices bent through the walls, hushed murmurings, like his mother caught in the trance of prayer-chant, enraptured by spirit voices. In Haiti, she’d given him ritual baths to cleanse him of demons when his father’s beatings weren’t enough. Jean’s thoughts twisted in question, replaying that night outside that bar in Revere, when a man drew a knife on him. He fought back and served time for it. Perhaps Anel would soon rat him out. Jean thought again of his daughter’s soft round cheeks and her warm applesauce scent. The silk skin of her feet as he pulled on her tiny socks, working them over her toes as she squealed in delight. The night ICE arrested him, Elyse watched in quiet bewilderment from the living room floor with her favorite fleece blanket. She blinked her wet eyes but did not cry.
McLaughlin sent for him after another week. They met in a small interrogation room with fluorescent lighting that made Jean’s eye sockets ache. He sat with his hands folded tightly together and his ankles hooked one over the other. Shackled to himself. McLaughlin stared at Jean, his face open and welcome.
“I know about you. You take every job you can get here, always working and putting yourself to use. I admire that in a man. Means you’ve got some character,” he said.
Jean looked away. He needed only to feign indifference to whatever means they used against him to extricate Anel’s name from his lips.
“I can tell from your requests through the case worker that family is important to you. Believe me, I get that. I’m a father too,” McLaughlin said.
Jean stared ahead, weakened by fatigue. He wanted to hide from McLaughlin, become opaque to his gaze. The sergeant leaned forward, his voice low and intimate, as if sharing a confession.
“All I need to know is who put the strike together. Who set it in motion? I know it wasn’t you. There’s no saving anyone’s ass around here but your own.”
A large fly buzzed from inside one of the ceiling lamps. Jean’s eyes drooped. His back ached from the chair. Minutes passed, maybe an hour. McLaughlin talked the whole time, making threats and promises over how much easier he could make things, until smacking a hard, impatient fist against the table.
“You ever want to speak to your daughter again? I know how badly Elyse misses you. Her mother and I had quite the talk this morning.” McLaughlin paused for a moment. “What’s it going to be?”
Jean’s heart stuttered. He closed his eyes and sighed. Soon his tongue began forming syllables. Each word he spoke seemed to echo from across a great distance.
He returned to the detention center only to find the others gone — deported or released — he wasn’t privy to know. A new crop of men, some Haitian or African, most Latinos, gathered together during rec hour, confused and restless. Elyse’s mother still refused to accept his calls. A week after Jean’s release from solitary, a deportation officer agreed to meet with him, bringing news that his case had somehow been accelerated. They assigned him a date and an immigration attorney who agreed to represent him pro-bono. The rest happened too fast. When he faced the judge, he still wore his orange prison jumpsuit. His lawyer read aloud a recommendation from McLaughlin, praising him for good behavior.
Later, they returned his street clothes and a plastic bag containing his wallet and smartphone. Outside, the sun winked at him from the edges of sidewalks frosted over with snow. The wet concrete felt strange beneath his sneakered feet as he walked several blocks to a bus stop, then a subway station, which carried Jean fast underground. Traveling among other people, absorbed in their phones, disorientated him. His own device remained disabled, the service unpaid. Perhaps Elyse’s mother would refuse to take him in. He gazed at strangers and found himself unseen. When he emerged again aboveground in Roxbury, a cold rain greeted him. The old apartment complex soon came into view, its familiarity creeping over him like newfound warmth.
— Olivia Kate Cerrone is the author of “The Hunger Saint” (Bordighera Press, 2017). Her Pushcart Prize-nominated fiction won the 2016 Jack Dyer prize from the Crab Orchard Review. “The Detained” is an excerpt from “Displaced,” a novel-in-progress.