Stigmata of the Detention Center

In the core of my city is an immigration detention facility. A local activist group has been fighting the presence of this privately-run facility. In the past year, since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the situation has gotten even more dire. In December, a University of Washington report found that “there are endemic health and safety concerns” at the prison.

In April 2020, hunger strikers at the detention center used their bodies to spell out the distress signal SOS. Photo: Tacoma News-Tribune.

Last spring, the activist group ran a Create2Decarcerate/CrearParaLiberar social media campaign, encouraging supporters to make art and post to social media. One art-making prompt was: “Share a poem or short prose piece in response to the following: Who do you do this work for? We want to know who moves you to organize, who feeds your commitment to ending detention.”

Personally, my faith is a major motivation for my activism. Jesus’ work and ministry was a clear call for liberation, and social justice is baked into my understanding of faith. The image of Christ on the cross is both an image of hope and a reminder of the violence caused by injustice and empire. So, I chose to write an ekphrastic poem (a poem based on a work of art) that linked images of crucifixion to the trauma and activism happening in my own community.

Altarpiece of the Holy Cross. By the Master of the St Bartholomew altarpiece, ca. 1490-1495. Wallraf-Richartz-Museum.

Stigmata of the Detention Center
(after Altarpiece of the Holy Cross)

they cannot look at You.
so many people, even a dog,
& they all avert their eyes.

in the center,
the one whom You loved is holding Your cross.
is holding You up.
their face shows disbelief.
but they will not leave.

we —
we cannot look at you.
so many people locked up,
& we all avert our eyes.

in the center of your courtyard,
you spell out SOS.
from the outside, we are holding you up.
our disbelief must pass.
we will not leave.

we, too, will bear witness to your wounds
caused by the forces of empire.
we, too, hold the tools
to fashion a better world.

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