The Backstory: Seth Freed Wessler

Reporting inside a notorious immigration detention center

In this episode of The Backstory, we talk to investigative reporter and former Type Investigations fellow Seth Freed Wessler about his new documentary “The Facility.” A Field of Vision production, produced in partnership with Type Investigations and Rayuela Films, “The Facility” follows a group of detained immigrants organizing against inhumane treatment and dangerous conditions in Georgia’s Irwin County Detention Center as COVID spreads throughout the facility. Filmed primarily through pay-per-minute video calls to tablets attached with cameras inside the facility, the film provides a first-hand look at the struggles of detained immigrants.

In this conversation, Seth discusses how he started reporting on Irwin, why he felt it was important to show what was happening inside the detention center, and how reporting on the facility would have been impossible without the organizing done inside.

Paco Alvarez: My first question is when did you first learn about the Irwin County Detention Center? What was your first indication that conditions were worse than official sources were reporting?

Seth Freed Wessler: I’ve reported on ICE and ICE detention and carceral facilities in general for a long time, for well over a decade at this point. And the Irwin County Detention Center is an ICE detention facility that I’ve known about because people I was reporting on had been held there and I had sources who are inside of the Irwin County Detention Center.

So it was a place that was familiar to me, it was a place that I knew because there had been government reports about it and because people I knew who had been detained inside of the facility had made reports where there had been real problems of medical neglect, of really just a sort of an array of failures to run the place in a humane way. And then, when the coronavirus pandemic began to sort of turn all of our worlds upside down. And I think as a reporter, I, like many of us, was trying to figure out sort of how to proceed on the beats that I cover in this new world, in this new terrain, where being out in the world was risky and where people inside of the places I was reporting on were at particular risk. I immediately began to try to reach out to people I already knew who were detained in Irwin to figure out what was going on there. And so that’s how this reporting, and ultimately, this film began in March of 2020, as the pandemic was really gripping the United States. I wanted to know what was happening inside of these very tightly packed immigration detention centers, as well as federal prisons that I was reporting on. And I began reaching out to people.

Alvarez: So the majority of the documentary takes place through video chat and viewers watch as events unfold in real time, including interactions between prisoners and staff. Can you talk a bit about how these conversations turned into a documentary? Was that intentional or something that happened along the way during your reporting?

Wessler: I began reporting on Irwin in particular as a print reporter, and pretty soon after I began reporting as a fellow at the time at Type Investigations, and I reported a set of sort of quickly reported stories for HuffPost about conditions inside of Irwin, about claims that people detained there were making about the real failure of ICE and the private operator to protect them from the spreading virus. And you know, there was pretty overwhelming accounts of real neglect. And I published those stories.

But several weeks into the process of reporting these stories, it became clear to me that I was also, through this video app, seeing something that was overwhelming to me as a visual story or as a visual thing. I felt like I was in a way kind of stepping inside, specifically with Nielsen and Andrea, who are the central people in the film. I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours with them on these video calls, and I was present for things happening with them. I would call in and the world was taking place behind them, the world inside of that detention center. And so it struck me that I could write about that. There was this visual experience that I was having. In a funny way, this camera, it seemed to me, functioned as a sort of portal in and out of a place that’s built not to be seen into from the outside, that’s built precisely to separate those on the inside from people on the outside. And so I decided that I wanted to try to find ways to tell a visual story with a long arc about the Irwin County Detention Center. We produced a short video with HuffPost about one person who was held there and sort of tested out the visual possibilities of these recordings through this video app. And then I got to work on this longer, this longer film that that ultimately took, as a story told over the better part of a year from the beginning of the pandemic through that whole first year into 2021.

Alvarez: And how was making a visual documentary different from writing an investigative piece?

Wessler: Well, I think a documentary can be a straight investigative form. There are documentaries that appear on documentary shows on TV that are just sort of straight investigative documentaries and we experience them visually, we experience them through audio and images, but they’re kind of standard investigative reports. I didn’t think it made sense for this film to sort of take the form of a normal investigative documentary where there are key findings and where you’re sort of hearing the reporter uncover things along the way. It seemed to me that this was a story that could communicate an experience of being detained, that through film, through this visual medium, I might be able to get at something about what it’s like to be held in this place and to help people to sort of step inside. Obviously, not completely, obviously with the limits of the visual world that I was able to observe, and we can talk about this like the camera that I had access to the facility through limited what we could see. But it just seemed to me that there was something sort of different from what I wrote in print stories and what a sort of normal investigative documentary does.

Part of that was my own sort of interest in watching what was behind the people I was talking to and beginning to understand the patterns of life inside of this particular detention center. You see in the background in some of this film, people walking to the telephone to make calls, probably to their family members and above their heads are these televisions that are running and the televisions are playing shows that we all could have been watching on the outside, news and commercials for shampoo or political advertisements. And it just seemed to me that there was a texture or rhythm of life inside this place. This camera was making it possible to see and I wanted to kind of build the story around. And so this film, I hope, gets us somewhere in that direction, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that in print.

Alvarez: Can you talk a little bit about what it’s like to report on this type of story, where the risk for the detainees who decide to talk to reporters is so high? How did you gain the trust of some of the people you spoke with? And was there any retaliation?

Wessler: Yeah, this was a story where in a strange way I faced basically no risk, right? I mean, I was behind my computer in my apartment and I was very aware that anybody I was talking to could be at some risk, certainly was at risk in their daily lives inside of this place as COVID was spreading, but could be at some risk by talking. We weren’t sure. We assumed, I certainly assumed and I talked about this with people who I was talking to, we assumed that everything was being recorded, that the detention center would have access through the private company that runs the call system that I use would have access to our conversations.

And so this was a case where consent and clarity about what I’m doing as a reporter was always important. It’s always important to do that as reporters. I find it to be really important actually to build trust, to make sure that everybody fully understands what it is that I’m trying to do and is really engaged in that and knows what I’m doing and is kind of participating. And I think in this case, that kind of process of getting consent and of talking through what it was that we were doing happened iteratively on many calls for many people. I would repeat the question: Is it OK to do this? Is it OK to record? Do you want to continue having these conversations? And there were people who I talked to for months and months and months who then at some point said, You know what? Look, I don’t think I can do this any longer or I don’t want to do this any longer, it’s too stressful.

At no point in the course of this reporting did anybody face retaliation for speaking to me. What is clear is that people faced retaliation for using this video app to get the word out. And the film tells the story of a woman named Andrea Manrique who was put into an isolation cell in this ICE detention center because she participated in making a video with the help of a relative on the outside through this app that was then circulated as a protest about what was happening inside. I, at one point in the course of reporting, had my access to the video app cut off. That was true for a number of other reporters who were using this app at the same time in various detention centers to try to talk to people. I was able to sign back up under my own name, different email address. You know, we all have multiple and I just signed right back up and started again.

But there was definitely a feeling that it was clear that this detention facility didn’t want this system to be used in the way we were using it as reporters and in the way that people who are held inside decided that they wanted to use it to tell the story about what was happening. But ultimately, certainly the people who appear in the film were absolutely clear that they wanted to blow the whistle on what was happening, they wanted to tell that story. And so in many ways, I was dependent on them to be able to do that. And ultimately, this film tells the story of two people who, in the course of their detention, and, in Nilson Barahona’s case for nearly a year, in Andrea Manrique’s case for over two years, in the course of their detention by ICE, they became kind of organizers and activists inside of this detention center, and part of that was that they wanted to help other people also to tell the story of what was happening inside to make sure that it didn’t go silently.

Alvarez: So last spring, the Department of Homeland Security ordered ICE to end its contract with Irwin, and detainees were recently moved out. That’s a pretty significant impact. Do you feel like the reporting around the detention center played a role in that decision?

Wessler: I think that the decision by the Biden administration to order ICE to end its contract to hold immigrant detainees in Irwin was the result of a kind of confluence of things, a storm of forces that ultimately led the Biden administration to decide that this facility should should end its contract, that this facility should no longer be used to detain immigrants. I mean, the biggest part of that is that as anybody who is sort of consuming the news in September will remember, there was a whistleblower, a nurse who worked at Irwin, who blew the whistle on conditions inside of the ICE detention center and most of her whistleblower report actually focused on the very things that people detained there had been telling me: failure to protect detained people, as well as nurses and guards from the spreading pandemic, problems in the provision of medical care inside of this detention center, or various kinds of abuse and neglect. And then sort of buried in the whistleblower’s account was an allegation that a gynecologist in the area had been performing procedures on women who were held at this detention center without their consent. She had alleged that there were large numbers of hysterectomies performed on women who are held in this facility, and that allegation erupted immediately and the national press descended onto the Irwin County Detention Center.

I ended up writing about Irwin with a group of other reporters for the New York Times for the news section. It was a front page story about these allegations against this doctor, as did many other reporters. And I think you know those allegations, which were reported out, and ultimately, we found that many women had been subjected to gynecological procedures without their consent that very well may not have been medically necessary were of a kind that really brought a sort of scale of attention to this facility that it had never seen before. Members of Congress visited. There were hearings in Congress and ultimately it was one of the couple of places that the Biden administration decided it would end the contract with.

I think, and you know, it’s impossible to know, but I believe that there’s no way that this sort of story would have proceeded as it did had people inside that facility, people who are detained there, including the people who I write about and who this film follows, already been organizing. That is that the fact that there were people inside who had been organizing, had been building power inside of this detention facility for months before these allegations, building power to try to blow the whistle on what was happening, to call attention to what was happening around COVID namely. They had this level of organization that made it possible for them to pivot and organize around this whistleblower account as attention was sort of being poured onto this facility and then speak from the perspective of people who are detained. Women I knew already, I called immediately after the whistleblower account emerged and was able to get clarity about what in fact was happening and was able to, with these other reporters, report out the story of what had happened with this gynecologist. And I think that was an incredibly powerful thing that doesn’t happen in an instant. It happens because there’s already an effort inside to build networks, to build community and really to build sort of organizational power. I mean, that’s what was happening there. People were organizing in a remarkable way. I hope the film sort of tells that story in a longer arc. That was part of my intent to tell the story of a group of people acting with real force to try to protect themselves and other people around them.

Alvarez: My final question is, you’ve been reporting on immigration detention for years. Is there any advice you have for reporters who are interested in doing more investigative journalism around the immigration detention system?

Wessler: Yeah, I mean, I think a couple of things. One, one of the central challenges of reporting on ICE is that it’s very difficult as a reporter to get in to get access. And so I found a creative way to do that. I’m not sure I would have given myself permission to spend hundreds of hours attached to my computer screen before COVID, but I couldn’t have reported a story like this with the same technology before COVID. And I think finding creative ways or new ways to try to tell stories of what’s happening in these places that are built not to be seen is really important.

And then the other thing I would say is, I’ve reported on immigration and ICE during three presidential administrations: most of the Obama administration, the Trump administration and now the Biden administration. And there is a kind of sense that immigration is a political football and also that immigration policy shifts dramatically between administrations. That’s true. The Trump administration ratcheted up the ways that it was enforcing immigration, operating immigration enforcement, did so with incredible aggression and often crossing lines that even federal courts found to violate the law. But it is the case that detention is kind of the central part of the way that the US enforces its immigration laws and its immigration regime, and that remains the case. There are fewer people now in detention than there were during the peak of the Obama and then Trump eras, but detention numbers have actually gone up since the beginning of the Biden administration to now. And I think it’s really important to kind of try to hold on to the continuities over time—where immigration rhetoric heats up and cools down, but ICE and ICE detention and punitive approaches to dealing with migration and refugees and asylum seekers remains fairly consistent from administration to administration. And so there’s a way that I think we can imagine the story goes away when the president switches, and I don’t think that that’s true.

About the reporter