At 8:30 a.m. every morning, a group of teenagers emerges from the Homestead Detention Center buildings for their first breath of fresh air since early evening the day before. Girls come out first in a single-file line, supervised by guards, followed by boys a bit later. From then until 4:30 in the afternoon, children aged 13 to 17 are shuffled from white tent to white tent for various activities, including schooling.
"It’s a chilling image," says Alessandra Mondolfi, the artist/activist behind Shut It Down - Home Instead, a protest project supported by Backbone Campaign and Witness: Tornillo. Target: Homestead.
"We did have some banners that were hung up high in the trees so [the kids] could see them. They wave at us and they interact. Just today we arrived and the banners were taken down last night, which was sort of a heartbreak."
Mondolfi has been supporting the Witness activists by making signs and posters during a continuous action that has lasted five weeks. The group performed a similar action at a detention center in Tornillo, Texas, until it was shut down in early January this year. The "emergency temporary shelter" for migrant youth in Homestead is the largest center of its kind left on federal land, and the goal is to shut it down as well. But to garner the public pressure to do that, people must first know the detention center is there.
"There are locals who don’t know this is here," says Mondolfi. "All they know is that there’s a company that’s hiring and they pay really well."
To rectify that, Mondolfi will literally shine a light on the Homestead Detention Center. "Shut It Down," "Homes Instead," and "Stop Separating Families" will be emblazoned on the fences surrounding the tents where imprisoned teenagers spend their days. Additionally, a banner of light letters will be carried by demonstrators about a block away in front of the Homestead Air Reserve Base. Mondolfi was inspired partly by the activist communities she's engaged with all over the U.S., but also by what she's seen.
"It’s more than protesting; it’s witnessing," she says of the work she's participated in with the Tornillo activists. "Part of this witnessing is seeing the expansion, is seeing the job fairs and new showers coming in, and ultrasound machines being dragged in and out."
Late last year, New Times reported that the Homestead detention facility was costing taxpayers $500,000 a day. That number has more than doubled, according to Mondolfi, and will only increase. Plans to expand the child prison mean that, at $750 per child per day, the total could increase exponentially (which should make these corporate entities very happy).
"This is a very lucrative, for-profit corporation," Mondolfi says. "It is not to their benefit to put these children with their families."
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Mondolfi hopes that folks will become aware, but also that her creative resistance might provide galvanizing imagery for the cause. Art, she acknowledges, has always been at the forefront of political and social movements. But at this point, it's not enough — it's imperative that people get involved.
"Step up to the plate," she insists. "Play your role — call, write, text, scream, paint, cook. Donate to those who can’t. There’s a lot of ways to get involved. And if there’s enough of us, we can shut this place down and hopefully shut down every other place in this country that is incarcerating children.
"We have to stop criminalizing immigrants and refugees and asylum seekers. It’s just not right."
Shut It Down - Homes Instead. 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 29, at the Homestead Detention Center, 920 Bougainville Blvd., Homestead; facebook.com/events. Admission is free.