it is not love and not even sympathy upon which Society is based in mankind. It is the conscience - be it only at the stage of an instinct - of human solidarity. It is the unconscious recognition of the force that is borrowed by each man from the practice of mutual aid; of the close dependency of every one’s happiness upon the happiness of all; and of the sense of justice, or equity, which brings the individual to consider the rights of every other individual as equal to his own.
— Peter Kropotkin (Mutual Aid)




The documentary “1994” reveals the history of noncitizen detention in the United States with a focus on the development of the detention regime in Arizona. Produced by States of Incarceration contributor Judith Perera, the film highlights significant policy changes as well as the reality for those subjected to it, raising broader questions about society's dependence on human caging.




This dissertation analyzes the transformation of noncitizen detention policy in the United States over the twentieth century. For much of that time, official policy remained disconnected from the reality of experiences for those subjected to the detention regime. However, once detention policy changed into its current form, disparities between policy and reality virtually disappeared. This work argues that since its inception in the late nineteenth century to its present manifestations, noncitizen detention policy transformed from a form of exclusion to a method of state-sponsored violence. A new periodization based on detention policy refocuses immigration enforcement into three eras: exclusion, humane, and violent. When official policy became state violence, the regime synchronized with noncitizen experiences in detention marked by pain, suffering, isolation, hopelessness, and death.

This violent policy followed the era of humane detentions. From 1954 to 1981, during a time of supposedly benevolent national policies premised on a narrative against de facto detentions, Arizona, and the broader Southwest, continued to detain noncitizens while collecting revenue for housing such federal prisoners. Over time increasing detentions contributed to overcrowding. Those incarcerated naturally reacted against such conditions, where federal, state, and local prisoners coalesced to demand their humanity. Yet, when taxpayers ignored these pleas, an eclectic group of zealous sheriffs, state and local politicians, and prison officials negotiated with federal prisoners, nonchalantly commodifying them for federal revenue. Officials then used federal money to revamp existing facilities and build new ones. Receiving money for federal prisoners was so deeply embedded within the Southwest carceral landscape that it allowed for private prison companies to casually take over these relationships previously held by state actors.

When official policy changed in 1981, general detentions were used as deterrence to break the will of asylum seekers. With this change, policy and reality melded. No longer needing the pretext of exclusionary rationales nor the fiction of humane policies, the unencumbered state consolidated its official detention policy with a rationale of deterrence. In other words, violence. Analyzing the devolution of noncitizen detention policy provides key insights to understanding its historical antecedents and how this violent detention regime came to be.


dissertation Defense presentation


Click on the video for a brief history of detention in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s.


  • Robert S. Kahn, Other People's Blood: U.S. Immigration Prisons in the Reagan Decade (Westview Press, 1996)
  • Mark Dow, American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons (UC Press, 2004)

Narrations by: John Horan


States of Incarceration Conference (April 2016)

ASU participated in the States of Incarceration National Conference presented by the Humanities Action Lab.

Click here to learn more.

States of Incarceration is scheduled to visit Arizona in October 2018.


How do Profits shape punishment?

The human cost of for-profit companies, like CoreCivic (formerly CCA) detaining immigrants.

Hear from Diana Ramos, who was detained at Eloy Detention Center for more than four years, and Marcos Williamson, the detention relief coordinator for Transcend Arizona.

Video made as a part of ASU's contribution to the national exhibit, States of Incarceration.


detention oral history project

Click on "Noncitizen Detention" to the right to learn more about an oral history project that was approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB).