When Kathleen Baldoni decided to pursue a career in nursing 26 years ago, she never thought she would speak one day in Washington at a congressional briefing on an issue as controversial as the treatment of detained immigrants.
But yesterday, the Perrysburg resident did just that.
One of five people selected to speak on the impact of immigration law enforcement on women, Ms. Baldoni addressed a room packed past capacity with members of Congress and congressional staffers. The briefing was organized by Human Rights Watch.
There, Ms. Baldoni described the appalling basic living conditions she witnessed while working as a nurse at the Willacy Detention Facility in Raymondville, Texas, and the systemic degradation of people. Willacy is the largest detention center in the United States and can hold up to 3,200 detainees.
"The level of human suffering was just unbelievable," Ms. Baldoni said. "There was inadequate food and personal items - personal hygiene was a problem - as was access to medical care."
Meghan Rhoad, a researcher in the women's rights division of Human Rights Watch who asked Ms. Baldoni to speak at the briefing, said Ms. Baldoni brought an "extraordinarily unique" insight. She emphasized the poignancy of Ms. Baldoni's perspective, saying that it is exceedingly rare for someone who has worked at a detention facility to come forward and speak about what they've seen.
"The reality at this point is that immigration detention centers are really a black box," Ms. Rhoad said. "Kathy was the final speaker [of five] and her being there was a key draw for people being willing to stay."
She stressed that Ms. Baldoni showed "tremendous courage in coming forward" because she overcame a pervasive atmosphere of intimidation.
Marlene Jaggernauth, a native of Trinidad who has spent over a year in detention centers across Florida and who also spoke at the briefing, said she was fascinated by the fact that Ms. Baldoni came out and spoke about the issue.
She said that the issues which Ms. Baldoni addressed were universal.
"What she spoke about, what she was talking about, we need to address these issues and correct them," Ms. Jaggernauth said.
She stressed that she has been to similar briefings on immigrant detainee treatment before and that they have had nowhere near the turnout of yesterday's briefing and attributed the increase to greater interest in the issue as well as interest in Ms. Baldoni's remarks.
Ms. Baldoni said she was placed at Willacy on a temporary nursing assignment in late 2008, and was supposed to stay at the facility for six months. However, near the end of her tenure, she said she felt she was being complicit in an abusive system.
Then, when she had made up her mind to speak at the briefing, she said she intended to terminate her contract at Willacy three weeks early.
But before Ms. Baldoni could do so, she said she was terminated because the health services administrator for whom she worked did not feel it was appropriate for her to speak publicly about the facility.
She is working as a nurse at Unison Behavioral Health, a community mental health center.
Each day, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement holds about 33,000 immigrants in detention centers, about 10 percent of whom are women.
Among those detained are asylum seekers, survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, and mothers of children who are U.S. citizens.
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