Section: Features

Pen pal project connects students with San Diego detainees

On Feb. 18, a dozen students at a table in Peirce Lounge set out to connect with a group of prisoners 1,991 miles away. The event’s two organizers waited for stragglers to arrive — Kat Norton ’20 passed around an attendance sheet, while Grace Korthuis ’23 sat next to an open laptop, waiting to initiate a video call. This was the first meeting of a program meant to last months, even years; a program created in response to a national immigration crisis that draws the concern of increasingly many students. Rather than protest, these students would support their cause in another way — by writing letters to immigrants held in the Otay Mesa Detention Center.

Once enough students had arrived, Korthuis started the call and the face of Melanie Shelton ’13, a San Diego-based immigration rights activist, appeared onscreen. Shelton had reached out to Professor of Anthropology Ed Schortman, as well as the student organization Active Students Helping the Earth Survive (ASHES), for help in creating a pen pal project. Students would write weekly letters to detainees, with other students offering to translate if language became a barrier.

Initially, Shelton wanted to put a handful of Kenyon students in contact with a couple of detainees at Otay Mesa, but she quickly learned how much enthusiasm there was for the project on both sides.

“Melanie was like, it’s okay if you have five or six people participating,” Norton said. “And we told her we had 15 people interested already, and she was like, ‘Oh great, I have 15 people on this side too.’ We’re having a larger correspondence than we thought, which I’m kind of excited about.”

Otay Mesa, an immigration detention center located in San Diego County, has become the target of heated criticism. While the inner workings of Otay Mesa are kept secret, protesters complain that the center lacks sufficient medical facilities, has no support for detainees with mental health problems and abuses its prisoners for cheap labor. All of these, Shelton alleges, are true.

“If you express suicidal ideation, you will be placed in solitary confinement,” Shelton told the group. “Which obviously doesn’t help.” She described another event in which a detainee came to a doctor to request mental health treatment: “The doctor actually recommended that he self-deport, rather than try to get him the care he needed.”

Shelton’s organization does what it can to provide help to detainees. But for students at Kenyon, the most effective form of aid they can provide might be human connection. By having students write a letter every week to a detainee pen pal, Shelton hopes that they can help the people at Otay Mesa feel less alone.

“One misconception we don’t want to have is that this is about political activism,” Korthuis said. “It’s more about direct human connection, and making sure that people form relationships across different communities. I think that’s why this consistency of writing a letter every single week is super important — it’s because we really want to foster genuine connections, and we want these to be real relationships that we’re creating.”

Korthuis, who is a member of ASHES, thinks that activism is a worthy goal. However, when it comes to issues as legally mired as immigration, there are some things activism can’t accomplish. At the meeting, Shelton warned the group not to make promises they couldn’t keep.

“If someone wants you to call a member of their family or send money, it’s okay to say no to that,” Shelton said. “[And] unfortunately, we cannot offer legal advice, nor can we even promise that we’ll find a lawyer. Immigration lawyers are hard to find, and very burnt out. Saying that we’ll help find a lawyer ends up raising people’s hopes, only to leave them more disappointed at the end.”

Though the project may be small, the students see it as a real way to create positive change.

“Sometimes—for me at least—[immigration] seems like an insurmountable problem,” Norton said. “You can go through the legal channels and you can use your vote to try and change immigration reform, but sometimes I feel powerless. But this seems like a very tangible way to at least do good for one person.”

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