Lifting the curtain: Immigrant detention centers in U.S. charged with abuse

A recent Associated Press article sheds light on how human beings are treated when they are detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The AP article reports allegations that as many as six federal Homeland Security deportation agents assaulted and tortured a shackled Nigerian man at the ICE facility in Oklahoma City. ICE officials have denied widespread abuse of detainees. The FBI is investigating.

“In a flash, five, maybe six officers attacked me,” wrote Daso Abibo, 51, the Nigerian immigrant, in a letter from Oklahoma County Jail after the assault. “My legs were in shackles. One officer grabbed my neck from the back with his hand pressing it. Another officer was holding tight on my ears, twisting and pulling hard on them as if to pull them off my head. ... One officer was twisting my left hand, while another was busy knocking on my Achilles heel’s tendon. It was a nightmare. It was so painful, I asked them to shoot me ... dead so they could get what they want.”

“This is lawlessness under the law,” he complained. “I never fought back.”

Deanna Burdine, 65, a former Homeland Security employee, said she walked in on the beating and worried that Abibo had been killed.

Both Abibo and Burdine filed complaints about the assault. Shortly afterwards, Abibo was deported to Nigeria and Burdine was fired. Burdine alleges her firing was retaliation for her having spoken out.

The Associated Press reports that Amnesty International has written a letter to the director of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, protesting the alleged assault and asking for an investigation.

“According to current and former Department of Homeland Security employees in Oklahoma City, ICE officers routinely abuse detainees there,” Susan Benesch of Amnesty International said in the letter. “There seems to be a pattern and practice of abuse on the part of ICE officers in Oklahoma City.”

The Houston Chronicle reported this summer that Dr. Yahia Ghoul had been detained at the Houston ICE facility. He completed a surgery residency at the Baylor College of Medicine after being invited to train there by the world famous Dr. Michael DeBakey. According to the article, local surgeons described Ghoul as “a hard-working surgeon who helped save many lives and was being paid pennies for what he was doing.”

Ghoul came to this country on a J-1 visa, which did not allow him to obtain a license to practice medicine, according to the article. When his application for an extension of his visa was denied in 1988, he decided to stay on and continue his work. The article notes that Baylor and Methodist hospital officials promised to help him get legal residency but did not.

Ghoul and his attorney missed a court date in May 2001 and the judge ordered him deported. His attorney has been issued a “private reprimand” for her mishandling of his case.

Immigrant prisons, privatization and profit

Government immigration facilities are staffed by personnel from many agencies, including ICE, Homeland Security, and the U.S. Public Health Service, and even from private corporations, like the Corrections Corp. of America. CCA is a private prison firm that contracts with the government to incarcerate people.

Prisons are expanding rapidly. The number of detainees has grown astronomically since 9/11. New prison construction is not uncommon. It is ironic that the construction work is sometimes done by immigrant labor.

An 81-page study of CCA by the Charlotte, N.C.-based Grassroots Leadership, a national organization concerned with the effects of privatization on public services, points out how the pursuit of profit impedes the core public function of corrections.

Allegations of mismanagement, mistreatment of inmates and poor training of employees have been mounted against CCA. Investors have been warned that the company is a poor risk and is financially unstable. The Office of the Inspector General is investigating some CCA facilities. Deaths have been reported in some facilities as a result of poor medical treatment and acts of negligence by detention guards, as well as from suicide.

Class action suits have been filed on behalf of detainees held in facilities under the jurisdiction of the New Orleans Immigration and Customs Enforcement district office. One can only imagine what has happened to these detainees since Hurricane Katrina. The class action suits allege “the use of unauthorized physical punishment to intimidate detainees, medical negligence (which has led to the death of at least one detainee in late summer 2004), violations of detainees’ rights to have legal materials that would allow them to litigate their cases, unreasonable barriers to communication with legal counsel and others on the outside, and lack of accommodation for the religious observance of non-Christian faiths.”

One observer noted that detainees at another facility were primarily from Mexico and Central America, although some were from Europe, Canada, the Middle East and Asia. Individuals who were from socialist countries like Cuba seemed to receive fast track release into the community, whereas others faced a bureaucratic quagmire.

ICE operates 16 detention centers in eight states, and one in Puerto Rico.





Tales of abuse

The ICE facilities have special units called “segregation,” which is the same thing as solitary confinement. Many of the individuals placed on these units have chronic mental illnesses. Some are out of contact with reality, unable to clean themselves, unable to use the toilet properly and are left in their own excrement. One incident occurred in which a male health care provider became so distraught over the situation that he yelled at the guards, “You need to clean him up … he’s filthy!”

Although these facilities have the capacity to send people to a psychiatric facility, they instead put them in segregation, presumably to save money. Management gives a lot of excuses to justify placing people in segregation rather than transferring them to psychiatric units. They say they don’t want to give in to the demands of detainees, mirroring the government’s authoritarian policy of not negotiating with “terrorists.” There have been many articles written and complaints filed across the country on the use of isolation as punishment for “troublemakers” within detention facilities.

Staff workers at some of these facilities, who spoke on condition of anonymity, relate disturbing stories.

One young man, a diabetic, was in segregation. He refused to take his insulin unless he was allowed to talk with his family over the phone. Management saw him as “manipulative” and refused to negotiate with him, putting his life at risk.

Another individual who had been diagnosed as psychotic became violent and was kept in segregation for over six months.

Verbal abuse of detainees is common.

Detainees are sometimes placed in segregation for 30 days for minor offenses, such as smoking a cigarette. One person had fought on the side of the U.S. in a recent war. He complained that conditions were worse than the concentration camp he had been in during the war. He was put in segregation when he became suicidal. He was not allowed to see his wife, who was an undocumented immigrant.





Legal residents imprisoned for minor offenses

Indeed, most of the detainees have a permanent resident status and have green cards. They are picked up for minor offenses such as driving with a broken taillight. They are found in jail by ICE and detained. They often remain in detention for months or years. They and their families are easy prey for unscrupulous attorneys and other predators who take their money and property and do nothing for them.

Many detainees have jobs or small businesses. Many have been in this country for 20 to 30 years and have no contacts in their country of origin.

One person was concerned about his status and went to an immigration office in an attempt to straighten out his documents. He was detained on the spot and then deported to a country he had not been in for 30 years. He had a good-paying job and had a family, car and home.

Another person had an auto repair shop. He lent his car to a customer while he worked on their car. His car was superior to theirs. When he finished working on their car, he tried to return it and pick up his car. They called the police, and he was arrested and detained.





Slave labor and separated families

Detainees are sometimes given work details at ICE facilities, such as laundry or housekeeping. For this they are paid $1 a day. Detainees have to purchase items such as soft drinks and have to pay for any phone calls they make from the facility. They are not allowed to receive phone calls.

Frequently the temperatures inside the facilities are kept very low, so much so that detainees sometimes choose to wear long underwear in the summer. Detainees’ requests for extra blankets are routinely denied, according to observers. Outbreaks of respiratory infections are frequent.

Some of the most heart-wrenching stories came from the women. They usually work hard for low pay and no benefits prior to their detention. They are always separated from their children when they are detained. Their children subsequently go to state protective services and foster care. These women have no idea when or if they will ever see their children again. Many have been victimized by predatory males.

Some staff members at the detention facilities have observed that even when detainees request to be deported, immigration officials refuse to deport them and keep them in detention for extended periods of time. For example, some detainees have chronic illnesses requiring repeated hospitalization. They merely want to go home to their native country to be cared for by family members, or possibly to die there. Yet their requests to be deported are routinely denied.

Stories from around the country substantiate the unreasonably long detention periods. Some detainees have called for a national hunger strike to draw attention to their poor treatment, indefinite detentions and lack of access to legal counsel.

These horrendous stories are but the tip of the iceberg. Some observers close to the immigrant detention system are now expressing concern that the conditions in these facilities could bring international condemnation of the U.S. for human rights violations.

Perhaps such international attention is what is needed to break through the frozen wall and bring about a thorough investigation of ICE.





Taking action

There are a number of organizations that are attempting to address these atrocities. The Grassroots Leadership of North Carolina (www.grassrootsleadership.org) is one. Not With Our Money is another group attempting to combat private prisons, much like CCA. The National Immigration Project of the National Lawyer’s Guild and the ACLU provide legal assistance to detainees across the country and have mounted a number of class action suits. Keeping Hope Alive, a project of the Guild, assists detainees in taking action against abuses perpetrated in correctional facilities.

There needs to be a mass movement of people of conscience who support these organizations and their courageous fight for justice for immigrants. Pressure through demonstrations, letter writing and phone calls to members of Congress needs to be applied immediately.

There needs to be an overhaul of the judicial system so that detainees’ cases get heard expeditiously and there are timely dispositions. This new system should respect the human rights of detainees. Apparently detainees are pressured by attorneys

to plead guilty in criminal offense cases. They are not informed that if they plead guilty they will be deported automatically. It should be mandatory for detainees to be informed of this.

Studies have shown that privatizing prisons increases costs, reduces quality of rehabilitation and increases bureaucracy. Mass movements need to pressure Congress to pass legislation to end private detention facilities. All federal facilities should be subject to strict guidelines to prevent further abuse of detainees. Such facilities should be routinely inspected by human rights organization as well as the inspector general’s office. Only when the people of the United States are able to organize effectively to demand that detainees’ rights be respected will we see improvement in their condition. It should not be forgotten that this country was largely built by immigrant labor and that is still true today.





Paul Hill (phill2@houston.rr.com) is a regular contributor to the People’s Weekly World.