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University of California Press
American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons / Edition 1

American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons / Edition 1

by Mark Dow
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Before September 11, 2001, few Americans had heard of immigration detention, but in fact a secret and repressive prison system run by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has existed in this country for more than two decades. In American Gulag, prisoners, jailers, and whistle-blowing federal officials come forward to describe the frightening reality inside these INS facilities. Journalist Mark Dow's on-the-ground reporting brings to light documented cases of illegal beatings and psychological torment, prolonged detention, racism, and inhumane conditions. Intelligent, impassioned, and unlike anything that has been written on the topic, this gripping work of investigative journalism should be read by all Americans. It is a book that will change the way we see our country.

American Gulag takes us inside prisons such as the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami, the Corrections Corporation of America's Houston Processing Center, and county jails around the country that profit from contracts to hold INS prisoners. It contains disturbing in-depth profiles of detainees, including Emmy Kutesa, a defector from the Ugandan army who was tortured and then escaped to the United States, where he was imprisoned in Queens, and then undertook a hunger strike in protest. To provide a framework for understanding stories like these, Dow gives a brief history of immigration laws and practices in the United States-including the repercussions of September 11 and present-day policies. His book reveals that current immigration detentions are best understood not as a well-intentioned response to terrorism but rather as part of the larger context of INS secrecy and excessive authority.

American Gulag exposes the full story of a cruel prison system that is operating today with an astonishing lack of accountability.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520246690
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/03/2005
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 428
Sales rank: 718,326
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Mark Dow is a freelance writer and poet whose work has appeared in the Miami Herald, The Progressive, Boston Review,
Index on Censorship, Prison Legal News,
and numerous literary publications. He is coeditor of Machinery of Death: The Reality of America's Death Penalty Regime (2002).

Read an Excerpt

American Gulag

Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons
By Mark Dow

The University of California Press

Copyright © 2004 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-23942-3

Chapter One

The Art of Jailing

In late spring 1995 immigration detainees in Elizabeth, New Jersey, engaged in a situation, an uprising, a melee, a riot, or a disturbance, depending on your terminology. They broke a lot of glass and destroyed furniture. The contract guards, none of them harmed, fled to the parking lot and called for local law enforcement backup. The most surprising part of this milestone in INS detention history is the Service's own postmortem of it.

The three-hundred-bed facility housing primarily asylum seekers was owned and operated for the INS by the Esmor Corporation. INS Commissioner Doris Meissner directed the Headquarters Detention and Deportation Division to review and investigate the June incident. The result was a seventy-two-page report that reads very much like a report from Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. It details complaints that immigrants' advocates could recite in their sleep: meaningless prisoner grievance procedures, arbitrary use of disciplinary segregation, verbal harassment, physical abuse. The report also noted the theft of detainee property (a category often overlooked by advocacy groups), the practice of waking detainees in the middle of the night "on the pretext" of security checks, and complaints by female detainees "that they had been issued male underwear on which large question marks had been made in the area of the crotch."

One distinguishing feature of the INS report is the concern with public relations: "Some of the decisions made by Esmor had a serious negative impact upon relations between the INS and the general public since, in the public perception, INS is inextricably linked to the operations of the Elizabeth facility." In fact, the INS's Michael Rozos, formally assistant administrator of Miami's Krome detention center, was the officer-in-charge at the Esmor facility when it erupted. What happened at Esmor could hardly have come as a surprise. Elizabeth Llorente's excellent reporting on the detention center for the Bergen Record had practically predicted it. But in a bureaucracy, especially one in which the potential victims have no political or economic leverage, prediction is less important than damage control after the fact. According to George Taylor, Atlanta INS chief of detention, headquarters officials exploited the buffer of private prison companies to shield themselves from accountability. He added: "There's no real governing body to drop the hammer when the hammer needs to be dropped."

Private company and government agency used one another. In 1988 Esmor had submitted a proposal to the Justice Department for an INS detention center to be built in the San Diego area. Confronted with the red tape of "state and local government agencies, local zoning regulations, environmental requirements and community organizations," Esmor suggested a "bold and innovative" solution. It would contract with the Viejas Indian tribe to lease acreage. "Because the Viejas reservation is considered a sovereign nation by the Federal Government, it therefore is not bound by the same state and local governmental and environmental regulations as are other locations in the San Diego area." Barbara Muller, a member of the Viejas tribe and an activist with one of the community organizations with which Esmor seemed concerned, said, "It's kind of ironic to put a prison facility on an Indian reservation in America to house people from Mexico and Central America who are also Indian." Muller's sister Elida said, "We're already a prison, we don't need another jail." The deal never went through; tribal chairman Anthony Pico later told me the counsel had turned instead to gaming "to establish an economic base for the tribe."

After the Elizabeth debacle, the Long Island-;based Esmor Corporation became the Sarasota-based Correctional Services Corporation. CSC operated a non-INS juvenile detention center in Tallulah, Louisiana, that was taken over by the state after repeated allegations of prisoner abuse. CSC was also forced to give up operation of its Youth Development Center in Pahokee, Florida, after a judge compared it to a "'Third World country that is controlled by ... some type of evil power.'" In the Pacific Northwest, CSC was having more success, and in 2002 the company received a new contract with the INS for a detention center in Tacoma to relieve overcrowding in the CSC/INS facility in Seattle. The new prison would be converted from an old meatpacking plant.

It is worth pausing over the career of one member of CSC's board of directors, William Slattery. Slattery had been New York INS district director and was then promoted to the headquarters position of executive associate commissioner for field operations. In 1996 some of Slattery's colleagues demanded that Commissioner Meissner remove him. According to the New York Daily News, Slattery's colleagues said that he "sat on allegations of brutality on the Mexican border that exposed poor training and supervision of border agents. Slattery was [also] accused of threatening disciplinary action against managers who reported problems." The Washington Post reported allegations that Slattery called off raids on Korean garment factories "after he was invited to social events with factory owners." The Daily News reported that "a former INS agent has alleged that Slattery obstructed a 1994 conflict-of-interest probe of Slattery's romance with agent Rosemary LaGuardia." The couple was later married. LaGuardia taught an ethics course at the INS officer training center in Glynco, Georgia, and she was later convicted of stealing from a department store. Slattery left the INS and joined the CSC board.

Back in New Jersey, INS officials had decided for the sake of efficiency that Esmor itself should sell the rights to and equipment in the detention center, which it did, to the Corrections Corporation of America. The reaction of a New York Times columnist, John Tierney, can help us to understand how little the media seems to understand about the way the U.S. government operates. It is certainly a positive sign that the details of INS contracts made it into a column at all. But Tierney misses the point by accepting the INS's pallid mea culpa in the Esmor report, because he seems to have no knowledge of the agency's long-standing evasion of accountability. Tierney writes that CCA, which took over the Elizabeth contract, is "still running it to the satisfaction of the INS"-hardly reassuring to anyone who knows a little about INS or CCA operations. CCA itself warned investors about the "risk" of "public scrutiny." In one suit against CCA, Gaston Fairey represented Salah Dafali, a Palestinian, and Oluwole Aboyade, a Nigerian, both of whom were allegedly assaulted and then transferred after contacting the media about conditions at the newly satisfactory CCA/INS Elizabeth prison. The suit alleges that "CCA operated the Elizabeth facility under a policy or practice that authorized CCA staff to use abusive practices to control and discipline the refugees detained at the Elizabeth facility."

About a year later the New Jersey INS district director banned the Jesuit Refugee Service from giving Bible classes at the CCA-run facility because it had discussed a taboo subject with the detainees: detention. The class had been reading Matthew 25: "I was a stranger and you took me in.... I was in prison, and ye came unto me." District Director Andrea Quarantillo said, "It was understood by all parties that detention issues would not be topics for discussion." Quarantillo also explained, "INS has no objection to Matthew 25 or any other Bible passage and does not seek to censor them. We only request that detention issues not be included in the lesson plans." Almost comical-but for the fact that the rate of suicide attempts in INS detention in Elizabeth is higher than in the New Jersey Department of Corrections, Llorente discovered.

A young Swiss detainee-noting that not all of the guards are "compliant" and that many of them "suffer as well"-told me, "It's very clear that whole system is designed for intimidation." He had been detained in Elizabeth for just five days.

* * *

"Discipline, or rather 'dis'plin,' was their slogan," writes Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka of what he calls the "poli-thug state" of Nigeria under military dictatorship in the 1980s. The military and police "notion of 'dis'plin' was not to take offenders to the local magistrate court ... but to make them do the frog-jump. For the uninitiated, this exercise requires that you attach your hands to both ears while you jump up and down in a squatting position."

Felix Oviawe, a state assemblyman from Benin State in Nigeria, got down on the floor of his friend's house in Canarsie, Queens, to show me a variation on this ritual of humiliation. Because he was a democratically elected local politician who had opposed the military regime, Oviawe felt his life was in danger after the 1993 coup d'etat in Nigeria, and he fled the country in search of political asylum. But he was not harmed in Nigeria. Arriving at New York's Kennedy airport, he acknowledged having a false passport and told U.S. immigration officials that he wished to apply for asylum. He was sent to the INS Esmor detention center in Elizabeth. After the 1995 disturbance, Oviawe-who had not been among the protesters-was transferred with about two dozen other immigration detainees to the nearby Union County Jail in Elizabeth. It was there that corrections officers forced him to kneel naked on the floor.

Oviawe loves politics. At his friend's house in Canarsie, on a short visit to New York, he spends his days watching C-SPAN on a giant-screen television. On the day that we speak, in May 1998, Congress is debating tobacco legislation. I convince Oviawe to turn off the volume so that I can record our interview. The only furniture is the tall director's chairs we're sitting in. On the walls are a couple of African masks and a poster of Malcom X. "Right from time, when I was young, I picked interest in politics," he tells me. He is forty-three. "I read about people ... who fought for the independence of Nigeria from Britain."

His father was a miller who sold wood to carpenters. Felix earned a bachelor's degree in mining engineering and was elected student association president at Federal Polytechnic in Akure. After graduating, he became the production manager in a cement company. He also taught physics and engineering at a technical college. In 1991 he was elected to the House of Assembly, the equivalent of a state legislature in the United States. He campaigned to improve the standard of living for the people in his district, the majority of whom were subsistence farmers-better roads would make it easier for them to bring their produce to market-while others worked in the oil industry. "There will be grading of roads and tarring of roads, and provision of water for my people," he said, as a congressman filled the screen; he had muted the volume but left the set on. As chairman of the Lands and Mineral Committee of the House of Assembly, he resolved a dispute with a neighboring state over oil deposits discovered by Shell. Twenty-two months after he was elected, on November 17, 1993, General Sani Abacha overthrew the democratically elected government of Moshood Abiola. The Houses of Assembly across the country were dissolved. "The crisis was on," said Oviawe. "I had no alternative.... I came seeking political asylum."

His brothers were already living legally in this country. One was an engineer in Los Angeles, the other a pharmacist in Miami. They bought a plane ticket for Felix, and he arranged a false passport because his diplomatic one had been seized. "I came in a different name," he explains. "When I got to the international airport, JFK, I went straight to Immigration, asking for political asylum. Then the Immigration took all my documents. I now presented myself as Honorable Felix Oviawe, because I came in a different name, you understand, and I told them the reason."

Oviawe stands up to tell me what happened after the transfer to the Union County Jail. "We are coming out from the van, about thirteen of us. As we are coming out, your hands are tied. A guard would grab you, throw you on the floor. You understand me? And someone else grab you, throw you back to the van. Somebody push you out again, then they throw you on the floor, another one would pick you, just continuous like that. They started beating us. Started beating us. Even while they were taking us to the cell, [a guard] said he feel like killing somebody. One of the guards, he said he feel like killing somebody. So he grabbed me by my shirt." Oviawe grabs my shirt from behind to demonstrate. "Beated my head on the wall. You understand me?"

"So we were now taken to the cell. 'Get into the cell.' We were asked to strip ourself naked. Three of us: myself, a Ghanian, and another Indian boy. We were three. We were asked to strip ourself naked, right in the cell there. Then we were asked to kneel down. We were asked to be on our knee. You are naked. Then, the next person to you, you grab his ear, you draw him by the ear, as you are on your knee, then the other one would drag the other person. We were there for more than three hours."

In the Canarsie living room, Oviawe explains that he and his two cellmates formed a small circle, each holding the ears of the person in front of him. "The guards, they started coming around. When they come around, one of them, very huge guy, he spat mucus. In short, it was so horrible. You understand? Some other [officers] started coming, to come and see if we had ever stood up from that kneel. We were there for more than three hours."

Oviawe pauses a long time. He had told this story many times by now. I asked him what he had been thinking as he kneeled naked on the jail floor. "My thinking was that maybe they were going to kill us. That was where my mind was going. It was the Ghanian boy who told me that they won't kill us, that I should have hope." It didn't seem like such a stretch for Oviawe to think he might be killed. "I just couldn't believe that things like that could happen here when they started doing that to us. For a good two days, it was continuous. In the night, at about nine, they would come around. You would remove even your underwear ... we didn't have blanket, no nothing. They would increase the AC." He tells me that when the guards left, but left them naked, he wrapped himself in toilet paper to try to keep warm.

"In short, I just don't want to remember. I started having different kind of dream. There is a brother of mine who died here in 1988. I dreamt of him. He came and he said, 'What are you doing here?' In a dream. I told him: Here am I.


Excerpted from American Gulag by Mark Dow Copyright © 2004 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: "Let This Be Home"
Intimidation, and the INS
2. September 11: Secrecy, Disruption, and Continuity
3. Another World, Another Nation: Miami’s Krome Detention Center
4. "Enforcement Means You’re Brutal"
5. The World’s First Private Prison
6. "Keeping Quiet Means Deny": A Hunger Strike in Queens
7. The Art of Jailing
8. "Criminal Aliens" and Criminal Agents
9. Siege, Shackles, Climate, Design
10. "Speak to Every Media": Resistance, Repression, and the Making of a Prisoner
11. Good and Evil in New England
12. Out West: Philosophy and Despair
13. Dead Time
14. Mariel Cubans: Abandoned, Again and Again
Selected Bibliography


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