By William Fisher
If you think prisoner abuse is about Abu Ghraib and a ‘few bad apples’, reading Mark Dow’s American Gulag may make you think again.
Dow is a journalist and former teacher at the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) detention center in Miami. He has spent years interviewing inmates, guards, and officials at that and the many other detention centers run by INS (now part of the new Department of Homeland Security).
"Long before Abu Ghraib, and even before September 11th”, Dow told The New Yorker magazine, “detainees in America's immigration prisons were being stripped, beaten, and sexually abused.” They were also being routinely deprived of the most basic civil rights.
Since September 11, immigration policy has become far more stringent, targeting Arab, Muslim, and South Asian foreign nationals. “Attorney General John Ashcroft has repeatedly used the term ‘terrorist’ to describe detainees, “when he was certainly in a position to know that they were not terrorists.” In fact, Dow writes, most had overstayed their visas, which could get them deported, but which is not a crime. Immigration law is not part of the US criminal justice system – which gives the INS virtually unlimited scope to hold people indefinitely, without charge, without access to attorneys, and without public disclosure.
Dow’s book describes a chamber of horrors that followed the 9/11 tragedy and the sweeping round-up of Arabs and Muslims.
Egyptian detainees held in Alabama go on a hunger strike. A Palestinian is transferred from jail to jail to keep him from contacting the media. He is told by INS officials that a condition of his release is that he cannot speak to the media about his case. If he does, they will lock him up again. An Egyptian man is confined for two months before being allowed to call a lawyer. He is given no soap or towels for a week and meanwhile interrogated. He says correctional officers stomped on his bare feet.
A Pakistani man, Mehmood, “had been traveling between Pakistan and the US since the mid-1980s. He was in the import export business. In the 1990s, he overstayed his five-year renewable visa…(He) had not been particularly surprised or concerned when, three weeks after (9/11), 25 FBI agents came knocking at the door of his Bayonne, New Jersey, home while he slept. He knew the authorities were ‘coming to Muslim houses. They just want to search us’, he said. Agents found ‘suspicious’ items – a flight simulator, a flying lesson logbook, box cutters and a hazardous materials driving permit. “But”, says Dow, “ with minimal investigation, the ‘case’ evaporated”. There were plausible – and confirmed – reasons for Mehmood to have had these items. His most serious breach of the law was altering the no-work line of his Social Security card.
When the FBI finished interviewing him, they said, “We have no problem with you. Now it’s up to the INS if they want to take you or not.” The INS arrested him. They told his wife she could expect a call from him in four to six hours, and that he would probably be freed on bail and might even get a ‘Green Card’. Bail was never set.
Dow writes: “For the first two months…Mehmood was moved each week to a new cell, handcuffed and shackled to be moved those few feet. After three weeks, he was allowed to make his first legal phone call. He was kept inside his cell for 24 hours day.” Then he was transferred first to Manhattan and then to Brooklyn. When he arrived in Brooklyn, he alleges, seven or eight correctional officers threw him out of the van, dragged him across the floor, and then threw him against a wall…with their full power.” He was injured.
Mehmood was charged with altering his social security card. He pled guilty and was sentenced to time served. He was deported back to Pakistan in mid-April, 2002. In that year, and in early 2003, “at least four charter flights took large groups of Pakistanis who had no proper documentation – or ties to terrorists – back to Pakistan. The INS called the charters “routine”. Even after Mehmood was back in Pakistan, Dow says, “Immigration officials said they could not comment on specific cases.”
Dow asks why Mehmood was held in the Special Housing Unit at Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center, “a federal prison, for four months and two days, and denied access to legal help and to his family for weeks?”
Dow concludes: The Bush Administration has “exploited our national trauma to extend law enforcement authority, as the long-standing biases within the Justice Department against Muslims and Arabs became politically correct.” None of this, he adds, “has anything to do with immigration…It's simply the result of excessive authority and an obsession with secrecy.”
“Today, the immigration agency holds some 23,000 people in detention on a given day and detains about 200,000 annually. The prisoners are held in the INS’s service processing centers; in local jails; in facilities owned and operated by private companies…and in Bureau of Prisons facilities, including federal penitentiaries. Wherever they are held, INS prisoners are ‘administrative detainees’; they are not serving a sentence…Immigration detainees can be held for days, months, or years…Detainees who came (to the US) from Cuba during the 1980 ‘Mariel boatlift’ are still in detention, despite a US Supreme Court against indefinite detention.” The reason given by INS is that Cuba has refused to take them back.
Detainees tend to fall into four categories: Those who have entered the US without proper documentation, including asylum-seekers (10-13% of all detainees); people with, say, a visa overstay, who can be picked up by an immigration agent and taken to detention -- either an immigration detention center or a contracted jail; people with some kind of criminal conviction -- once an immigrant completes a prison sentence, he or she can be turned over to the immigration service; finally, there is a fourth category, labeled “special detention”, for those thought to be associated with ‘terror’.
“Local politicians and business entrepreneurs have taken full advantage of the revenue possibilities in immigration detention”, Dow writes. ”The Federal Government paid New York County $45.00 per detainees per day, although it only cost the prison $24.37 to maintain each prisoner.”
“When detentions increased following the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, private prison profiteers saw another opportunity. The Chairman of the Houston-based Cornell Companies spoke candidly in a conference call with other investors: ‘It can only be good…with the focus on people that are illegal and also from Middle Eastern descent…In the US there are over 900,000 undocumented individuals from Middle Eastern descent…That’s half of our entire prison population…The Federal business is the best business for us…and the events of September 11 (are) increasing that level of business…”
“The prisons themselves are often gruesome,” Dow writes. The guards are “often unprepared for the environment.” One officer, after being convicted for repeatedly kicking and punching an inmate, told Dow, “It was a situation I had never been in … I reacted … I don't know what happened.”
Almost as disturbing is the veil of secrecy surrounding the detention centers. In his investigations, Dow was often prevented from interviewing prisoners, accessing medical records, and looking at immigration guidelines. Dow also found that INS answers to no one. It eschews formal regulations. There are no monitors or independent watchdogs. Most of what we know about these prisons comes from a handful of journalists, working tirelessly to "make public what the INS tries to hide."
In its new home at the DHS, Dow says, “The secretive immigration prison world is likely to be pulled even further from public scrutiny.”
That high levels of government are aware of the situation is clear. FBI whistle-blower agent Colleen Rowley expressed concern over the pressure from FBI offices to round up Arabs in order to fill the detention centers. A newsletter from the Justice Department says, “An alien's constitutional status in this country might be something that the government can use when an alien detainee challenges his or her treatment in detention.“ Dow finds this “astonishing, and disturbing, because it tells me that high-ranking Justice Department officials know about the treatment of these detainees, but instead of trying to do something about the conditions, they're looking for a way to justify those conditions.”
On paper, he says, there are INS standards regarding immigration conditions, including attorney visitation, media interviews, law libraries, and other crucial aspects of prison life. But, says the American Civil Liberties Union, “By refusing to promulgate these standards as regulations, the INS insured that they would be difficult if not impossible to enforce.”
Dow adds: “This effort to operate outside the bounds of enforceable law is no accident…“ Attorney General Ashcroft has “likened his new policy of preventative detention to Robert Kennedy’s crackdown on the Mafia, when arrests were made for ‘spitting on the sidewalk’ in order to prevent more serious crimes.”
Dow recommends a few ways to make the INS more transparent and accountable. These include Congressional hearings to consider the 2 1/2 decades of immigration detention abuses; an investigation by the Office of Inspector General; independent, surprise monitoring of all detention centers, prisons and jails organized by nongovernmental and community groups across the country; legal counsel and judicial review for every detainee; and repeal of the 1996 anti-immigrant laws -- responsible for tripling the detention population and for the deportation of tens of thousands of long-term legal residents for past minor crimes.
But ultimately, Dow believes, “detention authority should be removed from the immigration service except in emergencies and for strictly limited periods. The American immigration bureaucracy should not be operating a prison system at all.”
American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons is published by University of California Press, Berkeley 94704, California, USA, 2004. (www.ucpress.edu).