[This essay is excerpted from MARK DOW’s new book, American Gulag, published by the University of California Press.]
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 report1 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.”2 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.'”3 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.4
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.5 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.6 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.”7
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.8
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.9 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. He said I shouldn’t worry, that he was coming to get me out of there.”
Oviawe tried to speak with the correctional officers. “I told them, you know I am a majority leader. Please. Don’t do this to me. And they started teasing me and said, ‘Majority leader! Majority leader!’ And they grabbed me”-Oviawe himself is laughing now-“and they hit my head on the wall. You understand me? They started teasing.” His laughter trails off, and he says, “Oh no.” He pauses again and takes a breath. “I think I lived to respect this country because of what’s happened in the long run. You don’t just do things like that and go free.” His very next sentence returns him to the van: “I thought they were now going to kill us. That was my thought.” But this drive was to the next jail. It was a long drive, and the guards were armed. At some point Oviawe realized they were in Pennsylvania.
“Since I was already out of Union County, I knew I was going to make it.”
Felix Oviawe had arrived at the Union County Jail along with about two dozen other detainees. These included a number of Indian Sikhs, as well as men from Finland, Albania, Nigeria, and Mauritania. The detainees were met by a gauntlet of correctional officers, some working their normal shifts, others called in especially for the “Esmor detail.” The “beat and greet” reception included kicking, punching, and, according to the indictment brought by the New Jersey prosecutor’s office, “plucking detainees’ body hairs with pliers, forcing detainees to place their heads in toilet bowls, encouraging and ordering detainees to perform sexual acts upon one another, forcing detainees to assume unusual and degrading positions while naked, and cursing at and verbally insulting the detainees.”10 The pliers, it would turn out, were pincers used to cut plastic flex cuffs. Officers were also alleged to forced have their prisoners to chant “America is number one!”
Three Union County Jail officers were convicted on multiple criminal charges, including official misconduct and witness tampering. (One of the three primary defendants was not accused of abusing the detainees but of orchestrating officers’ perjured testimonies to the grand jury.) The three men received prison sentences of seven years, with parole eligibility after a year or a year and a half. Jimmy Rice, Charles Popovic, and Michael Sica all, if I am not mistaken, shed tears at their sentencing. About eleven other officers subsequently pled guilty, and most received sentences of community service.
Defense attorney Anthony Pope’s strategy was to depict the correctional officers alternately as heroes and victims. In his opening statement he criticized the “gross overreaction” of the prosecutor’s office, calling it “the most unjust thing . . . you’ve ever seen in your life.” As Americans, he instructed the jury, it is not just an opportunity but “by God, your obligation . . . to question your government.” Bob Valaducci, another defense attorney, added depth to the anti-authoritarian argument. Our forefathers understood, he said, that when the enormous resources of the state are used “against one individual . . . it’s not a very fair fight.” Pope took every opportunity to remind jurors that the detainees were “illegals.” “You know you had no right to come into this country, correct?” he asked an Indian man. In his closing statement, Pope repeated that what happened at the Union County Jail really began at Esmor, “which is housing people who came here illegally”-a fact that tells us “what kind of people they are.”
The prosecutor’s office went so far as to locate victims who had been deported and bring them back to Elizabeth for their testimony. Although Pope was right that much of the detainee testimony seemed rehearsed, possibly for the purposes of a civil suit that was being filed and would depend on evidence of lasting injuries, the overwhelming and consistent testimony of what happened that day was simply too much for the defense team. Witness Harpal Singh described the way that he was moved from the van into the jail: “Like you have a bundle of wood-he just picked me up and threw me outside.” And if the testimony of a succession of detainees was not enough, the testimony of other correctional officers (COs) who had been promised immunity sealed the outcome. CO Juan Espinosa said of the detainees, “They were just mild people who just took it, actually.”
Pope also did his best to challenge the repeated usage by witnesses of words like abuse, beating, and torture, and he tried to take advantage of the linguistic babble to imply that the detainees’ testimony was coached. In his cross-examination of Balvir Shah, Pope first got the witness to answer yes to the question, “Do you feel that someone using a curse word at you is a form of abuse?” Shah had said that guards forced him to kneel and then told him to fuck himself.
“So they used the word fuck?” asked Pope. “You realize that the word F-U-C-K is used in a lot of different ways?”
Shah said, through the interpreter, “All I know is that this means you have sex.”
“So you heard the word, and you assumed that someone wanted you to have sex, correct?”
“This is what he meant, the two of you [prisoners] have sex together.”
“Sir, how do you know what he meant?”
“It could only mean that. It mean nothing else.”
“Excuse me,” Pope said to the court, and then, to the witness: “If someone said go fuck yourself, you would think that meant go have sex?”
“You can’t do it on yourself,” Shah responded.
There was laughter throughout the courtroom, which made the witness smile, and Pope himself smiled.
The judge said: “He told you.”
Pope wrapped it up: “You heard the word F-U-C-K and you believed in your mind that’s what he wanted you to do?”
Margarita Smishkewych, the supervisor of court interpreting services, who loved talking about the Spanish landscape and passionately quoted lines from García Lorca as we stood outside the courtoom, told me this trial was the most challenging of her career.11
Balvir Shah testified that “it was paining a lot” when he was thrown around by officers, so he “made a big sigh.”
Prosecutor: “What do you mean you made a big sigh?”
“I said hi,” Shah seemed to say.
“You said hi?”
“Yes. In Punjabi, when you get injured, this sound comes out of your mouth automatically.”
Pope’s cross-examination on cursing was a fascinating if flailing excursion into linguistics, but it did not seem to help his clients much. On the other hand, when he broke down witnesses’ accounts of heads being pushed into toilets, he seemed to break down their credibility as well. Pope managed to take the mind’s moving picture of a CO forcing a prisoner’s head into the toilet and edit it down to a single frame. What came before or after became indiscernible. Pope asked a detainee who claimed to have pushed back against a CO’s hand, “If someone was constantly trying to put your head down, that would mean, wouldn’t it, that your head was up?” Detainees who testified to having seen this act now admitted seeing a prisoner’s head poised above a toilet but not in it, not touching the water. Pope returned to another of his themes by reminding jurors that not only is prison a different world from the one we are used to, but these detainees were from the Third World, and they had been in transit all day in the June heat, and the toilets had been cleaned the night before, and the prisoners might have just been drinking-the civilized COs might have been pulling their heads out of the toilets. Far-fetched as this may seem, Pope had made an impression by showing that so much of the testimony seemed overly practiced. There was no doubt that terrible things had happened that day at the jail, but I wondered if this dramatic detail had really been one of them.
From the windows of the courtroom one could see down to the adjacent Revolutionary-era cemetery in bleak, downtown Elizabeth. The trial was an important show for local law enforcement, and on the street county correctional officers gathered to protest the prosecution of their fellow officers. In the hallway outside the courtoom, one court officer, who was listening in whenever his other duties permitted, recognized me as a regular and asked one afternoon what had happened that day. I told him about the cross-examination on the toilet allegation.
“We had done that,” the man said. “That’s no big deal. It was a tool to fuckin’ influence people.” We had not yet introduced ourselves. Once we had, Frank told me that he used to work in the Union County Jail alongside some of the defendants and that forcing prisoners’ heads into toilets and stripping them naked were common practice. I asked if I might jot down what he was saying.
A couple of weeks later Frank and I spoke at length over several pints of Killian draught in a Hoboken restaurant-bar. Using a tape recorder seemed touchy since the convictions in New Jersey v. Rice had relied on clandestinely recorded conversations, but Frank didn’t mind. “You’re not going to put me in jail,” he said.
He orders a glass of ice for his beer. The confused waiter brings him ice water. “Nothin’ for nothin’,” Frank says to me in one his favorite punctuating phrases after sternly instructing the waiter simply to bring ice, “it’s cold beer.”
Frank had been a correctional officer in the Union County Jail for about ten years, although he no longer worked there at the time of the incident. His grandparents were born in Russia and Poland. His father was born in Newark and worked for General Motors. After a brief stint as a substitute teacher (low pay) and garbage company dispatcher (boring), he found a secure job in the corrections business. His first guard job was at the state prison in Rahway, a “dungeon” where inmates served lengthy sentences and where most of them were-he lowers his voice a moment-black. Then a former Union County inmate suggested that Frank get himself transferred there.
Frank is nostalgic about the jail. “It was pretty peaceful. There was plenty of cells, there was plenty of food. The guys who were going to jail at that time kind of knew each other”-neighborhood winos who needed to dry out, for example. “It wasn’t that hard tough crowd, whereas ten years later it certainly was a hard tough crowd.” That was 1979, and ten years later, with mandatory drug sentencing guidelines helping to overpopulate the jails, Frank’s “nice little spot on the beach” looked a lot different to him.
“We’re stickin’ six pounds of shit in a five pound bag at this point,” he says. “You try to be fair, but how fair can I be? Call the county manager and tell him you’re sleeping on the floor at night. It wasn’t fair to put that burden on me. . . . It’s pressure for everybody. The place was a powder keg. It finally blew up.” Frank was talking about a riot at the Union County Jail. I hadn’t asked about it, but it was clearly a formative experience.
“I never seen so many beatings in my life. Nothin’ for nothin’, [the inmates] were going to beat you”-he names four officers who were jumped and beaten by the rioters-“I don’t think [the prisoners] fucked anybody, but they spit on ’em and [said] ‘fuck you guys’ and shit. And they always told you, if you ever get caught, you don’t want to challenge the guy, you don’t want to show your authority. Take your shirt off if you can. Just sit there and do what you gotta do. You realize that help will be there, and when the help gets there, then you can play the game, kick their ass. I think that’s exactly what happened. It took about forty-five minutes. But when the jail was retaken, you know, when the men were back in position, they literally beat the shit out of them. I seen ’em put a mop bucket on a guy’s head and hit him in the head with a fuckin’ nightstick. This guy’s ears still gotta be ringing. . . .
“Thank God they didn’t get me. . . . That was by far the scariest day I ever had in my life.” Perversely, I cannot hear his next words without Martin Luther King Jr.’s echoing behind them. “I think after that everything is inconsequential. Know what I mean? I’m really not too concerned about anything after that.”
Although Frank feels that those post-riot beatings were justified, he doesn’t think they are the most effective method of controlling a jail. “I think it’s so much more effective to embarrass and humiliate a prisoner than it is to kick his ass,” he explains. “You’re kickin’ his ass, that gives him the red badge of courage.”
Frank takes pride in the fact that he was respected by prisoners as well as fellow officers. “I would make it my business to walk through every tier every day. That was my business, because I wanted to talk to these guys. I wanted them to have a little trust, a little confidence in me. I wasn’t there just to be there when there was problems. I wanted them to kind of know me, and that I’m not here to take advantage of you. But when you took advantage of a prisoner-there’s guys fuckin’ prisoners-it’s not appropriate. Unacceptable. You have to do something to this guy, ’cause if you don’t do something to him, you’re going to get no respect from the other fourteen guys.”
He gives me another example. It’s the “very sad story” of a young black inmate who wore thick glasses. A stronger prisoner used to force him to wash his jail uniform. The young prisoner complained to Frank but was terrified that he would be discovered complaining. So Frank told him not to worry and approached the stronger prisoner.
“‘What’d I do?'” Willie demanded. (Frank does a convincing Northeast urban black American accent, not a caricature.) “I ask you the questions,” Frank said to Willie. “How you get pressed uniforms in the fuckin’ county jail? You got more creases than I got.” He made Willie get a dirty uniform. “Put that piece of shit uniform on, then go back in that tier and sit in your bunk and shut your mouth. And if I hear another word out of you, I’ll be back tomorrow. Today we started with uniforms. Tomorrow I’m going to put your fuckin’ head in the toilet. Okay?
“You wanna call your lawyer, go ahead and call your lawyer. Tell him that you don’t have a fresh uniform today. You’re in the county jail, and you don’t have a fresh uniform. You go tell your lawyer that.” Frank enjoys telling the story, but he hasn’t forgotten its pedagogical purpose. “He doesn’t get hit. There’s no reports written. And now when I go back on that tier the next day, I seen him in his bunk. ‘How you doin’, Willie? You all right? Everything OK? Good man, Willie, good man.’ And you walk through. It’s just business, you know what I mean? But I gained more respect that day for doing next to nuthin’. . . .
“That whole toilet bowl thing: that’s like an insult in jail. I’m not saying that that’s common practice, but it beats the hell out of beating a guy. You going to give me a hard time? Listen, you jerkoff-boom! That’s what I can do to you. You bring them down to a fuckin’ ant in a moment, you know what I’m saying? It’s better than beating them up. Jimmy Rice can beat them guys up, there’s no doubt about it, right?” The principal defendant in the detainee beatings case, Rice is a tank of a man whom prosecutors charged with “pumping up” the other guards. Frank is solid, but he’s short and a little plump.
“What’s better? Stick their head in the fuckin’ toilet bowl. It don’t hurt you. It’s humiliating. It don’t really hurt you. And if Jimmy wanted that guy’s head in the bowl, in the water, it would be in the water, there’s no doubt about that. He got arms like you got legs. Fuckin’ guy’s gigantic guy, he’s gigantic.
“Two more my friend, all right?” Our waiter brings the beers and a fresh glass of ice.
“Kickin’ the shit out of a guy isn’t going to do anything,” Frank continues. “But that has to happen too. There has to a be a duke, man. I’m not a big tough guy. But I worked in jail where there’s big tough guys. Nobody, but nobody, was tougher than Stanley B.-toughest guy in America. Ronnie K., Louis P., Arnie O.-these guys are men, man. We’re kind of like businessmen. They wear a uniform, and if you get out of line, you’re going to have to talk to these guys. . . . I was in there for ten years. I seen twenty, thirty ass whippin’s. Big beatings, man. But I never saw a [prisoner] complain about it. Guys came out of the hole two or three days later, shook your hand. . . . ‘Sorry for all the trouble I caused, it’ll never happen again.’ And the jail, it ran like a clock.”
He takes another sip of beer. “P.J. was another great jailer, another guy who could run a jail. He was an Hispanic.” One night, Frank recalls, he and P.J. were working the midnight shift. P.J. had just finished watching Johnny Carson, and one of the inmates was “howling like a fuckin’ wolf.”
P.J. says, “‘Fella, let me tell you right now, you better shut your mouth or you’re going to regret it.’
“I’m standing there, and P.J. says, ‘Get me a pail of water.’ I go in the back, I get a pail of water. . . . P.J. takes the whole fuckin’ pail of water, wings it at the guy. Cold water. Guy’s sitting there in his fuckin’ jail uniform, right?
“‘Get me another pail of water.’ Gets another fuckin’ pail of water.
“‘Open the window.’ It’s fuckin’ November. It’s about fuckin’ thirty-five degrees outside. This guy gets a chill in him. P.J. says, ‘Now listen, you son-of-a-bitch, you’ll be quiet real soon.’ Sure enough, two, three minutes later, man, quiet like a baby.
“I says, ‘We going to go give the guy a warm uniform or what?’
“‘Fuck that guy, give him a warm uniform in the morning.'”
“So what are you thinking?” I ask.
“That’s the way to run a jail. No reports. There’s eight other [inmates] seeing it happen, you know what I mean? We didn’t hurt this guy. We didn’t do a thing to this guy. You know what I’m saying? You hit him with cold water in thirty degrees, thirty-five degrees. It’s very painful, you know, but it’s not kicking his ass. . . . Go tell your lawyer that I hit you with a pail of cold water and opened a window. See if she’s going to believe that. See if she can prove that. What’s wrong with that? I’m not saying that it’s right. But what’s wrong with it? . . .
“Guys knew how to jail then. They were real good jailers. I’m telling you, man, there’s a real art in jailing. It’s a real art. Some guys can do it and some can’t. I think for prisoners too. I think some prisoners really know how to do it, and other prisoners have a real tough time doing it. You can spot the guys who are having a tough time. You try to help those guys a little bit, some guys who have psychological problems. . . . We’re white guys-you get tossed into an institution that’s all black, you’re in a lot of trouble.” Especially, he adds, if you’re a “regular” guy, as opposed to somebody like, say, Jimmy Rice.
Frank found out about the officers’ indictments by reading USA Today on a flight home from Las Vegas, and he was immediately afraid for them. “Nothin’ for nothin’,” he says, “Jimmy Rice is a very aggressive kid.” Prosecutors emphasized that the detainees called to testify in New Jersey v. Rice had not been involved in the Esmor riot. But Frank notes, as the defense lawyers had, that the Union County guards were told the detainees were coming from the scene of a riot. Frank makes clear that he doesn’t know what happened at the jail that day, but he’s comfortable speculating.
“He’s a very aggressive guy, and I would imagine when he tells you, whether you’re in the bar or in the jail, ‘Go this way,’ I think it’s in your best interest to go that way. He’s a fuckin’ Popeye, man. He’s a big, tough guy. I’ve seen him wipe guys in the bar just like I’ve seen him wipe guys in the jail. Jimmy’s not out of character. That’s the guy he is. He’s not [just] a big guy, he’s a tough guy. And I think he felt somewhat slighted: he told all the [detainees] to move. They didn’t move.” Defense witnesses testified that the detainees remained in the vans when ordered by Rice to get out; one CO testified for the state that the prisoners huddled in fear. “I think [the officers] took advantage of them. They didn’t speak English, they probably figured they couldn’t really recognize them . . . it’s like kickin’ a fuckin’ scared dog. I could never do that. You couldn’t do that. But these guys kind of thrived on it. . . . I understand these [detainees] were causing some shit in the van on the way over, [saying] ‘Fuck you guys,’ [and] ‘Hey man, fuck this.’ I understand one guy pissed in the van or something. So now they’re going to kick the shit out of ’em when they get inside? Fuck it, who cares, get a hose, wipe the fuckin’ thing out.”
“Jimmy’s not a bad kid,” he continues. “Jimmy’s a good soul, man. He’d help you much more before he’d hurt you. But I think they got caught up in a frenzy. I think there was no leadership. . . . I think that frantic mentality took place. That fuckin’ mob mentality, that pushin’ and shovin’ and smackin’. And I think once Jimmy did it, sure Popovic [a codefendant] did it . . . and I’m sure all the way down the line. I’m sure that Dougie Wynn did it.” Officer Douglas Wynn had been granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony. Here Frank’s anger surfaces. He feels sure that the COs who testified against Popovic, Seca, and Rice were equally culpable but, in standard criminal justice procedure, had traded testimony for immunity. A prosecutor’s assistant admitted as much when she told me her office could have indicted every CO at the jail that day, but they wanted convictions, not just indictments.
Wynn, an African American and a former football player-a big man-seemed more frightened than any of the detainees while testifying to the roomful of COs and their families. He was shaking when we spoke for a moment in the hallway afterward. Weeks later the judge would have to clear the courtroom when CO supporters jeered and spat as the guilty verdicts were announced.12
“There’s a lot of dark side to this country. . . . The word foreign makes them despise you. People have a lot of hatred.”
Even three years later, Ghanian immigrant Eric Mensah-his birth name was Kwadjo, which means “Monday-born son”-could not understand how he got caught in the Union County incident. After experiencing racism in Chicago, Miami, and New Jersey, Mensah had to endure the racism of Union County correctional officers, and he was one of them.
Mensah picked me up from the train station in South Amboy, and we drove to his home in the Township of Old Bridge. On the way he gave me a racial-geographic tour of the place, telling me he was forced to sell his property in nearby South Amboy because of his color. He seemed to want to tell me everything about his life, though he asked me not to use a tape recorder because he didn’t want to lose the movie rights to his story. Mensah’s mother, in traditional African dress, sat watching television as her son and I ate pizza.
Then thirty-six, Mensah had left Ghana at the age of seventeen and gone to Romania. A friend of his father was close to the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, so his family was able to have a successful tractor equipment business. But Mensah’s goal was the United States; he was living in inner-city East New York, a section of Brooklyn, when his three-month visitor visa expired. One day INS agents showed up, but he refused to open the door, and they left. Soon after, agents walked into his psychology class at Manhattan’s City College. “They handcuffed me right there,” Mensah said. He was briefly detained at the Varick Street detention center. He still remembers the strip searches, and “the noise [was] overwhelming.”
After he collected his belongings from the courtyard where his girlfriend had scattered them, Mensah got his life back together and moved up to Harlem. With legal assistance, he obtained a green card, and he worked various jobs, including one with American Express and another as the food services manager at the United Nations. In 1992 he became a U.S. citizen and took advantage of the opportunity to change his name for no fee. He took the civil service exam and by 1994 was working as a correctional officer at the Union County Jail, a job he hoped would lead to the police academy. “My main profession was supposed to be an architect. I missed that opportunity.”
Mensah never really enjoyed being at the jail: “I’m just there to do an eight-hour job.” It didn’t help that his tires were slashed and fellow officers told him, “Go back to Africa, you fucking monkey,” or that one of the defendants in the case kept a Ku Klux Klan hood in his locker. The place was run by “jaundiced white boys,” he said, and then apologized to me for his language. Mensah’s theory of the prosecutors’ strategy in New Jersey v. Rice is compatible with Frank’s: use the black COs and their harbored resentments to bring down the guilty white ones. On the day of the incident Mensah was called in to help with the Esmor detail because he speaks several West African dialects. Sure enough, in the jail sallyport he met a Nigerian detainee sent over from Esmor-here’s where the movie rights could come in-and the prisoner’s only relative in the United States turns out to have been working in a hair salon with one of Mensah’s close relatives down South. In any case, Mensah did little but watch the events that unfolded-or perhaps he didn’t watch. Either way, he admits that he did nothing, and that’s what he was prosecuted for.
“When you abuse people, that’s when the adrenaline gets high. To be part of the clique, you have to abuse inmates. . . . The institution is built up paramilitary style. Your first 101 is that you don’t report anything to the director.” Mensah pled guilty to obstruction of justice. He was sentenced to do community service work at a soup kitchen. He almost lost his wife because of the stress of the trial.
Now Mensah was selling real estate in New Jersey. He was staring down at the table and fiddling with a pen he had used to doodle flowery shapes on a paper plate when he told me that sometimes he thought about moving back home. “I know life is not fair,” he said. “But come on.”
“It’s a prison mentality,” says Frank. “When you’re sitting around, when you’re hanging around with a lot of tough guys and there’s a lot of tough things going on, you certainly do become a tough guy. I mean that’s part of the business. There’s no doubt about that.” He adds that the jail hiring practice is getting less and less selective, even as the inmate population continues to swell. “You’re getting the bottom of the barrel. You’re getting guys who can’t fuckin’ spell their name. You’re getting guys who are cheating on the test. These guys are not me and you taking the test. These are guys who should be janitors-not even janitors. These guys should be fuckin’ criminals, but they’re not inside the jail, they’re outside the jail. You know what I’m saying?”
Here is what he’s saying: “I don’t want shoe salesmen, I want corrections officers. There’s a big difference. If they want to sell shoes, or you want to sell carpet, go right ahead and go there. . . . But the jail job is a very personal job. . . . [There’s] a lot of pressure in there. . . . [The inmates’] lives are being destroyed, their wives are getting divorced, or their wives are fucking their cousins. A guy’s sitting in jail, he can’t do nothing about it-you have to know when you can lend a hand to a guy, when to kick a guy in the ass. It’s a very delicate situation, you know. And I think a lot of guys don’t know how to juggle that act. That’s what makes a good guard from a bad guard. Anybody can sit there and be a robot. Anybody can sit there and be a fuckin’ Gestapo-Jimmy Rice, that was his job. He was a big, tough guy, so we used him: Jimmy, you sit in the office, drink coffee, and when we need you, we’ll call you. And when we call you, we expect you to act in a certain way.”
Frank cannot quite believe that his old friend and the others were going to jail themselves. “I don’t think there were any people there rooting for the Indians,” he says, referring to the Indian and Pakistani witnesses. “It was like 180 people in the courtoom, 150 were rooting for Jimmy, and the fucking Indians won.” As we leave the restaurant parking lot in Frank’s car, the olive-skinned attendant gives him change, pronouncing three as tree. Frank laughs, and says the guy sounds like an Indian. “That’s funny, isn’t it?”
Felix Oviawe had told me he believes in America because the defendants in New Jersey v. Rice were tried and convicted. And he said so before giving up his asylum petition, which became unnecessary after he won a green card in the State Department lottery.
Frank believes in the Constitution too. That’s why he remains bothered about what happened at the Union County Jail that June day. It was bad enough that the correctional officers overreacted, bad enough that the state went after them, but then his old colleagues surrendered their rights to the overzealous government agents.
“These guys didn’t have enough sense to just turn around and say, ‘Fuck you, I’m an American. I don’t have to talk to you.'”
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). He can be reached at: email@example.com
1. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Headquarters Detention and Deportation Division, “The Elizabeth, New Jersey Contract Detention Facility Operated by ESMOR Inc.: Interim Report,” July 20, 1995.
2. Esmor Inc., A Corrections Services Company, “Technical Proposal to U.S. Department of Justice for RFP CO-22-;88 San Diego, California,” August 1988. Barbara Muller quoted in Viejas Cultural Integrity Fund, “INS Detention Center/Viejas Indian Reservation-San Diego County,” undated press release.
3. Jennifer Peltz, “Pahokee Youth Jail Gets Seven Weeks to Clean Up Act,” Palm Beach Post, July 16, 1999, 1B.
4. Sam Scolnik, “Tacoma to Have New INS Building,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter, September 24, 2002.
5. Molly Gordy, “INS Mgrs. Demand the Ax for Boss,” New York Daily News, December 3, 1996. William Branigi, “Field Managers Accuse INS Operations Director of Cronyism, Seek His Ouster,” Washington Post, December 6, 1996. On “LaGuardia taught a course . . . was later convicted”: Transcript of 60 Minutes, “I.N.S.,” March 10, 2002 (CBS Worldwide, Inc.); author interview with anonymous INS headquarters official.
6. Matthew Purdy and Celia W. Dugger, “Legacy of Immigrants’ Uprising: New Jail Operator, Little Change,” New York Times, July 7, 1996, A1. John Tierney, “Accountability at Prisons Run Privately,” New York Times, August 15, 2000, 1B.
7. On “risk of public scrutiny”: see chap. 5, note 1. Oluwole Aboyade and Salah Dafali v. Corrections Corporation of America, Prison Realty Trust, Inc. et al., U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, Newark, no. cv-00-2067, February 2000. Concerning events described in the lawsuit, see also Elizabeth Llorente, “Asylum Seekers Sue Elizabeth Jailers,” Bergen Record, February 25, 2000. On the incident that led to the suit, see Elizabeth Llorente, “INS Moves Outspoken Asylum Seeker,” Bergen Record, April 15, 1999; [editorial], “A Suspicious Transfer,” Bergen Record, April 16, 1999; Elizabeth Llorente, “Beating of Asylum Seeker Described,” Bergen Record, April 19, 1999; [editorial], “A Beating or an Injury?” Bergen Record, April 29, 1999; Monique El-Faizy, “INS Defend Discipline of Jailed Asylum-Seeker,” Bergen Record, April 30, 1999. J. Scott Blackman, INS acting eastern regional director, wrote to the paper “to underscore [the INS’s] commitment to proper and humane treatment of all detainees in INS custody”; “On Elizabeth Detention Center,” Letters, Bergen Record, May 2, 1999.
In September 2003 a jury found in favor of CCA on the charges concerning Aboyade; it found CCA guilty of both assault and battery against Dafalu-but not guilty of infliction of emotional distress-and awarded Dafali $1 (one dollar). The plaintiffs have filed a motion for a new trial.
In his closing argument, CCA’s lead counsel Brad Simon made repeated, sarcastic references to the plaintiffs’ “wild conspiracy theories about retaliation” and asked jurors to rely on their “common sense” rather than “fantasies” that guards would beat and isolate frustrated detainees. He also argued (more plausibly) that the plaintiffs were suing the company rather than individual officers or the INS because they wanted money-and then he told the jury that CCA “has the right not to be extorted.” Finally, he made sure to mention that the plaintiffs were “illegal immigrants” (the same tactic used by correctional officers’ defense counsel in New Jersey v. Rice, as we will see).
Aboyade and Dafali were detained at the INS/CCA Elizabeth detention center in 1998. Aboyade alleged that after his name appeared in the Bergen Record and other papers-where he was surprised to find himself described as a leader-he was put into a segregation cell that had been covered with human feces by another hunger striker and was told by a CCA official to eat the other protester’s shit. CCA officers allegedly roughed him up, but a former CCA officer actually testified that Aboyade “ran into the supervisor’s hand.” All this came in tandem with other CCA taunts-the usual remarks about fucking his mother and Africans eating like monkeys. From seg, Aboyade filed numerous complaints-directed to the INS, but which must go through CCA-yet these went unanswered. A CCA officer noted in the seg logbook that Aboyade was “very verbal.” He continued working on his asylum appeal while denied access to the law library; he attempted to submit the appeal from segregation, but it never reached the Board of Immigration Appeals. (He would later be granted political asylum.) After about a week, Aboyade was moved to another isolation cell and held there for three more weeks. Former CCA/Elizabeth warden Chris Brogna testified that CCA headquarters had been notified of the hunger strike “because this is a high profile facility,” but he acknowledged that the protest for which participants were put into isolation was completely nonviolent. Aboyade testified that when detainees chanted, “No food! No food! No food!” CCA officers told them that they were “making the company to lose money.” When Aboyade was put into segregation, CCA officials confiscated and never returned a diary he had kept about his first four months in detention. Early in the trial Aboyade told me that neither the jury’s decision nor the possible financial award were important to him. What mattered was “that I was able to bring my experience, what happened to me at Elizabeth, into this court.”
Salah Dafali arrived in the United States as a stowaway-but only because he thought the ship he took from Italy was headed for Canada. INS detained him in Elizabeth, refusing to deport him, as he requested. CCA officers allegedly threatened to send Dafali to a county jail to be sexually assaulted by other inmates. They also sexually threatened him themselves. Dafali met INS detainees who had been held at Elizabeth for two and three years, so he believed it when officers threatened to keep him there for fifteen. He finally cut his wrists and began having “tantrums,” according to Brogna. Dafali also began a hunger strike. He was forced into four-point restraints. While he was restrained, the CCA chief of security allegedly hit him in the face. The water to Dafali’s isolation cell was cut off, according to CCA’s own records. A former employee of TransCor America-CCA’s subsidiary prisoner transportation company-testified that he saw “a bootprint” on Dafali’s face shortly after Dafali was “tagged up” or assaulted; CCA records called the wound “self-inflicted.” A CCA videotape of the assault on Dafali ends abruptly. A CCA official testified that the battery had run out. Aboyade, who had been in a nearby cell, testified that the security chief ordered the camera off of Dafali, who was begging officers to stop. A CCA shift supervisor took Polaroids of the injured Dafali; court documents note that CCA failed to produce these in the course of litigation and provided no explanation. (Polaroids of Dafali taken by an INS official were in evidence, however.) “They beat me on the 28th,” Dafali told me; “they transferred me on the 29th.” He was detained for a total of forty-one months and remains subject to detention and deportation at the agency’s discretion.
8. Quarantillo’s remark “It was understood by all parties”: quoted in Steve Chambers, “INS Embroiled in New Dispute over Cutoff of Detainee Programs,” Newark Star-Ledger, December 22, 1999; Quarantillo continued: “The reason for the suspension is because Jesuit Refugee Service broke the covenant that had been reached with the INS”-that is, not to discuss detention with the detainees.
Quarantillo’s comment “INS has no objection to Matthew 25”: quoted in Patricia Zapor, “Radical Reading: Detention References Kill Bible, English Classes,” Catholic News Service, January 7, 2000. The problematic passage in Matthew 25:35-;36 reads: “I was a stranger and you took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” Will Coley of the Jesuit Refugee Service said he heard that INS monitors enjoyed the Bible class; then they reported on it to INS officials in the district office (Elizabeth Llorente, “Asylum Seekers’ Classes Halted; Policy Breach Cited,” Bergen Record, December 22, 1999).
On suicide attempts: Elizabeth Llorente, “Lacking Liberty, Some Detainees Attempt Death,” Bergen Record, May 24, 1999.
9. Wole Soyinka, The Open Sore of a Continent: A Personal Narrative of the Nigerian Crisis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 65, 75. Soyinka continues: “Let us face it, as many Nigerians themselves and visitors to Nigeria do concede, Nigerians appear at times to require a coercive hand in directing their social awareness. There is something about my fellow nationals that requires that their sense of egoistic mindlessness be drastically pruned, that they be made to recognize the rights of others. As a former and still enthusiastic enforcer of road safety culture in Nigeria, I not only testify to this but confess that I took particular satisfaction in training our corps to crush the egos of that arrogant breed of drivers, the civilian elite and military officers especially, who felt that they were above the law and could kill and maim with impunity” (77-;78).
10. The State of New Jersey v. James Rice, Charles Popovic, Michael Sica, et al., Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division-Union County, Criminal, Indictment No. 96-;01-;00104I.
11. Smishkewych gave me a list titled “Languages Appearing in the New Jersey Superior Court” in 1996. Spanish was by far the most common, followed by Portuguese, American Sign Language, and Polish. These were followed by Vietnamese, Haitian Creole, Korean, Mandarin, Arabic, Italian, Russian, Greek, Serbo-Croatian, Gujarati, Cantonese, Khmer, Urdu, French, Romanian, Farsi, Turkish, Hungarian, Hindi, Albanian, Panjabi Tagalog, Hebrew, Macedonian, Ukrainian, Czech, Foo Chow, German, Armenian, Japanese, Pashto, Slovak, Bengali, Bulgarian, Min Nan, Amharic, Malinke, Nepali, and Thai.
12. I was not in the courtroom on the day the verdicts were read. See Ronald Smothers, “3 Prison Guards Guilty of Abuse of Immigrants,” New York Times, March 7, 1998, A1; MaryAnn Spoto, “From a Jail to Prison for 3 Involved in ‘Brute’ Force,” Newark Star-Ledger, May 2, 1998.
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