Showdown at Sheriff’s Plaza

In Paterson, NJ, the bald yellow-brick box-store of the Passaic County Jail squats, flaunting its razor-wire like a perverse billboard for crime, smack-dab on downtown, retail-heavy Main Street. What goes on behind this unprepossessing façade may be worrisome enough in a normal season of urban crime. But in recent months the jail has become the unlikely scene of a psychodrama queer enough to have been cobbled out of the bad dreams of Clint Eastwood and David Chase.

It’s got all the right characters for the twisted, po-mo spaghetti western it smacks of, starting with a faceoff between the federal government and the Sheriff-Jerry Speziale-a crimefighter with a jackboot reputation and an appropriate name for an enforcer in North Jersey Sopranos country. Even the Feds show up as a general and deputies, though in this case (setting aside certain similarities in theme) not a militia sent out by Indian Affairs, but a company of field auditors dispatched by Inspector General Richard Skinner in the Department of Homeland Security.

But this showdown is no fiction. It represents life and death matters in dead earnest. And it pivots on the Inspector General’s inquiry-technically called an “audit”-into the operations of detention facilities all over the US, places where the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (now a subset of DHS) temporarily holds so-called “undesirable aliens” before deporting them to their “home” countries- which means virtually anywhere (or in some instances, nowhere) on the face of the globe. Passaic County Jail is one of these facilities; so is Hudson County Jail. Along with another eight prisons originally declared subject to this audit, they have been charged by detainees and their spokespeople with credible-and serious-abuses of human rights.

Though the Inspector General resides within the DHS, he is separately funded and alleged to be an independent animal. He is obliged as a feature of his own statutory salvation not to allow abuses to persist, and to conduct these periodic audits of DHS-contracted facilities, reviewing and sifting evidence and interviewing detainees and jail personnel, to determine whether allegations are true and corrective measures justified. High-profile audits published in 2003 and supplemented last year had gained a certain cachet as solid and hard-hitting.

But by this August, seven, eight, nearly nine months into the new process, the entire audit had been hit with a tsunami of reversals, swamping all new-year hopes of swift review or quick relief. The first shockwave had come after only three months, in the suddenly-announced departure of a relatively friendly lead auditor-this, with only California’s CCA and Pennsylvania’s Berks out of the ten projected audits anywhere near completion. About a month later the IG declared an official scale-back from ten audited facilities to five, though the two in New Jersey remained still on the list.

Then, even as New Jersey detainees come forward to testify and are named in dossiers to the IG, they begin to disappear from the facilities they’d charged with misconduct. Mail to these and other detainees is turned away from these jails without explanation- unclear whether on account of such transfers, since rigid visitation grids in the two facilities make checks on the whereabouts of large numbers of detainees impracticable, and encounters by telephone with jail personnel Kafkaesque. News comes of a suicide in Passaic County detention; an attempted suicide; a series of savage beatings; another hunger strike-one of many in this facility’s history.

A posse of angry activists/advocates, brought together by the audit with the help of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, begin to meet by email and conference call, building a head of steam over the summer of delays. They include representatives of our own group, the New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee, who have consistently supplied first-hand and eye-witness testimony of unconscionable conditions on the inside. Together with several other Metro area advocacy groups we have formed a coalition led by Washington-based national NGOs like Immigration Forum and Amnesty International with a long institutional stake in protecting human rights. All of us are actually invited to meet with Inspector General Skinner on August 22.

Suddenly, on August 17 (to the IG’s enormous chagrin, our DC meeting only days off), Sheriff Speziale ups and tosses the entire New Jersey auditing team out of his Jail. Mind you, these are the people who write his contract, and pay for it-the “Boss.” Or so one might think. The news is reported in the press under the headline “Speziale boots feds.” Speziale is quoted: “They’re arrogant, they’re a disgrace to the federal government.”

You have to know Speziale-a caricature of a New Jersey tough-guy, a former New York narc in phony dreadlocks and self-styled national expert in surveillance who boasts (or used to boast) about his buddy relationship with Bernie Kerik, the (recently-embarrassed) former NYC Police Chief-to understand why we might see a certain black comedy in this turn of events.

And by now we aren’t exactly chums with the new auditors either. Once Ronda Richardson, the original quarterback, was gone, so was our only real IG ally in the process. The new team proved standoffish and prickly, if not actively hostile. Even after local advocate groups met with them in June to set ground rules, our email communications had begun to fray, and stall; location of decision-making authority became murky, irritatingly mystified. An agreement we’d reached with Richardson months earlier came unravelled: it was to allow detainees without lawyers (which means most of them) to ask, if they wished to be interviewed, for familiar lay-advocate witnesses from our coalition of groups. This was no frivolous issue, and the risk of retaliation without witnesses clearly no paranoid fantasy. The IG had already said they would not interview detainees already transferred out of the two target facilities, a policy that had led, transparently, to punitive transfers-in some cases, arguably worse. By the time the August 22 meeting landed, our frustration had already prompted efforts to expose this impasse to our congressional delegation and to the press.

In the present reactionary political climate, of course, it’s a sheer wonder that we were there in DC at all, and more so that we were swept so amicably into the Vermont Avenue halls of the DHS and ensconced in the IG’s well-lit and well-leathered conference room, preparing to do something that looked for all intents like sitting and reasoning together. Maybe it’s not so farfetched to suggest that, in the event, the IG’s embarrassment had made a bunch of rather nagging and ragtag guerrilla activists look a little like the rescue squad.

IG Skinner himself, plumply gracious, was Virginia gentleman to the bone. His underlings, less so, found early opportunities for cold contention, but soon pulled back as the sun shone and the mess came into full view. They argued that their cutback in audit facilities had been based on simple staff-time calculus: they’d already hired eighteen auditors, couldn’t justify asking for more, and had triaged facilities by number and seriousness of complaints. But it seemed clear that the rebuke to their auditors in New Jersey had taken very little edge off their two primary audit targets there, and, perhaps even left them burning for retribution. Q&A elicited that Speziale himself would in fact be coming down to Washington with a cohort of staff the following day, prepared to talk. When asked in this context what accountability for non-compliance might be demanded of a facility like this, Skinner, with a certain fire in his otherwise mild eye, unhesitatingly shot back that they could recommend the termination of contract.

But when we returned to the most salient sticking point-the protection of detainee interviewees via lay witnesses (termed “citizen-advocates”)-discussion remained hot. IG personnel resisted-tried to deny that this had been promised-waffled- dodged-but didn’t outright refuse. “Clearance” was muttered as the stumbling block, not specified whose.

Well, we thought, it’s a big deal in these days of terror-affliction, let alone hierarchy-worship, in the federal government, to admit plain folks into any official activity, including a county jail under DHS contract, whether or not the Sheriff in this case wants to put the kybosh on anything that includes the NJCRDC. Yet, strange, here we were inside the DHS, and our bags hadn’t even been checked coming in. It wasn’t lost on us that Speziale, for their coming meeting, had insisted that it take place at what was called “a neutral location” -somewhere, presumably, without hidden surveillance equipment.

The meeting ended as amicably as it had begun, maybe more so: flowery gratitude from IG Skinner for our work, which he considered essential to their own function-their “eyes and ears on the ground,” with promises that the audit process would be as open and speedy as possible-closure on all five facilities by the end of the year, with much handshaking and friendly post-meeting confabulation.

But it all stank of something held back.

It couldn’t have been more than minutes later that Denise Johnson, the IG’s administrative assistant, phoned the meeting organizer, Shoba Sivaprasad of the Immigration Forum, as soon as she was back in her office. A note from Shoba was in my own email when I got back to Paterson that night:

I would like to follow up on the pointraised at the meeting about providing a list of attorneys who would be willing to serve as witnesses at the detainee interviews in the IG. The IG just called me asking for this list.

We’d never said we’d provide a list of attorneys, only that back during our July impasse we’d been so urgent to accommodate the IG, we’d actively sought out lawyers willing to form a cadre of emergency pro-bono witnesses. But this tricky initiative, involving do-good legal agencies with small staffs and fine-printed mandates (not to mention the crossing of state lines in some instances), had been thwarted by the IG auditors themselves, who’d left us dangling. We had pleaded urgency to our lawyer organizations and ended in fumbling embarrassment.

So, sorry, no. There was no list of attorneys, and we were not going back over that thorny terrain to rebuild it.

Time has passed since then, heavy time for those inside. Weeks have become a month. Katrina has happened. The New York Times tell us that the same Inspector General has boldly announced a close, hardfisted scrutiny of the no-bid contracts under FEMA for rebuilding New Orleans. But local press headlines here in Paterson, not the IG themselves, speak the bizarre truth about our own audit: “Speziale may allow review of jail conditions.” “Sheriff considers lifting ban.” Speziale is in charge, his boot slamming down, hard as ever. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Truth has been at work on our own little history: ICE representatives tell ours that it all never happened: Speziale never did “throw the auditors out”-only there was a misunderstanding about process, and now, a reconfiguration of agenda.

They say work on the audit is about to resume. Here in New Jersey we’ve heard nothing direct, and have a right to wonder under what stipulations it will, if it does. Did the IG actually hear anything we said, or does the swaggering Sheriff of a small-town jail under contract with the federal government not only get to tell them how to do their job but also persuade them to drop all record of productive conversation with the likes of us down the memory hole?

Of course, their time to spin has been our time for a certain clarity. One of the Sheriff’s reported gripes was that “auditors gave too much credence to complaints by detainees and activists.” What could this possibly mean, before the interview process has even begun, but that he thinks any credence too much? We now know, and we know the IG knows, that we are the threat, meaning the detainees and those who actually speak for and with them.

The inevitable conclusion?: that the IG must complete its audit, even if it’s on terms dictated by Speziale. Nothing at risk but the facts, and the potential for the Sheriff’s humiliation if they are told. Nothing at stake but lives, and the potential for saving them if their suffering is outed.

The new challenge is the showdown still to come, apparently not between the Sheriff and the government that hands him his rich contracts, who appear instead to have cemented their unholy alliance off-camera. It’s the usual, really, a showdown between both of them and the people’s real democratic determination to get at the facts.

Behind that yellow-brick box-store on Main Street, there’s a stretch of the former Marshall St squared off, closed to traffic, and renamed “Sheriff’s Plaza.” Maybe because it has his name on it, the Sheriff thinks it’s really his.

We know, in the end, who it really belongs to. Call it OK Corral. Our weapon is the truth. What will his be?

FLAVIA ALAYA works with the New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee. She can be reached at: