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Of the four men who actually made the final trek to the Rolling Plains prison camp at Haskell, Texas on Saturday afternoon, you could say whatever you want, but you’d be a liar to call them fair weather.
Jay Johnson-Castro had walked 60 miles to the prison, stepping off Wednesday morning in Abilene with southerly winds to his back and a temperature of 63. But Thursday, Friday, and Saturday winds blew northerly into his face, as morning temperatures chilled to 40.
Behind Jay’s walk was John Neck driving his brown pickup truck with the whirling yellow light on top keeping the bigger trucks away. And joining Jay in Haskell was one supporter from Dallas and one California psychiatrist named Javier Iribarren. Count them on one hand with a finger to spare. Since everything was running a couple hours early, the four protesters had time for a long lunch before the final mile.
If the authorities could go back and do the whole thing over again, it would be interesting to see if they would still take so much trouble to keep this party out of sight. One journalist tried to catch up to them in a car, but roads near the prison were “under repair” and closed to traffic. So the lone journalist drew flashing lights from the Sheriff’s office, followed by a stern command to leave the scene.
As for the three conscientious walkers and their security driver, it must have felt like something to have a police escort and careful instructions not to approach any side of the prison that would allow the protest to be seen by prisoners.
“In Haskell County they immediately drew the line for us,” says Johnson-Castro via cell phone Saturday night. “The County Judge, the County Commissioners, the City Council, and the corporate partners from the Emerald Companies who run the Rolling Plains prison, all of them said we’re not even going to let you see the front of the prison, because we’re not going to let anyone on the inside know that anyone on the outside gives a crap. I think outside of prison there will be people who find that shocking.”
At the Haskell city limits on this cold and windy Saturday morning, Johnson-Castro was met by the Chief of Police. “Hey man it’s just me,” is how Johnson-Castro recalls his own end of the conversation. “Relax.” As he had done on Wednesday while talking to the Haskell County Sheriff, Johnson-Castro told the town’s Chief of Police that something was wrong in that prison. It had been turned into a hellish prison camp for immigrants. “Keep your ears open,” advised Johnson-Castro, because the story of the prison camp is going to come out.
Inside the Rolling Plains prison since early November are 20-year-old Suzi Hazahza and her 23-year-old sister Mirvat. They spent their first two chilly days at Haskell on the concrete floor of a drunk tank, because no beds were available. The sisters had been abducted and detained with their parents and three brothers by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during a pre-election roundup of immigrants called “Operation Return to Sender.” Mother Juma and 11-year-old brother Mohammad were shipped to the T. Don Hutto prison camp at Taylor, Texas. Father Radi and two older sons, Ahmad and Hisham, were shipped with the sisters to Haskell.
For the first five weeks of their detention at Haskell, the Hazahzas accepted a family visitor, but since week five they have all refused to risk the humiliating cavity searches that follow contact with outsiders. Meanwhile, the Hutto prison released Juma and Mohammad shortly before a press tour in early February.
On Saturday, Juma and Mohammad planned to cross paths with Jay in Haskell and visit Mohammad’s older brothers Hisham and Ahmad. Saturday is visitation day for the men. Radi was still holding out against the cavity search. The younger men “worked up their courage” says family friend Reza Barkhordari.
“11-year old Mohammad had been day-dreaming about seeing his brothers for the entire week,” writes Barkhordari via email. “He was up at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, excited with the hope of seeing his brothers after so long.” After a three-and-one-half-hour drive, Juma and Mohammad found themselves confronted by a maze of security precautions like Reza had never seen during his visits last November.
“The whole area was blocked by vehicles from the Prison Security Patrol and the Local Police,” writes Barkhordari. “I called the facility to find an alternate route. I was told that the roads are blocked because the Warden has declared a no-visitation weekend! When I asked for an explanation, I was told that the reason is confidential. I was asked for my name and the reason for my visit.”
“So, I called a second time and asked for the Warden,” continues Barkhordari. “Her assistant took the call and said that the Warden is not taking any calls today but we can reach the facility via a detour. We took the detour and found the other road to the detention center area to be blocked as well. This time we were approached by the Rolling Plains Security Guards. When asked to let us get through, they said that the warden has ordered all the roads leading to the facility blocked and that nobody knows the reason why.” After a third call to the prison, Barkhordari, Juma, and Mohammad headed back home.
“By the time we drove back, there were two additional State Trooper vehicles guarding the entrance,” reports Barkhordari. “This all seemed like deja vu to me. This was not the first time I had been told to leave without a reasonable explanation. I received a call from Suzi and her sister shortly after we departed and was told that everyone is in a lock-down this weekend.”
“As I was trying to give comfort to Mohammad, I realized how greatly public awareness can effect the world we live in. Today, I saw one of the most beautiful and powerful statements that one man made; a man walking 60 miles on foot and determined to bring light to the public eyes and awareness to their minds regarding the wrongful imprisonment and mistreatment of an immigrant family.”
A habeas corpus motion filed for the Hazahzas in late February alleges sexual harassment, medical neglect, isolation, and other prison cruelties handed to a family whose alleged wrongdoing has something to do with their attempt to seek asylum from their war-torn homeland in Palestine. While the Hutto prison in Taylor, Texas has been sometimes defended as a “family detention” center, the prison at Haskell is nothing but a regional prison hard enough to contain convicted criminals imported from Wyoming.
Along the highway to Haskell, Johnson-Castro has picked up a few stories from local folk. There was the former prisoner who said Haskell is actually better than some other prisons you could find yourself in. But they do like to hold onto people. Every time his release date got close, said this hardtimer, there would be a new reason to keep him locked up a little longer. And of course, the longer people are locked up, the more money changes hands.
“This needs to be done,” said the former prisoner to the walker about the walk, giving his thumb’s up. “Somebody’s got to do it.” He didn’t think it was wrong that he had been sent to prison, but there were people inside that should not have been sent there. There was a man from the Rio Grande Valley who didn’t have an ID, so ICE put him away.
He saw immigrants at Haskell prison who only wanted to go back home if they could, but they couldn’t, and he thought it was unfair how long they were kept in prison under those conditions.
One woman at a restaurant talked about her uncle being a prisoner there. She said the guards could be unkind, and they did seem to like keeping people inside.
These anecdotes suggest the awful conclusion that Suzi Hazahza’s hell is being funded and extended for profit. What could be a justifiable reason to keep her locked up for one more day if not to prove that the lengthy detention of immigrants is a profitable policy, no matter who you think you are.
“This is no different than what Eisenhower warned us about when he talked about the military-industrial complex,” says Johnson-Castro. “And just like you have wars waged because there are people who profit, so there are prisons built–and people put in them–for the same motive.”
“People honked, people waved,” recalls Johnson-Castro. “People approached us and complimented us for what we were doing. At Haskell one lady was coming back from a funeral for her mom. She came out and said, I want to compliment you for doing this. I know things are wrong there. But nobody does anything about it.’ She invited us to talk with her. We said we can’t stay long, but she asked some questions anyway.”
“A diversity of people encouraged us,” says Johnson-Castro. “Which tells us that there is an element that would like to connect and be heard together. I’ve got to say that this is a part of Texas that all Texans should be proud of. Here is the Texan who is making the earth productive. It is a dying breed in our county or anywhere in the modern world. And they are trying to prove that humans can get along. It would be a violation of their conscience to see this happen to Suzi. It may look like they are guilty, but they aren’t. It’s not the people. It’s a partnership between the federal government, county government, state politicians, and corporate interests.”
“If the people recognize it, they will talk. But the people have been kept in darkness. They are good people. And this kind of operation there has to be a pact of secrecy, just like we saw manifest at Hutto. And just like Hutto, it is hard for me to believe that the majority of these people wouldn’t be outraged to know that atrocities are being committed in the Governor’s hometown of Haskell.”
“If I’m right,” says Johnson-Castro, “Haskell’s end is in view, because the voice of people will win. But their voice hasn’t been heard yet because people have been misinformed.” Back at the Haskell town square after the walk, the lone journalist found Johnson-Castro and told the story about how he had been run off by the Sheriff.
“If that’s how they treat you as a law abiding American, imagine how they would treat people on the inside,” said Johnson-Castro. “I think he took it to heart, and was kind of blown away.”
GREG MOSES is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. His chapter on civil rights under Clinton and Bush appears in Dime’s Worth of Difference, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.