The Art of Jailing
The Art of Jailing
Mark Dow , An excerpt from: American Gulag
Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons
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 Services 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 INSs Michael Rozos, formally assistant administrator of Miamis 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 Llorentes 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: "Theres no real governing body to drop the hammer when the hammer needs to be dropped."
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.
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. 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 comicalbut 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.
"Discipline, or rather displin, 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 displin 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 friends 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 detat in Nigeria, and he fled the country in search of political asylum. But he was not harmed in Nigeria. Arriving at New Yorks 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, Oviawewho had not been among the protesterswas 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.
In 1991, Oviawe was elected to the House of Assembly in Nigeria, 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 farmersbetter roads would make it easier for them to bring their produce to marketwhile 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 knelt 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 wont kill us, that I should have hope." It didnt seem like such a stretch for Oviawe to think he might be killed. "I just couldnt 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 didnt 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 dont 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 shouldnt 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. Dont 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 whats happened in the long run. You dont 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 prosecutors 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."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 Popes strategy was to depict the correctional officers alternately as heroes and victims. In his opening statement he criticized the "gross overreaction" of the prosecutors office, calling it "the most unjust thing . . . youve 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 . . . its 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."
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 that it had focused on guards pushing prisoners heads into toilets.
"We had done that," the man said. "Thats 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 didnt mind. "Youre not going to put me in jail," he said.
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 werehe lowers his voice a momentblack. 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 wasnt 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, Franks "nice little spot on the beach" looked a lot different to him.
"Were 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 youre sleeping on the floor at night. It wasnt fair to put that burden on me. . . . Its 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 hadnt 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 dont 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 dont want to challenge the guy, you dont 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 thats 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 guys head and hit him in the head with a fuckin nightstick. This guys ears still gotta be ringing. . . .
"Thank God they didnt 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? Im really not too concerned about anything after that."
Although Frank feels that those post-riot beatings were justified, he doesnt think they are the most effective method of controlling a jail. "I think its so much more effective to embarrass and humiliate a prisoner than it is to kick his ass," he explains. "Youre 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 wasnt there just to be there when there was problems. I wanted them to kind of know me, and that Im not here to take advantage of you. But when you took advantage of a prisonertheres guys fuckin prisonersits not appropriate. Unacceptable. You have to do something to this guy, cause if you dont do something to him, youre going to get no respect from the other fourteen guys."
He gives me another example. Its 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.
"Whatd 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, Ill be back tomorrow. Today we started with uniforms. Tomorrow Im 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 dont have a fresh uniform today. Youre in the county jail, and you dont have a fresh uniform. You go tell your lawyer that." Frank enjoys telling the story, but he hasnt forgotten its pedagogical purpose. "He doesnt get hit. Theres 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. Its just business, you know what I mean? But I gained more respect that day for doing next to nuthin. . . .
"That whole toilet bowl thing: thats like an insult in jail. Im not saying that thats common practice, but it beats the hell out of beating a guy. You going to give me a hard time? Listen, you jerkoffboom! Thats what I can do to you. You bring them down to a fuckin ant in a moment, you know what Im saying? Its better than beating them up. Jimmy Rice can beat them guys up, theres 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 hes short and a little plump.
"Whats better? Stick their head in the fuckin toilet bowl. It dont hurt you. Its humiliating. It dont really hurt you. And if Jimmy wanted that guys head in the bowl, in the water, it would be in the water, theres no doubt about that. He got arms like you got legs. Fuckin guys gigantic guy, hes gigantic.
"Kickin the shit out of a guy isnt going to do anything," Frank continues. "But that has to happen too. There has to a be a duke, man. Im not a big tough guy. But I worked in jail where theres 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. Were kind of like businessmen. They wear a uniform, and if you get out of line, youre going to have to talk to these guys. . . . I was in there for ten years. I seen twenty, thirty ass whippins. 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, itll 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 youre going to regret it.
"Im 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. Guys sitting there in his fuckin jail uniform, right?
"Get me another pail of water. Gets another fuckin pail of water.
"Open the window. Its fuckin November. Its about fuckin thirty-five degrees outside. This guy gets a chill in him. P.J. says, Now listen, you son-of-a-bitch, youll 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.
"Thats the way to run a jail. No reports. Theres eight other [inmates] seeing it happen, you know what I mean? We didnt hurt this guy. We didnt do a thing to this guy. You know what Im saying? You hit him with cold water in thirty degrees, thirty-five degrees. Its very painful, you know, but its not kicking his ass. . . . Go tell your lawyer that I hit you with a pail of cold water and opened a window. See if shes going to believe that. See if she can prove that. Whats wrong with that? Im not saying that its right. But whats wrong with it? . . .
"Guys knew how to jail then. They were real good jailers. Im telling you, man, theres a real art in jailing. Its a real art. Some guys can do it and some cant. 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. . . . Were white guysyou get tossed into an institution thats all black, youre in a lot of trouble." Especially, he adds, if youre 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 doesnt know what happened at the jail that day, but hes comfortable speculating.
"Hes a very aggressive guy, and I would imagine when he tells you, whether youre in the bar or in the jail, Go this way, I think its in your best interest to go that way. Hes a fuckin Popeye, man. Hes a big, tough guy. Ive seen him wipe guys in the bar just like Ive seen him wipe guys in the jail. Jimmys not out of character. Thats the guy he is. Hes not [just] a big guy, hes a tough guy. And I think he felt somewhat slighted: he told all the [detainees] to move. They didnt 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 didnt speak English, they probably figured they couldnt really recognize them . . . its like kickin a fuckin scared dog. I could never do that. You couldnt 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 theyre going to kick the shit out of em when they get inside? Fuck it, who cares, get a hose, wipe the fuckin thing out."
"Jimmys not a bad kid," he continues. "Jimmys a good soul, man. Hed help you much more before hed 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 Im sure all the way down the line. Im sure that Dougie Wynn did it." Officer Douglas Wynn had been granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony. Here Franks 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 prosecutors 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 playera big manseemed 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.
"Its a prison mentality," says Frank. "When youre sitting around, when youre hanging around with a lot of tough guys and theres a lot of tough things going on, you certainly do become a tough guy. I mean thats part of the business. Theres 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. "Youre getting the bottom of the barrel. Youre getting guys who cant fuckin spell their name. Youre getting guys who are cheating on the test. These guys are not me and you taking the test. These are guys who should be janitorsnot even janitors. These guys should be fuckin criminals, but theyre not inside the jail, theyre outside the jail. You know what Im saying?"
Here is what hes saying: "I dont want shoe salesmen, I want corrections officers. Theres 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. . . . [Theres] 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 guys sitting in jail, he cant do nothing about ityou have to know when you can lend a hand to a guy, when to kick a guy in the ass. Its a very delicate situation, you know. And I think a lot of guys dont know how to juggle that act. Thats 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 GestapoJimmy 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, well 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 dont 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.