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June 5, 2004 - Axis of Logic (US Web)

INS Prisons: Torture In A Florida Jail

"Whatever We Want To Do With You"

By Mark Dow

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

One need not make facile comparisons to the softening of detainees for interrogation to recognize that prisons are about control. Given the right conditions-and conditioning-guards can move from petty mistreatment to criminal acts. One prisoner emphasized to me that the daily pettiness can be worse than a beating. But since recent news has made people here ask, at least momentarily, just what does goes on in US prisons, it is worth re-visiting one notorious case.

The US immigration service (formerly the INS, or Immigration & Naturalization Service) holds some 23,000 people in custody. Many of these prisoners are contracted out to private prisons and local jails. At Florida 's Jackson County Jail in 1998, INS inmates described the regular use of "shock shields" against INS and state prisoners. One inmate witness told the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC) that the inmates were tied down "in the position of a crucifix." He continued:

"After an inmate was tied, he would be left in that position for over nine hours with no food or drink. The inmate[s]... would be forced to dirty themselves. They were sometimes tied without any clothes... The guards would administer electric shocks to the inmates while they were tied with an electric shield and a stun gun... The guards would also give electric shocks and spray pepper spray at inmates who were handcuffed. The inmates were completely helpless and not fighting with the guards"

A Cuban inmate described (again to FIAC) a concrete slab with steel rings at the corners: "handcuffs were placed on my hands and my feet were shackled and then the handcuffs were attached to each of these rings... After they tied me down [an officer] brought in a large shield, placed it over me and shocked me once with it. When the electricity ran through my body, I felt paralyzed. I'm not sure how long it lasted... After shocking me, [the officer] hit me and called me a 'fucking bitch,' I cussed back at him. [He] placed his boot on my left temple and pushed my head down on the bench. The bench cut a deep gash on my eyebrow and it began to bleed profusely. The only attention I received was the following day when [someone] gave me a bag of ice for the wound."

More than half of the Immigration Service (now Bureau of Immigration & Customs Enforcement) prisoners are held in county jails round the country. They are "administrative detainees", not serving sentences. This arrangement developed out of convenience and necessity: the feds lacked detention space and the locals needed the revenue (they are paid per detainee "man-day," usually at a decent profit). Once in place, as it has been for many years now, the local and federal custodians use the arrangement to evade accountability. A Bahamian prisoner at Jackson County explained: "They do things to us like it's fun to them, probably because we are foreign people. They figure immigration ain't going to do nothing. They make you believe INS is along with them"; Miami immigration service official Placido Pacheco confirmed the prisoner's analysis when he told a reporter, "We cannot dictate to the country or the State of Florida what standards they should have in their facilities" (Teresa Mears, 'A Shock to the System', New Times, July 30, 1998).

The Bahamian man was held for 11 months at Jackson County . Later, at the federal government's Krome detention center in Miami , he told me:

"It was like a nightmare. It was hell. One morning I wake up, they was changing the uniforms, and the lady there she give me a big shirt, right? So I told her that it was too big, and she said the nigger word to me. You know, like 'Nigger, get from the door...' And next thing again that I know, they pulled me out of the cell, and they started beating me, and they take that shield and put it on my chest, and they shock me... She put it on my chest, and it knocked me out and a current run through my body... When they hit me the first time, it knocked me to the ground, and I started to get back up, and she put it on my chest again. And I saw colors and stars and everything, running through my whole body. You know, my whole body, my brains and everything. I even couldn't remember nothing then. That's how terrible it was.

"And they was calling me 'nigger'. They was saying, 'Nigger, we gonna kill you, nigger.'

"And so I say, 'I'm gonna call INS.'

"'Nigger, INS know anyway-they bring you here to us. We do whatever we want to do with you.'"

He too described the slab to which inmates were tied with leather straps:

"Concrete. Cold, cold, cold, cold. And they'll cut the AC up high, high, high, and you'll be butt-naked... You're on your belly... And when time to eat, they loose one hand. So you eat, and they strap you back. It's torture, man... It was like a nightmare there. I never know people could live like that. See, because I growed up in my life, I never see color 'cause I think that God created all men as one, you know? You and me, as one. 'Cause God created one man, 'cause he was one God. And when a person could do that to a person, there is-of the devil. There is evil. But right now I'm still sitting in jail."

As a result of persistent complains filed by FIAC, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department finally investigated and concluded that the Jackson County Jail was violating the US Constitution by using excessive force and denying prisoners access to courts. The March 2000 written report also noted the "startling blue arc of electricity" across the face of the activated electronic shield. The INS inmates were transferred out of the jail; state prisoners were left behind.

After describing these practices at Jackson County , one Cuban prisoner told me "I would love for you to use my name." But when he realized that I was writing about the Immigration Service, he changed his mind immediately, fearing retribution.

Mark Dow is the author of American Gulag: Inside American Immigration Prisons (University of California Press, 2004).

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