The first I heard about rituals of sexual humiliation in prison had nothing to do with Abu Ghraib. It was from a Nigerian man, an elected state senator in his own country until a military coup drove him out. He was forced to strip naked and then remain on his knees for hours with his hands on another naked male prisoner.
You might think this happened to him in Nigeria, and that it was part of what drove him to emigrate to the United States. But in fact it occurred here, in New Jersey, after he was detained by American immigration authorities.
Such extremes of mistreatment can take place in any prison, but they happen more easily in a system predicated on blurring the distinction among aliens, criminals and terrorists, and where lower-level violence and verbal abuse are standard operating procedure. That's U.S. immigration detention in a nutshell.
Many people first heard about immigration detention after Sept. 11, 2001. But on Sept. 10, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service already had about 23,000 detainees in its custody, a number that has not changed significantly since then (although the Department of Homeland Security's Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement now runs the operation).
These people are called "detainees" but they are, in fact, prisoners, held in federal penitentiaries, private prisons and local jails as well as in "service processing centers" while awaiting deportation or legal proceedings. The detention facilities can be found in 49 of the 50 states as well as in Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
About half of the detainees, according to the government, are "criminal aliens." That tag does the work of an army of propagandists to stave off sympathy for the victims of mistreatment. In fact, the term "criminal alien" refers equally to an illegal border-crosser-turned-serial-killer and to a 30-year legal resident with one youthful misdemeanor drug conviction.
And many immigration detainees are not criminals at all. Between 10% and 13% of them are asylum seekers who have come to the shores of the U.S. requesting protection.
These people are all lumped together and held; they're not automatically entitled to lawyers. When they do get one, the immigration bureau often interferes with the lawyers' access to clients, transferring them from jail to jail in the middle of the night while preventing the "detainee" from making telephone calls.
Once the human shell game and the dehumanizing are in place, the rest comes easy. Among the practices I have heard about consistently, from across the country and over many years, are coerced sex in exchange for the promise of release from detention; sexual assaults; arbitrary use of solitary confinement for prolonged periods; forced sedation; stealing money from detainees' accounts; and destroying legal paperwork.
Congressional hearings and General Accounting Office reports about immigration enforcement have usually focused on management, budget or the efficiency of deportations. Why does the mistreatment of the immigration bureau's detainees, despite reams of documentation by human rights groups for more than two decades now, remain mostly invisible?
The immigration bureau has long had a culture of secrecy and brutality. But there are a few ways to hold it accountable:
• Congress should call hearings — not just for an afternoon — to consider the 2 1/2 decades of immigration detention abuses. Congress should also request that the Office of Inspector General, which issued a welcome report on the mistreatment of post-9/11 detainees in Brooklyn, now extend its investigation.
• Independent, surprise monitoring of all detention centers, prisons and jails should be organized by nongovernmental and community groups across the country, under agreements with the jailers themselves.
• Legal counsel should be appointed for every detainee, and there should be judicial review of every prisoner's case.
• The 1996 anti-immigrant laws — responsible for tripling the detention population and for the deportation of tens of thousands of long-term legal residents for past minor crimes — must be repealed.
Ultimately, detention authority should be removed from the immigration service except in emergencies and for strictly limited periods. The American immigration bureaucracy should not be operating a prison system at all.
Mark Dow is the author of "American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons," published this month by the University of California Press
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times