A Prisoner of Circumstance

Rachel Better never worried about her stateless status until the INS locked her up. Then it was too late.

She realized that no travel documents would be forthcoming. "Everything was becoming so totally confusing," she recalls. "Nightmarish. Kafkaesque. We couldn't get a grip on it." She started having long bouts of weeping and became plagued with migraine headaches.

After spending a month in the Fort Lauderdale City Jail, she was sent back to Krome. She describes the women's dormitory at Krome as a noisy room resembling an army barracks, stocked with a double row of 50 metal bunk beds. There was little to do to pass the time. The atmosphere deteriorated when one group of women began holding long, boisterous prayer services.

The hubbub bothered Rachel, and she would routinely ask the others to quiet down. Her complaints antagonized the Bible thumpers. "She would ask them to be quiet and they would sing louder," says Emeline Mendez, a Jamaican detainee who was held at Krome with Rachel. "They felt that because they were religious they had the right to sing all day and all night long. Whenever she was on the phone they would start singing and singing and she couldn't hear. I said to Rachel, 'I think they are doing this deliberately.'" The fact that Rachel was Jewish didn't help matters. Mendez adds: "They would call her the devil."

Rachel took to hanging a blanket over her bunk in an attempt to isolate herself. She would stay there for days, Mendez says. Notes written on May 9 by Justin Anestin, a psychologist at Krome, describe Rachel as "living in a constant state of anxiety.... [She] appeared in distress, very depressed and despondent."

In July Rachel was told about some international organizations that might be interested in her case. At the time, the Krome administration prohibited detainees from possessing writing implements because one male detainee had reportedly stabbed another with a pen or pencil. But Rachel had a secret horde. She called the international operator and was writing down a number for a Canadian human rights group when she was spotted by a guard.

"She sees the pen and she snatches it out of my hand with a kind of malice," Rachel recalls. "That's when I lost my self-control and I ran after her and I yelled at her, 'Who are you?' I meant 'Are you even human?' But the lieutenant was standing beside her and he thought I said, 'Who do you think you are?' and he interpreted that as a threat." That afternoon Rachel was transferred back to the Fort Lauderdale City Jail. According to an INS spokesman, the move was "a result of disciplinary problems."

Unlike Krome, which has phones that accept calling cards, the Fort Lauderdale jail restricts inmates to collect calls. Rachel was therefore unable to contact the human rights organizations, nor could she speak to her family -- she was unable to dial the international operator, and the German phone system is not equipped to handle collect calls. Inmates cannot receive personal calls, so her family couldn't call her.

Mail was similarly restricted. Rachel was allowed to buy only six stamps and envelopes a week. Even more frustrating, she had to leave in storage at Krome two boxes of legal papers pertaining to her case. She was also prohibited from bringing her German-English dictionary, which she was told could be used as a weapon.

In Fort Lauderdale, Rachel found herself in a cell full of women in a drug rehab program. There were times when none of her cellmates spoke English. In desperation she turned to her diary for solace:

September 18: "I am thinking of cutting my wrists again. I've got to do it. I've got to do something. Everything is so hopeless. I see no way out. I am waiting and waiting, but to what end? What am I waiting for? I used to be so calm and patient this last half year, but now it's like something inside me just collapsed. I am sitting here in this lousy jailhouse in Florida and nobody knows how long it will go on."

October 6: " Sometimes I feel like I am emotionally paralyzed, like a hypnotized bunny, unable to make a move. Can't get myself to do anything, but my mind is running like a dynamo, round and round, faster and faster, getting frenzied. What is to become of me again? What am I supposed to do?"

Rachel wrote several letters to officials at Krome, pleading for them to be reasonable. "I can assure you that the U.S. Immigration Department will never be able to deport me as long as I am held here in Fort Lauderdale," states an October 1 letter to her deportation officer. "I cannot make any regular phone calls here. I cannot get the information, or copies, or whatever material I need. In short, I cannot work on getting me out of this country. But if I don't work on my case no one will. This is a fact.... The Krome Detention Center is acting against their own interests or that of the Immigration Department." Neither her deportation officer nor any other INS official responded to her letters. No one has contacted her about her case since her transfer to Fort Lauderdale.

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