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Rolando Vera knows jails. He's done short stints in quite a few, including three Florida state prisons. The 32-year-old Cuban has committed crimes such as possession of cocaine, resisting arrest, and burglary. But even Vera couldn't have expected the events that he asserts unfolded after the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service took him into custody last year.
The state turned Vera over to INS in October after he finished three years for buying cocaine from an undercover police officer. Were Vera a U.S. citizen, he would have been freed. But federal law calls for the deportation of noncitizens with felony convictions.
Cuba wouldn't accept Vera. And there was no room at the Krome Service Processing Center in west Miami-Dade. So authorities sent him to Jackson County Jail, some 60 miles northwest of Tallahassee, one of several Florida lockups in which the INS houses about 600 people awaiting deportation or hearings.
In Jackson, Vera says, jailers tortured him after he started a hunger strike. He claims they shocked him with an electrically charged riot shield that delivers 50,000 volts, knocking him to the ground. Then, he contends, they shackled him spread-eagled to a concrete bed, facedown, and zapped him again. The jailers left him tied to the slab for seventeen hours, he says.
"When I first got to that facility, they said they were going to make an example of one of us because immigration detainees were a pain in the ass," complains Vera, who has lived in the United States since he was four years old. "I've been in many jails. I've never seen what I've seen in Jackson County."
Vera is one of six INS detainees who told New Times recently that they were beaten, cursed with racial epithets, or thrown into solitary confinement for requesting medical care or food in Jackson. Two others said they were also stunned with shields. At least eight others have told lawyers from the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC) they saw officers administer shocks to immigration detainees.
INS reacted to the complaints several weeks ago by removing all its detainees from Jackson County. "We did know about them, and for their safety we decided to place them somewhere else," said Maria Elena Garcia, a spokesperson for the Miami INS district. She declined to comment on specific abuse allegations.
Jackson County Jail administrator John Sullivan says his jailers use the electric shield to subdue inmates, but only when they are being disruptive and only after they have been warned. He admits that officers have chained inmates to a concrete bed in solitary confinement. But, he notes, jailers never shocked them while they were cuffed. Nor were they left bound more than a few hours. Sullivan also denies that immigration detainees were singled out for punishment or that officers made racist remarks. "I think that went out many, many years ago," he declares.
Sullivan does confirm that the shield was used on at least one immigration inmate who had misbehaved. "We had two or three immigration fellows who were trying to keep the institution in turmoil all the time," he says. The shields are Plexiglas devices fitted with wires that can deliver a nonlethal but uncomfortable electrical charge. Their use on prisoners is controversial. Neither Miami-Dade nor Broward County allows them in jails. Amnesty International has called for a ban, contending that they are too often used as punishment. "It's just that kind of gratuitous infliction of punishment that we define as torture in the human rights community," said Gerald LeMelle, deputy executive director for Amnesty International USA in New York City.
INS has set standards for the treatment of detainees in its own facilities, such as Krome. But these standards don't apply to county jails, which FIAC called "INS' Secret Detention World" in a report last fall. The report paints a sad picture of life in jail for Florida's immigrant detainees, who are kept in isolated locations by custodians who often know little about other cultures. Sometimes the detainees have limited access to lawyers or others who might help them cope.
"You really feel like these people are lost in time, that they're in this world that nobody has access to," said Cheryl Little, executive director of the center. "Nobody has the ability to do anything for them. They're in a black hole that's going to get blacker every day."
On any given day the INS in Florida has between 800 and 900 people in custody, three times the capacity of Krome, the state's only INS-operated facility. Last Monday 274 immigrants were detained in Krome and 607 were in county jails from Key West to Panama City.
Where detainees are housed depends on a number of factors, foremost of which is their criminal background. The service has long kept some prisoners in local jails, but the number has drastically increased under 1996 immigration laws passed that require detention of many more people. Some in INS custody are illegal immigrants awaiting deportation; others await decisions on political asylum requests or deportation appeals. Still others, like Vera, are legal residents who have completed sentences for crimes but are citizens of countries that won't accept them. Under the 1996 laws, more people are being deported for relatively minor crimes, such as shoplifting, than in the past. They can also be sent away for offenses committed years ago.