A Shock to the System

Ouch! INS prisoners claim they were tortured with electroshock riot shields.

INS policy is good business for the local jails, because the service pays counties significantly more than the cost of the prisoners' upkeep. The counties also make a profit from inmates who must buy personal items each time they're transferred.

A visit to prisoners in the day room of the Monroe County Jail, to which the INS moved some inmates from Jackson, elicits a flood of stories from men who don't understand why they've been in jail so long. Some are eager to talk about their cases. Most have no lawyers, but a few have hired attorneys they rarely hear from. Most of the detainees have at least one criminal conviction. Some came to the United States simply seeking refuge from persecution in their own countries.

Jahir "Joe" Uddin Khan, a Bangladeshi, arrived May 13, 1996, at Miami International Airport. He immediately asked INS for political asylum and has been imprisoned ever since at Krome, in Manatee County, in Fort Lauderdale, and in Jackson. "I never saw in my life people who treat people like this," he says. "They sent me to Jackson County to torture me. I had [solitary confinement] two times for just asking for food because I was so hungry."

Khan is a slender 26-year-old man with close-cropped brown hair. He speaks in fluent English with both anger and despair about how the United States has treated him during his more than two years behind bars. He was never shocked with the shield; his torture, he says, was worse. While at Krome, he used a phone card to call his wife Demirova and three-year-old son Beny in the Netherlands. When he was moved from Krome in 1997, first to Fort Lauderdale, then to Manatee County, and then to Jackson, he could not make international calls. Early this year he learned from a former landlord that his wife died several months ago. He still doesn't know exactly when. Khan's son is in a European orphanage. "I don't know where he is now," he says sadly. "I just lost him because of incarceration."

Khan has no idea how he can get out of jail. "I wrote a lot of letters -- to the vice president, to the INS counsel," he says. "They never replied to me."

Patrick Johnson, who came to the United States from the Bahamas on a visitor's visa thirteen years ago, says he was shocked with the electric shield and then beaten. The reason, he says, was that he requested a new pair of pants. He is awaiting deportation after having overstayed his visa by many years; a felony drug conviction makes him ineligible for legal residency, even if he were to marry the American mother of his two American-citizen children. He was turned over to INS in August 1997 after completing three months in Dade County Jail for trying to cash a bogus check.

Johnson, a slender, soft-spoken, 42-year-old man who can neither read nor write, repeatedly apologizes for his language when quoting the racist comments he says his jailers made to him and other detainees. He vividly recalls January 1, 1998, the day he says he was shocked. "The guard took the shield and he put it to my throat and it felt like nothing I ever felt in all my life," Johnson says. "Then they started kicking me, punching me. I think my ribs are still broken." After the incident, he spent 30 days in solitary confinement. Seven months later, no doctor has examined his ribs. "Nobody helped me," he says. "When you ask for Tylenol, they say the racist word to you.

"They do these things to us like it's fun to them, probably because we are foreign people," he says. "They figure immigration ain't going to do nothing. They make you believe INS is along with them."

Vera, a stocky, muscular man with blue tattoos on both forearms, readily admits that he was once "what you call delinquent." Prison cured him of his drug habit, he contends, and he wants to get out and take care of his mother in Miami. "I used to be a nut, but I've changed my life and now I have to deal with that." Since Vera's time in Jackson County, his health has worsened. He has headaches and his blood pressure is up to 180/100. He fears a life sentence in INS custody. "If they don't release me from here, I'm going to cry," he says. "I'm probably going to get a stroke and die."

Prisoners won't be returned to Jackson until the jail is reinspected, declares Placido Pacheco, assistant deputy director for detention and deportation for the Miami INS district. "We cannot dictate to the county or the State of Florida what standards they should have in their facilities," he adds. INS has asked Jackson County authorities to investigate the detainees' allegations. "They're another government agency. We have to rely on their integrity.

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