Used, Abused, and Forgotten

What happens when you muster the courage to complain that you've been sexually assaulted at an INS facility? Not much.

"After the touching he was putting his finger inside me and ordered me to have an orgasm. He'd say, “Moan, moan, tell me it feels good.' I would pretend to have one because he would get very brutal. Even when I told him I had come already, he would order me to come again. And I'd say, “Don't do it,' but he would continue. And I'd say in desperation: “Someone is going to see us.' And he'd say, “Don't worry. I got this covered.' It was torture, because I was previously sexually abused by my husband. I realized I had to play the game because Officer Nelson would hurt me if I didn't pretend to enjoy whatever he was doing to me. But I hated it, and he was rough with me down there and he really did hurt me, physically and emotionally."

The "attorney's visits" became more nightmarish over weeks, sending Margaret into a depression for which she eventually was treated with several medications. Officer Nelson didn't know it, but his behavior only enhanced the trauma Margaret had suffered years before at the hands of her ex-husband. The abusive spouse, in fact, was the indirect cause of her incarceration at Krome. She left him in 1996 and took her children with her. Although she was working at the time, at a fast-food restaurant, "I had to make ends meet, and we lived in some places I wouldn't choose to live in." Neighbors and acquaintances, including a roommate, Margaret recounts, sold and used drugs. She was arrested twice for drug-related offenses, though she maintains it was her bad judgment and worse luck to be in the wrong place with the wrong people. When she was offered a plea of no contest to the drug charges, she took it, hoping to get the whole incident over with quickly. Later she learned the no-contest plea meant a felony record, which in turn brought her to the attention of the INS. "If only I had known, I would have gone to trial, because I could have proved my innocence," Margaret explains today.

By the time she entered Krome, the justice department investigation of sexual-abuse allegations had begun. In early 2000 a collection of about a half-dozen detainees had decided to formally protest the incidents they had witnessed and experienced; over the succeeding months, at least ten more women lodged complaints with Krome supervisors and the justice department's Office of the Inspector General (OIG). Many detainees said later they initially declined to speak with federal investigators because they feared reprisals from officers. In June FIAC wrote to then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno requesting a full-scale investigation of the detainee's allegations.

Cheryl Little regards as "extraordinary" the former Krome detainees who have come forward despite threats and humiliation
Steve Satterwhite
Cheryl Little regards as "extraordinary" the former Krome detainees who have come forward despite threats and humiliation

By July the FBI, OIG, and the U.S. Attorney's Office had begun interviewing female detainees, and in September the justice department's Office of Public Integrity in Washington took charge of the investigation. The immigration service, in response, moved ten officers implicated in the detainees' allegations to desk jobs at the INS's Miami headquarters on Biscayne Boulevard at 79th Street. A half-dozen other accused officers remained in charge of detainees at Krome, however, and despite protests by attorneys, several of the women who were cooperating with investigators found themselves either shipped off to remote detention facilities or deported. Those who were fortunate enough to be released on parole are required to report monthly to INS headquarters, where, of course, they have often come face to face with the officers who allegedly molested them in the past.

In October 2000 the New York-based Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children issued a report stating, "The commission's own research, based on interviews with current and former women detainees and INS officials, as well as the reports of local legal-service providers, reveals widespread sexual, physical, verbal, and emotional abuse of detainees, especially women."

The commission report, while acknowledging the numerous studies of Krome conditions over the years, questioned whether the latest probe could be expected to have more impact at the facility. "Disturbingly, similar complaints have been raised at Krome in years past but with no disciplinary or legal actions resulting against the officers implicated," the report notes. "Some of the very same officers who were accused of sexual and/or other physical abuses are alleged to be involved in the latest misconduct."

Last December INS agreed to transfer its approximately 90 female detainees to the Miami-Dade Turner Guilford Knight (TGK) Correctional Center, a maximum-security jail. While this removed the women from the abusive officers, conditions at TGK reportedly are worse in almost every way than at Krome. (An example of worse: For several months female inmates reportedly weren't given sanitary pads when they menstruated.)

Laura was one of the female detainees transferred from Krome to TGK this past December. The move, however, hasn't assuaged the fear that has been gnawing at her. She's worried about her father, who just had a heart attack, and her mother and three older siblings who have been struggling to pay her legal bills. She's afraid that no one is going to be able to save her from deportation to the Central American country in which she was born but where she doesn't know a soul. And Laura is still scared of her INS deportation officer. He remains at Krome, but Laura says he has occasionally called her at TGK. The officer has neglected few opportunities to remind her he knows her address and phone number on the outside -- adding pointedly that he travels regularly to Central America and will be sure to look her up.

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