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.

"A lot of girls are afraid of him -- that was not the first time he did outrageous stuff to me. In a way I was scared to talk about it. One time one of the female officers witnessed him going off on me. Later she called me into her office, and I tried to deny it happened. I said, “What are you talking about?' She said, “Do you want to write him up?' I thought about it and said okay, if he doesn't find out. So I wrote him up. Two days later he threatened me.

"I found out about the investigation after that. One day in the cafeteria [another detainee] witnessed Clark talking very ugly to me. That night she came to the dorm and said, “Do you want to do something about it? We're writing a letter of complaint.' I said no, and she said why not. I said, “Nothing's gonna happen.'"

Ginette eventually did agree to provide a statement to justice department investigators. But that didn't make her or the other women who had complained feel more secure. "Even after all this broke," says Patricia, one of the first detainees to lodge formal complaints against Krome officers, "so much more was taking place [at Krome]." Ginette has told her attorney she received threatening phone calls -- she doesn't know from whom -- after she was paroled.

In the women's section of the Krome detention center, no one knew whom to trust
Steve Satterwhite
In the women's section of the Krome detention center, no one knew whom to trust

Several detainees reported officers bragging about their perceived immunity from punishment. "Clark would say he'd been investigated before, but no one could prove anything," recalls Rosana. "He'd say, “I'm still here; the people who accused me, they're the ones who got in trouble.'"

Indeed at least 40 incidents of violence toward detainees, stealing, drug trafficking, and other offenses by Krome employees (separate from the current sexual-abuse complaints) were reported from 1991 to 1997 by two undercover federal officers working for the justice department's Office of the Inspector General. Few of the cases were ever investigated, and few of the accused were punished. Instead the two male undercover officers received death threats. One was forced into retirement; the other, who had moved his family to Orlando out of fear for their lives, was warned this past March he's about to be fired.

Edward Stubbs, the reform-minded officer in charge at Krome who resigned in July 2000 after less than two years on the job, said recently he believes he and his staff were able to make some progress in their efforts to clean up the entrenched corruption at the facility. But when asked about the problems endured by the justice department's undercover informants, Stubbs demurred. "That's the one area I can't comment on," he said, a suggestion of anger in his voice.

If the undercover officers' allegations were shunted aside so readily, imagine the odds of a female detainee being taken seriously if she were accusing a male officer of sexual improprieties. The balance of power is so skewed it's no wonder the women would have found it beneficial to acquiesce in the abuses, no matter how degrading. "You've got people at the end of their ropes in a lot of ways," observes Wendy Young, director of government relations for the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. "They're completely vulnerable to what guards tell them to do. They have nobody there who's a friend." Sooner or later the psychological consequences can be devastating. A huge proportion of women held at Krome, according to the detainees, have been treated at one time or another with antidepressants. More unfortunate ones were regularly rushed off to Palmetto Hospital's psych ward after attempting suicide.

This past November Margaret slit her wrists with a razor in a bathroom at Krome. She did it after learning she was about to be transferred to another county in Florida and her most recent plea for a stay of deportation had been denied. The prospect of not having to cope with Officer Nelson's escalating sexual advances was encouraging, though she knew many women were plagued by continued harassment from officers even after leaving the facility. But the thing Margaret couldn't bear to contemplate was indefinite separation from her children. "I thought there's no way out," she admits. "It was everything weighing down on me at once."

Amid the turmoil she lost her mind. She forgot how she'd been a faithful churchgoer, how she'd always taken the boys to Sunday school at the Baptist church down the block (the pastor later wrote a letter to the INS on her behalf), and how her parents and children still believed she would come back to them. "That night -- I never tried to kill myself before, so before I did it, it may sound silly -- I prayed to God," Margaret recalls. "I said, “I know I shouldn't be doing this, but I can't fight anymore. Please don't let my kids suffer.' And then I closed my eyes and just went for it. Later I learned I wasn't cutting deep enough."

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