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.
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.
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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.