One afternoon a little more than a year ago, Ginette walked into a women's bathroom at the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service's Krome Service Processing Center in western Miami-Dade County. There in front of her, sitting on a toilet but fully clothed, was a leering, uniformed detention officer. For a long moment the scene didn't quite register with Ginette, a 22-year-old detainee from Haiti who has lived most of her life in Naples, on Florida's Gulf Coast.
"I was like, whoa. I froze," she recalls, smiling nervously and settling her five-month-old daughter on her lap. Ginette (this is a pseudonym, as are the names of all detainees and guards in this story) is speaking in her attorney's office in Miami, and she's finding it a bit awkward trying to reconstruct the surreal incidents that were all too common at Krome during the eighteen months she was there. (She was released last fall but still awaits deportation.)
"I thought I had walked in on this guy who was using the bathroom, and I'm just staring at him," Ginette goes on. Her large brown eyes open wider. "Then he started groaning, touching himself and saying, Come here,' and I'm saying, No way.' He was calling to me, reaching his hands out. Finally Nina [another detainee] came in. The officer told Nina to tell me to calm down. Then Nina jumps on his lap and starts dancing with him. I was so scared. The officer was touching Nina all over. Nina was doing a lap dance for him. Then he told me to lift up my skirt. He said, What's the big deal? Just do it.' I felt so violated. But I did it. I felt so cheap, and it seemed like I was in there forever. Then he asked me to play with my breasts. He said to me: If you walk out now, somebody is going to find out what's going on,' so I started touching my breasts and he started rubbing my breasts. Then he gave Nina $50, and he put $30 in my pocket. Nina told me I'd just been living in Naples far too long, that I was too sheltered, thinking this was such a big deal. Then I walked out. I know deep in my soul I could have run out of the bathroom and screamed, Stop this now!' But I was afraid to, and I didn't want to upset him."
Ginette is one of a score of current and former Krome detainees who, during the past twelve months, have described to federal investigators an obscure world of abuse, harassment, and intimidation. Since May 2000 four divisions of the U.S. Department of Justice have been investigating a long list of allegations of sexual misconduct at Krome, a twenty-year-old facility documented on several occasions to be among the most mismanaged and corruption-plagued immigrant detention centers in the nation. As part of the investigation, at least two former detainees have testified before a federal grand jury in Miami. In account after account, the same picture emerges: a cadre of male Krome officers treating female detainees as their personal sexual property -- using their place of employment as a "dating game," in the detainees' words -- and taking advantage of their victims' precarious immigration status and problematic backgrounds to coerce sexual favors from them and scare them into silence.
None of the women who have come forward with sexual-abuse allegations is a U.S. citizen. Most have committed crimes in the past and were turned over to the INS upon completion of their sentences. The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act requires the detention of all noncitizens who have an arrest record (even if they are acquitted of the charges), regardless of their ties to this country or the severity of the offense, and makes it likely they'll be deported. Indeed many of the detainees who have spoken to investigators about sexual abuse at Krome already have been deported -- never to be seen or heard from by their attorneys again -- or transferred to distant detention facilities. That is hardly surprising, since these women have almost no legal rights and lack the attributes that could lend them credibility. "The presumption is because they have an interest in giving information of this nature, that information is discounted by prosecutors when it shouldn't be," says a Miami attorney who is representing one detainee and requested anonymity because of possible future litigation.
Yet it is significant that all the women tell essentially the same story, naming the same names and the same sites at Krome, describing the same feelings of fear, powerlessness, and shame. The one thing they do have on their side, regardless of their own mistakes and failings, is that sexual abuse and assault are crimes no matter who are the victims. As a result of the federal inquiry, one Krome guard, Lemar Smith, was charged last August with twice raping a transsexual asylum-seeker. This past month, however, the felony assault charges were reduced to misdemeanors in exchange for a guilty plea. The asylum-seeker was deported to Mexico.
The Smith case was regarded as probably the strongest of any involving allegations of sexual misconduct at Krome. Now that this has ended without the steep prison time normally accompanying a rape conviction (Smith is to be sentenced next month; he could receive up to two years but as little as probation), there's less reason to believe the other accused officers will be substantially penalized, assuming they are determined to have acted illegally.
A bill passed by Congress last fall allows deportable immigrants to remain in the United States while they are cooperating in a criminal investigation; several detainees who have been interviewed by investigators have temporarily avoided deportation under this new law. But on June 4, the INS was still able to deport a male detainee who had gone public with his account of twice being sexually assaulted at Krome -- and who, according to his attorneys, had been cooperating with the government's investigation of sexual-abuse allegations. Advocates are outraged that now the detainee, Eddy Pierre Paul, is languishing in the brutal conditions at Haiti's national penitentiary.
Partly prompted by that deportation and by months of silence from the justice department, many detainees and their families have begun to lose patience. They are afraid the investigation has stalled and that no action will be forthcoming. When the INS abruptly set June 17 deportation dates for two key witnesses, attorney Cheryl Little of Miami's Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC) frantically began contacting media outlets and women's organizations across the nation. Little, who is representing seven immigrants who have cooperated in the investigation, asked reporters and activists to make inquiries of the justice department on behalf of the two detainees. In recent months Little has worried that federal prosecutors may not intend to forcefully pursue the sexual-abuse complaints; she says investigators have told her the cases are weakened by a lack of material evidence and eyewitness testimony from other officers. Justice department spokesmen, though, assert the investigation is ongoing and remains vigorous. Apparently in response to Little's lobbying, the INS has now postponed the deportations of the two witnesses. And Little says she was encouraged about the viability of the investigation after a meeting two weeks ago with representatives of the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Little, FIAC's executive director and a prominent immigrant advocate, can't forget the debacle of a decade ago. In 1990 a different group of detainees made the same charges of sexual abuse and assault against Krome officers, some of whom presently are accused. A sweeping federal investigation ensued. The story was all over the news. But after a year or so there was no more investigation, and, at least as far as the detainees' advocates know, nothing happened. "Not even a report," Little laments. "And now it's déjà vu all over again."
Nevertheless the current investigation has exposed more of Krome's netherworld than ever before -- even if it doesn't result in the wholesale reform Little and other immigrant advocates want. "What was very unusual this time," Little remarks, "was that so many women came forward and said, Even if I can't help my own situation, maybe I can help those who come after me.'"
That's why Margaret wants to explain herself now, before her case is closed and her story forgotten. Margaret is one of the detainees whose deportation was just postponed. She says she hasn't set foot in her native country in more than twenty years and dreads having to leave behind her two young American-born sons, currently with her parents in a town on Florida's west coast, where her family has lived since the late Eighties.
Immigrant advocates assert that transfers and deportations have consistently been the rewards for detainees who complain or refuse to acquiesce in an entrenched system of corruption and exploitation at Krome. This is one reason investigators find it difficult to build strong cases against accused detention officers: You can't rely on disappearing witnesses. Another is the climate of intimidation and distrust that makes it risky to say or do anything against the officers and all other figures of authority, who exercise near-absolute power over detainees.
"I had overheard other women talk about things that happened to them," remembers 33-year-old Margaret, who arrived at Krome in August 2000. "A lot of the officers were very flirtatious, and I thought that was as far as it went. But some of the girls would break down and cry. Then I started experiencing this situation, and I understood what they had been going through." Margaret is thin and pale, her sharp features framed by brown curls that reach just to her shoulders. She didn't say anything about her own experiences for months, even though she was being violated virtually under the noses of attorneys and supervisors. "I couldn't do much about the situation," she relates, "because I heard if you didn't want to be transferred or deported or be under investigation, you should not upset those officers. All I cared about was to go back to my kids."
Margaret says she was accosted by Nelson (a pseudonym), the officer who summoned detainees to attorney visits; his workstation was just outside the door of the office used by FIAC at Krome. Sometimes Nelson would send for her, she alleges, when no visit was scheduled and no attorneys were present. "One time I was called to attorney visitation." She begins a long account, occasionally jolting in its graphic detail. "When I arrived at the door to wait for the visit, I sat down. Then Nelson called me into FIAC's office. When I got to the door, he pulled me in and pinned me against the wall and started to kiss me on my neck. The next time he called me, he pulled my bra up and said, Listen here, take your breasts out of your bra,' and he started sucking my breast. I was afraid and was pushing him away, and he was getting more aggressive. Then another time when he called me and I got there, after lifting my shirt, he pulled the elastic on my pants out and was touching and feeling my private parts.
"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.
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.
Laura is 24 years old. Her brown eyes are slightly downcast, her long dark hair accented with two streaks of gold. She came to Florida with her family when she was two and is a typical middle-class American -- except that she neglected to become a citizen. After graduation from a Miami-area public high school, she began studying nursing at Florida Memorial College. But she was more interested in extracurricular activities, which included hanging out with friends of questionable character. In 1998 Laura spent six months in prison on armed-robbery charges, which were reduced to burglary counts on appeal. The conviction alerted the INS, which took her into custody upon her release from prison and initiated deportation proceedings.
"I thought I had my future planned," she says today. "I was going to be a nurse, get married, have a family. Never once did it cross my mind I would end up in this situation. I wasn't criminally active; I just fell in with the wrong crowd."
At Krome Laura's social circle was largely controlled by Borga, her deportation officer, or DO. (Borga is a pseudonym.) "About a month after I arrived, that's when it started," she recalls. "The first day we were introduced, he made comments. Sexual comments. I didn't mind the flirting, but it escalated, and that's when I started feeling uncomfortable. I mean, I didn't think it was appropriate coming from an authority figure.
"I tried to avoid Borga, but it wasn't in my control. He would come and pull me away from my dorm or wherever I was in Krome anytime he wanted to. In front of others he would talk to me in a rude manner, but once I would be in his office, he was a completely different person. He would tell me how satisfied I will be when he will have me in bed. He would brag about the size of his penis, saying it was big and that he will make me scream for hours. He would show up at the cafeteria, at work, even at my visitation hours on Saturday. His persistence was so obvious to anyone who had senses. It was to a point that one Saturday during visitation, my mother asked me who he was, and I had to introduce him to my mother.
"I didn't know what to do about the situation, though, and I was also afraid to tell anybody. When you are at Krome, DOs are like gods to you. They make you think that your destiny depends on them. For example I had asked Officer Borga if he could give me a bond [for release]. He never told me I wasn't eligible for a bond but kept on giving me false hope."
Dozens of detainees were led to believe that if they only did what their overseers asked, they'd get a break. There are many accounts of guards smuggling in presents for favored detainees -- clothes, cosmetics, marijuana. "Officers would sleep in the dorms with girls," recalls a now-paroled detainee. "One officer gave [a detainee] his cell phone to call her mother. The pretty girls, especially the Hispanics, got more attention than anyone else."
Several women remember the sexy photo shoots: "A bunch of officers used to give girls loaded cameras and tell them to dress up in Victoria's Secret, which they would bring in for them, and take pictures of each other," relates Rosana, a former detainee from Nicaragua who testified before a grand jury last summer. "I was in the dorm one afternoon, and Lissette came in and said, Do you want to take pictures?' And I said, Are you kidding? No way.' They would go outside and spread blankets around so it wouldn't look like it was at Krome, and they'd be out there posing, then they'd give the cameras back to the officers to get the film developed."
Sometimes relationships between guards and detainees got serious. Everyone knew, for example, that Lieutenant Clark (not his real name) and Elena from Honduras were in love -- at least that's what Elena said. They exchanged little gifts, and they'd sneak off alone at opportune times. The relationship apparently ended bitterly when Elena agreed to talk to investigators.
Clark's name is mentioned, not affectionately, by almost all the women who have complained. "One day in the hallway outside the cafeteria he asked me to do him a favor," remembers Ginette. "To please' one of his friends. He never said have sex with him, but that's what I interpreted him as saying. At first I said, No, I'm not no slut.' Then he said he could talk to the OIC [officer in charge] and get me released. I said, Do you have the power?' and he said, Oh, we're like brothers.' Later I was talking to another detainee, and she told me: He's the greatest; he's about to get me released.' The next thing I know, she's gone, so I went back and told him I would do it. Then I learned the girl had been shipped away to Chicago. She hadn't been released at all. So the day I was supposed to deliver, I didn't show up. Later Clark confronted me outside the lunchroom. He said, I'll fuck you up.' He grabbed me and shoved me in the corner and said if I ever told anybody what went on, something serious was gonna happen that wasn't good for him or I.
"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.
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.
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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."