Sunday, May 09, 2010

Jean Blum: Finger in Goliath’s Eye - Part IV

© Cecile Pineda 11 22 09

Cecile Pineda traveled to the East Coast to interview Jean Blum who volunteered in the detention centers of Passaic and Monmouth Counties in N.J. Beside documenting prison abuse, physical and verbal, inadequate diet, medical neglect, casual cruelty and disregard of their civil and human rights, Blum initiated one of the first official inquiries into the unrecorded death for lack of medical attention of immigrant detainee Tanveer Ahmad, a New York cabbie, and one of 106 such immigrant detainee deaths for lack of medical attention for which the ACLU and the New York Times obtained evidence through a Freedom of Information Act request. For the first installment of this series, click here.

Corrections Corporation of America’s shares have split twice, multiplied ten-fold. Net profits listed in 2005 of $23.4 million ballooned to $67 the first six months of 2009, representing the largest market share of privately run facilities. Its stockholders number government officials including Dick Cheney, who at last count held stock valued at $85 million.

A sputtering audit

As far back as 2001, complaints from immigrant detention facilities nationwide started to flood the Department of Homeland Security’s inboxes. In response DHS ordered an audit. Although the list of targeted facilities initially stood at 18, after a long delay it was reduced to only five. The Passaic County Jail under the authority of Sheriff Jerry Speziale was notorious enough to make the final cut. In 2005 ninety-four PCJ detainees turned in complaint sheets indicating alleged areas of mistreatment and abuse. Of these 19 declined to be interviewed. Conceivably the OIG’s unwillingness to allow them to talk with a lawyer present may have led to some reluctance. Of the remaining 75, the OIG cherry-picked 32.

But the arrival of what were largely inexperienced auditors in June of 2005 led to mounting recriminations on Sheriff Speziale’s part so that by July 2005 he had ordered them out of “his” jail on charges of “arrogance.” Summoned to Washington in August, presumably for a reprimand, Speziale returned undaunted, having managed to finesse a new federal contract allowing Passaic County to substitute U.S. Marshall prisoners for immigrant detainees. At the same rate of $77 a day per prisoner “bed,” the Passaic County General Fund would get hardly any time to suffer. The auditors were reinstated in August, and by December the detainees had begun to be removed to other facilities, but an official report from DHS had to wait until November of 2006 when the initial shock of Abu Ghraib had died down.

Shortly after the report’s publication an internal e-mail dated January 19, 2007 by a reporter from the North Jersey News Group queried the DHS: “several former Passaic detainees have called me and said that they told the auditors about abuse, beatings, withholding of food, etc. by jail staffers, but felt those claims weren’t reflected in the final audit.” Tamara Faulkner of the DHS replied: “We could not develop sufficient evidence to substantiate the credibility of these cases….For example one detainee stated that he was beaten by the correctional officers and slammed to the floor. We could not find documentary evidence such as medical reports, incident reports, or physical evidence to substantiate the allegation….”

Blum was not surprised by the DHS’s watered down report. As far back as June, 2005 she had received a letter from detainee Roddy Sanchez stating: “On June 8, 2005 immigration officers from Washington D.C. came to see us….I thought they’re going to stop by and listen to our complaints; instead they said they were coming [back] and they never did.”

Blum points out that, far from ending any abuses, shipping the detainees from Passaic to other more distant facilities, some in retaliation for having filed their complaints with the Office of the Inspector General in the first place, occasioned more travel inconvenience for their families and lawyers who needed to visit. It caused Blum to have to curtail her activism because she could no longer afford the detainees’ collect long-distance calls on her retiree’s income, nor could she be as effective with administrators with whom she had not had reason to develop open channels of communication. And it did not put an end to abuses at Passaic County Jail where in 2006 the use of dogs was shortly re-introduced.

The business of detention is business

“When you take to activism, you need to know what you are doing,” states Blum. “At the time I joined it, the New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee was calling for the release of all immigrants held in administrative detention, but I realized that nothing of the sort was going to happen any time soon…. At $77 dollars a day, nobody gives up that kind of money.”

All detention facilities, public and private, enter into a contractual agreement with the Department of Homeland Security/ICE to house detainees. It is in their interest to obtain the most favorable rate per diem and to keep their overhead low. This they accomplish by overcrowding, by providing inadequate diet and poor-to-nonexistent medical attention and by keeping staff salaries and training to a minimum, resulting in the kinds of prison abuse both verbal and physical, documented earlier. In 2003, at $28,000 per inmate/year plus a 10% commissary markup, housing detainees brought in $12 million to the Passaic County Jail, which according to the sheriff’s department spokesperson passed directly into the county general fund.

County and Federally run jails are now in competition with privately run facilities, of which the numbers rose from 5 in 1990 to over 200 by 2000, But if evidence serves, compared to publicly run facilities, privately operated facilities such as those run by Corrections Corporation of America (with 63 facilities in 19 states) compete to bring their overhead even lower. To secure a profitable bottom line, C.C.A lobbies a compliant congress for stricter detention rules; it secures its interests through the use of interlocking directorates, political contributions, and expensive lobbying; to head key projects, it hires retired government administrators and military personnel to guarantee results.

Although it will soon be converted to house only female detainees, C.C.A.’s T. Don Hutto facility in Texas, initially billed as “America’s family residence,” housed women, (some of them pregnant), children and infants in Kevlar tents, and required them to wear prison uniform (even the children). Inmates brought in up to $200 per inmate/day. The chaplain (who doubles as spokesman for C.C.A.’s Houston Processing Center) stated, “we’re here to take care of the product they deliver to us. Until they’re deported we take care of the detainees as best we can.”

In a 2008 conference call to investors, from company headquarters in Tennessee, Chief Operations Officer John D. Ferguson got specific about what that care might be. “The intent now is to detain everyone that’s apprehended at the border and charge them initially with something called ‘entry without inspection.’ That will be a misdemeanor, requiring somewhere between 15 and 30 days of detention. So then persons with [a] deportation [order] or minimum conviction, which means someone who…committed [a] misdemeanor, will face a felony charge, which could lead to six months to two years of detention or incarceration.” Enthused by the President’s fiscal 2009 budget, he stated, “We see that the budget supports the detention population of 33,000 inmate detainee beds—that’s up from 27,500 the previous year and quite above what the…original budget was. What I am most encouraged about is everything we are hearing says 33,000 is still not enough.”

In keeping with the New World Order, the manipulation of language to serve unconstitutional ends is also reflected in the directives of the office of Detention and Removal (DRO), a sub-agency of ICE, which calls its ten-year plan “Endgame,” an eerie echo of “Final Solution,” the term referring to extermination preferred by the Nazi Third Reich. Its goal is removal of all removable aliens by 2012, including 590,000 persons ignoring deportation orders, and 630,000 “criminal” aliens (most of them broken tail light and ‘entry without inspection’ folks), a total of 1,220,000 souls. And John D. Ferguson’s low-end projections notwithstanding, according to Marjorie Meyers, chief federal defender of South Texas, people convicted of illegal re-entry are actually receiving anywhere from four to eight years in jail. “As a result they are pushing undocumented people deeper and deeper underground so they are more exploitable,” according to Lisa Brody, a San Benito Texas attorney.

Since 2001, Corrections Corporation of America’s shares have split twice, multiplied ten-fold, closing recently at $24.28. Net profits listed in 2005 annual report of $23.4 million ballooned to $67 million in the first six months of 2009, representing the largest market share of privately run facilities. Its stockholders number government officials including Dick Cheney who at last count held stock valued at $85 million. Although Corrections Corporation of America ranks first in the percentage of detainee deaths of any public or privately run operator, last available records indicate that CEO Ferguson took home $3 million in 2007 executive compensation.

Holding detainees is not only profitable to government and privately run jails, but it also serves other corporate interests as well. Standing to benefit are telephone companies (prison telephone cards cost $10 for the first 5 minutes); weapons manufacturers, transport and healthcare companies, and food service firms, even hi-tech concerns. Obviating the passé need for tattooed numbers on prisoner forearms, promotional copy for one such corporation reads, “The Quetel Corporation hopes for vigorous sales of its new system to bar code prisoners and equip guards with monitoring scanners.”

In the face of ICE’s operation “Return to Sender” increasing the arrest quota for its fugitive teams from 125 in 2003 to 1,000 in 2009 Jenni Gainsborough of the ACLU’s National Prison Project states the obvious: “[There is a] basic philosophical problem when you begin turning over administration of prisons to people who have an interest in keeping people locked up.”

Not the change we've waited for

Detainee retention policies are in urgent need of review but as recently as August, 2009, the Obama administration declared that it would have to wait until 2010 to overhaul any immigration laws put in place during the Bush years other than shifting some of its emphasis to holding employers responsible for hiring illegal workers. But a recent federal investigation of American Apparel, a Los Angeles clothing manufacturer, which turned up certain irregularities in the identity documents provided by some workers resulted in the firing of 1,800 people, presumably driving them deeper into the underground economy.

According to a New York Times editorial of October 1, John Morton, the director of Immigration & Customs Enforcement, is quoted calling it “a milestone in the fight against illegal immigration.” “But,” questions the Times, “one has to ask who benefits from a crackdown like this….A crackdown that forces 1,800 taxpaying would-be Americans into joblessness in a dismal economy is a law enforcement victory only in the bitterest, narrowest sense. As a solution to the problem of unauthorized workers—1,800 down, millions to go—it’s ludicrous.”

In October, 2009, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that plans were underway to “improve” the immigrant detention system. The department proposed to consolidate detainees in facilities where conditions would more appropriately reflect their status as non-criminals; it would provide reliable medical care for them, and it would set up a system of more centralized oversight. Still lacking in this proposal, however, are any provisions for enforceable standards governing due process oversight to insure people are no longer detained without cause, especially over protracted periods of time. Lacking as well is any commitment to developing alternatives to detention, particularly for those with families. And no provision is made for oversight of immigration law enforcement by local police through the 287(g) program (which deputizes state and local law enforcement agents to catch illegal immigrants), and the “Criminal Alien” laws which allow local police to collaborate with ICE agents in the harassment of innocent people by such practices as workplace raids, racial profiling and midnight home raids such as those recently occurring in East Hampton, N.Y., in clear violation of the Fourth Amendment.

For Jean Blum, retiree living on a fixed income, during the many months she worked tirelessly to aid detainees, despite the pressure, there must have been something driving her to play David to such a colossal Goliath. “You have phone calls coming day and night. Once the detainees had been moved, I still got calls from Bergen Country or Monmouth County—collect charges I could no longer afford. The authorities [at Monmouth and Bergen] were too far away for me to advocate effectively any longer. Eventually you burn out. But I am very much aware of the issues involving people who are displaced. I could not turn my back because that is my own history as a Holocaust survivor but love has little to do with it,” she says. “I am not conscious of harboring feelings of love.”

Asked to comment about Napolitano’s recently proposed reforms, she is uncompromising. “Comment? Are you kidding? Throw all the bums out and start over again? Except there are no different bums to take over the reins! Things were better under [the Bush administration]. Lawlessness was the order of the day and there was no doubt about that. After [Bush] the deluge is where we are now.”

Cecile Pineda was born in New York City, the daughter of an undocumented father. Her six published novels have won numerous prizes and awards. Visit her website at

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