Showing posts with label ALAFFA. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ALAFFA. Show all posts

Saturday, April 24, 2010

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

© Cecile Pineda 11 22 09

Cecile Pineda traveled to the East Coast to interview Jean Blum. Blum is a Holocaust survivor whose memories of being hidden from the Nazis and living her early years as a traumatically displaced person motivated her to start ALAFFA, an organization devoted to helping immigrants incarcerated in the immigrant detention centers of Passaic and Monmouth Counties in New Jersey, who are held in “administrative detention” a provision of a 1996 law which deprives them of the right to legal representation. For the first installment of this series, click here.

"I asked officer if I can make phone call to let my family know where I am. He said ‘No….’ I show him the Book for Rule [the Inmate Handbook]. He said ‘fuck the book. We here don’t use that.’” When Metwalvy appeals to the ombudsman, “he told me ‘fuck you, you mother fucker.’ I get so, so upset. He told me, “I will call the sergeant.’ [Later] the same ombudsman [jumped] on me and two [officers surrounded] me on the floor and start beating and punishing me…Another C.O. came and spray me with O.C. [pepper spray] in my eyes…5 or 6 officer was beating me. After that they…put me in the box for 30 days. They told me, ‘next time we will kill you!’”

Archive of the Detained


Over the many months Jean Blum worked directly with the immigrant detainees, she kept files of their letters and their complaints, as well as background materials as news of detainee abuse began to make headlines. Her archive, which she made available to me over the course of our ten-day interview, includes documents from the Department of Homeland Security, official “incident” reports, complaint forms filed with the Passaic County Jail administration, and letters written to her and to others by detainees, some attesting to conditions still now unimagined and unknown to most Americans. The sampling below only begins to describe the kind of conditions the detainees were enduring then and that more than 400,000 of them are still now forced to endure.


Infrastructure at Passaic County Jail during the time Jean Blum was intervening on behalf of immigrant detainees being held there is described in a 12 December 2005 affidavit filed by Shayana Kadidal, esq., of the Center for Constitutional Rights who refers to it as “an aging, decrepit facility with very poor conditions…. The roof in the main immigration detention ward was leaking, causing a greenish growth and black mold to cover the entire ceiling, which would then drip and fall into detainees’ beds [and] food.”


Diet is inappropriate and inadequate not only at Passaic, but elsewhere within the detention system. In a summary of grievances dated January, 16, 2006, detainees at New Jersey’s Monmouth County Correctional Institution (M.C.C.I.) state: “The portion of the food is barely enough for an adult. The portion is very small and the quality is very bad. (Every day all three meals, ‘potatoes’, and a lot of cold cuts a week). The food also is cold most of the time, which is not the quality of standards in the DHS/ICE rulebook stating: ‘one cold meal and two hot meals a day.’ Most of the time, all three meals are very cold. We believe that the jail is “racketeering…” to force us to purchase their food from commissary, so the jail would be able to collect their 10% profit….” A specific dinner menu is described “ 8 to 10 oz. of rice with 20 to 30 red beans added and 4 tablespoons of wilted [lettuce.]”


In the early months of 2006, during the period when immigrant detainees were being exchanged for U.S. Marshall prisoners, extreme overcrowding was the order of the day. A February 28, 2006 letter to Blum from newly arrived detainee Luis del Orbe, states: “[When I arrived at] the Passaic County Jail… I was held in two separate holding cells at different [times] until I was issued a sleeping mat and placed in a dormitory at 9:35pm….At all times these cells are at nearly [three] times over their maximum capacity…. I was escorted to a basement dormitory….This dormitory has forty-eight sleeping bunks, yet eighty-nine individuals are expected to sleep there. Through the four days and three nights I was there, the number of individuals increased as more of the recently arrested [were] brought in. Those who are unable to sleep in a bed are given plastic mat containers, which are placed at any available space on the floor. Those who did not get these plastic mat containers must place their mats in any available floor space…; anyone needing to use the toilet facilities must…hurdle over those individuals sleeping on the floor.

"While sleeping on the floor… one of the individuals going through his drug … withdrawals vomited on me. Since there was no hot water available, I had to take a cold shower and be given new jail clothing.…Due to the poor ventilation…there was at all [times] a temperature above 90 degrees…. [C]onditions…were not made any better when the K-9 unit being handled by Corporal Mercado defecated on the floor of the dormitory, a space [it] just so [happened] is at face level where I was sleeping on the floor.” Blum describes how detainees were so overcrowded they could not all sit down at meals, and how some were forced to sleep on tables. She identifies leakage problems from bathrooms and in walls as causing further crowding of detainees.


Inappropriate mingling of inmates was frequent. On August 26, 2005 Xiomara Guity in a report asking “If you feel that you have been physically or sexually abused or your conditions of confinement have been abusive, please explain below” responds, “I had to go to court. To go and come back from court they put me in the back with the guys. It was about 6 guys to just myself. A guy that was getting sent to Barbados said: ‘Damn, I haven’t been this close to a girl in over 5 years.’ For the strip search, they do it [in] front of everybody, in front of inmates, officers. Couple weeks ago, a male sergeant saw the girl half-naked.” In an undated letter, Ruth Jean Baptiste writes: “Strip search is very [humiliating]. The fact is that we are from a different background, the strip search in public hurts a great deal.” And an anonymous 11/13/05 SOS scrawled on a napkin reads: “Transportation to court (men and women together) very frightening.”


Incoming and outgoing mail privileges, and telephone access are critical to insuring the civil rights of immigrant detainees. Blum shares a letter of June 17, 2005 from Lee Ngai addressed to her regarding his “mail which I haven’t received in two weeks. My family is in the process of backchecking my mail to see if it arrived at the jail. My problem [concerns] my legal case. My lawyer mailed in documents [stopping] my INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] appeal on 12/2/04. My family called to see if the documents arrived and they did.

My INS appeal was [stopped] and I have a receipt for it [but] I didn’t receive my 90 day review. My [family] was told that something was wrong with my file. My D.P.O. [Deporation Proceedings Officer] wasn’t notified of my immigration appeal [stoppage] and date….My lawyer called the court that he mailed the documents. They told [him] they forgot to date the documents….Two weeks later I found out the date they put on my documents was for May 26, 2005. After six months [are over] if the INS do not deport you, they are [supposed] to let you go. But they started my 6 months [all] over [again], and took [away] the six months I already did….Do you think it’s possible for me to get my six months back?”


In a report dated January 16, 2006 from the Monmouth County Detainees,
“Our mail is coming in late a lot of times, or being returned for no reasons at all. It does not state why it was returned. There were several detainees, that when their families sent them a money order, but was returned to the sender because it had M.C.C.I. [Monmouth County Correctional Insitution] on the envelope….Also the prison is violating our rights by opening all our legal mail. The envelope states, “Legal Mail”, they would just ignore it and open it without our consent. All legal mail, by law, is to be opened in the presence of the addressed person...Most of the time the mail is either ripped or sliced in half before we even receive it.”

Detainees were unable to make outgoing phone calls either to families or to their lawyers—those few able to afford lawyers—for extended periods of time because the phones were frequently blocked, or the access numbers changed. But when the phones worked, detainees were obliged to purchase phone cards from the prison administration costing $10 for the first five minutes, and 89 cents for each minute thereafter. A Request to ICE dated August 15, 2005 signed by 28 detainees reads: “We would like to know why? Our phone service [is] blocked. We have to get in touch with our families, lawyers, business associates, etc…. Can you please get this block removed?”


A Guyanese detainee complains, “On August 1, 2005 the jail have changed their telephone company to a company called (Global Tel Link). Since the phone company has changed, all my attorneys’ phone numbers have been collect-call blocked by the jail contracted telephone company. Which is (illegal) to block legal phone calls to attorneys and legal representatives. The jail-contracted telephone company requires each individual [attorney] to set up an account before the detainee would be able to place a collect call to their legal representative.”


A press release from the Washington Chapter of the National Lawyers’ Guild dated January 25, 2007 quotes detainee Rafiu Abimbola: “I was detained for six years. The telephones frequently did not work and legal materials were unavailable or out of date. Because I was managing my case on my own, this was extremely hard for me. DHS did not attempt to fix these problems. When I complained to the jail, I never received a response and sometimes was punished for complaining. There are no consequences to the government for failing to obey its own standards.” Despite his on-going appeals, Mr. Abimbola was deported to Nigeria.


In a letter dated October 27, 2005, Heung Wah Wong, who was eventually transferred to Oakdale, Louisiana, asks Blum to address a letter on his behalf to the Fifth Circuit Court subject lined “Petition for Review of his detention that commenced in 1997 at F.D.C. Oakdale, Louisiana….His proposed draft reads, ‘Mr. Wong has on several occasions written and [requested] that ICE transfer him back to Louisiana, but was constantly rejected…. Mr. Wong’s detention at Passaic County Jail is very repressive. He’s confined 23 hours a day [in] lock-down and is unable at all to research his case in the law library because it is insufficient [time] and only allowed 1 1/2 hours twice a week to use the law library….Transferring Mr. Wong back to Oakdale, then he can be able to exhaust his administrative remedies….P.S. The only reason Mr. Wong is held at Passaic County Jail is because ICE has a contract lease with the jail [although] his case was in the southern district….’”


In web blog “The Business of Detention: cracking down on immigration and locking up profits,” Renne Feltz and Stokely Baksh describe conducting on site visits to twenty-three detention facilities. They write, “at 12 of the 23 facilities visited, the number of the OIG [Office of the Inspector General] was blocked. When [detainees] called the complaint line, they would get a voice prompt that “this is an invalid number,” or “a call to this number has been blocked by the telephone service provider….At Corrections Corporation of America’s Elizabeth Detention Facility, a privately owned and run jail in New Jersey, the list of consulate numbers was six years old. When auditors called 30 of the consulate numbers on the posted listing, they found that 9 were incorrect.”


Frequently inmates’ legitimate phone requests are met with punitive consequences. Egyptian detainee, Osama Metwalvy’s letter of December 14, 2005, states: “I just come to Passaic County Jail. I asked officer if I can make phone call to let my family know where I am. He said ‘No….’ I show him the Book for Rule [The Inmate Handbook]. He said ‘fuck the book. We here don’t use that.’” When Metwalvy appeals to the ombudsman, “he told me ‘fuck you, you mother fucker.’ I get so, so upset. He told me… “I will call the sergeant.’ [Later] the same ombudsman [jumped] on me and two [officers surrounded] me on the floor and he start beating and punishing me…Another C.O. came and spray me with O.C. [pepper spray] in my eyes…5 or 6 officer was beating me. After that they…put me in the box for 30 days. They told me ‘next time we will kill you!’”


A memorandum of December 14, 2005, and signed by 13 detainee witnesses corroborates Metwalvy’s account: “We…saw five officers pinning down and holding a detainee. They were punching and kicking him while he was handcuffed. We heard the inmate screaming that he was not resisting the officers and the officers still continued to hold him down and hit him. Sergeant Washington used pepper spray. After… they carried him away to another unit.” Luis Ortiz in a July 3, 2005 memo addressed to Deputy Warden Bendl states: “Please respect our human rights. All we ask from you is to be treated like human beings. Verbal abuse is not part of the ombudsman job. We are not creating any trouble for you. DHS placed us here, and they may want you to meet federal guidelines. Happy 4th of July!”


The NJCRDC Voices of the Disappeared states that, as a result of neglect during the several months of his detention, Fagge has become blind in one eye.

Civil rights of detainees were repeatedly violated. Often as a punitive measure, detainees were placed with the general jail population. Their right to special food, Halal, or Kosher, was repeatedly ignored. Often their dietary complaints resulted in their being placed in the hole. Two complaints by Sami Al-Shahin of August of 2005 allege profound disrespect for the Holy Quran. “In the past week we have had two shakedowns and in both…the officers have thrown the Holy Quran on the floor…. Officers have to understand the Rules of the Quran. They or anyone can’t touch [it]…. Maybe this is strange to them but this is our religion…. If this happens again we will have a complaint in the court. Some of us don’t have any criminal records so we don’t deserve this treatment. If we don’t get an answer we will hunger strike for death.” In a letter to Blum dated July 17, 2005, Raed Alanbuke writes: “I got my [prayer] beads back, but the rug I didn’t get. The Deputy Warden, Mr. Bendl said, ‘they are not allowing prayer rugs at this time.’”

Raed Alanbuke’s is an interesting case. Together with his brother he was held for over seven months although neither was guilty of any infraction. But they were sons of the UN Deputy Permanent Representative of Iraq. The U.S. government detained them in an effort to put pressure on their father to defect. He refused. In the same letter, Alanbuke writes, “my case is not only about an innocent person in jail, no, it’s so much more than that, it’s about Iraq, about WMD, about the Bush administration intent to invade Iraq before 9/11/2001; it’s about forcing a high ranking [UN] Iraqi diplomat to defect, and when he said ‘no,’ they waged a war against him.”


It is not uncommon to observe that Muslims receive exceptional treatment at the hands of jail personnel. In his affidavit of December 12, 2005, Shayana Kadidal, esq. states: “Muslim male immigration detainees of South Asian or Arab descent were… systematically denied access to attorneys, phone calls, and bond. The…detainees were frequently detained for months after their final deportation orders for the purposes of criminal investigation. They were also repeatedly and unnecessarily strip-searched; one of our clients…despite being held in solitary confinement was strip- and cavity-searched before entering an immigration judge’s courtroom, and, absurdly, also strip- and cavity-searched upon leaving that same courtroom. Dogs were systematically used to intimidate Muslim detainees, especially at the Passaic…facility where many were held. Both the use of dogs and the systematic use of nudity as a humiliation tactic…mirrored…tactics used at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo….”


Blum’s archive of Passaic County Jail abuses includes documentation of the use of dogs to terrorize detainees dating back to even before her active involvement there, including a case involving Mexican detainee Rosendo Lewis-Oropeza, in the words of the abusing officer himself. In an Incident Report by the Passaic County Sheriff’s Department dated May 10, 2004, Capt. J. De Franco, states: “I grabbed the front of the inmate’s shirt with both hands and pulled him to the ground. The inmate started kicking and swinging his arms. At this point the inmate attempted to get up when K-9 Officer Tangorra stepped in with his K-9. The K-9 bit the inmate on his left forearm.” However in the same report, the examining nurse, a Jocelyn Cruz, describes both a wound in the left arm, and another open wound on Mr. Lewis-Oropeza’s left thigh.


There are countless witness reports of inadequate or non-existent medical attention. Held since February 2, 2005, Abdelkareem Kawas of Jordan states in a letter dated August 7, 2005, addressed to the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Assistant Attorney General: “In the Lutheran Medical Center I was [scheduled] to see a heart specialist…every two months; since I have been under ICE detention, I have not been able to see a heart doctor for the last six months.” He reports that the jail not only refused the heart medication his wife tried to send by mail, but when she tried delivering it to him in person, jail authorities would not accept it. Repeatedly he reports not being referred for a CAT scan despite on-going chest pain; and when in July a prison doctor finally took a chest X-ray which revealed a suspicious boil in his lungs, he still had been refused a CAT scan. He reports that he is the sole breadwinner of his family of five, and that being held without bail results in great economic hardship for a family that receives no other assistance.


In a Passaic County Jail Inmate Grievance Form dated September 27, 2005 and signed by multiple witnesses, Sami Al-Shahin makes the following complaint: “Last week Lucero Carino Rafael was having heart problems. He was...taken to the hospital [where] he stayed…four days…After coming back, every morning he was having heart pain and when he complained to the officers they would say he has to hold on and take about an hour before they take him down to the medical clinic. On 9/26/05 [he] was having heart pain again and we told the officer…[After] about a half hour he was taken down to the medical clinic and the nurse told him he was stressing, to jog around, that the pain would go away.

"On the same day me and another inmate spoke to deportation officer Diaz about the incident and Diaz replied that he should just go back to his country. On 9/27/05 around 9:30 A.M. Rafael Carino [collapsed] to the floor…. At first the main problem was getting the [officer’s] attention inside the booth. We kept calling him and he didn’t respond to us until a lot of inmates came to the bars and started to scream at the officer so he can listen. Then the officer called for the EMT, which came about 30 minutes after Rafael Carino had [collapsed]. Rafael Carino could of died in the time period it took to get the officer’s attention and to get the medical help. When inmates surrounded Rafael they thought he had died….This matter…is very important to us because our lives are involved.”


Another Inmate Grievance Form dated 9/23/05 by Hassan Fagge who was a diabetic and in 23 hour lock down reads: “Yesterday I don’t get insulin at night. I want to know why. I take 42 units of insulin every night at 6:30pm. I was suffering from last night 6:30pm to 7:27am this morning, 9/23/05. I am insulin dependent patient. My blood sugar level this morning at 7:42am was 465g., very high, and my breakfast is 4 slices of bread, juice and oatmeal which is 100% carbohydrate.” In a subsequent complaint, dated 10/10/05, Mr. Fagge includes a chart covering a 20-day period, showing morning, afternoon and night blood sugar readings. Normal readings range from 70–109, but from 9/21 through 10/10, his readings average 249. He writes: “If you look at this diagram my blood sugar level is very high all the time. The jail [is] unable to treat me. No control, no diet, no observation. Anywhere I wrote ‘NO,’ it means I don’t get treatment at [that] time of day.” Over the 20-day period the chart reads ‘NO’ 14 times. The NJCRDC Voices of the Disappeared states that, as a result of neglect during the several months of his detention, Fagge has become blind in one eye.


A detainee who goes by the name Amin states in a letter to Blum of December 5, 2005: “These people lock me…in the isolation since 10/2/05…23 hours [a day]….I still don’t get treatment. I’m frozen and I’m sick…sometime my blood pressure goes up to 200….I’m not a criminal…I’m going to stop taking any medication, insulin, and I will start hunger strike. Because nobody cares about my situation, starving me by giving me very small food….”


Detainee Ruth Jean Baptiste was seriously injured prior to her arrival at Passaic County Jail when she sustained a fall while washing floors where she was temporarily being held at Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. Says Blum, “She may have misaligned her spine and injured her coccyx, an injury that can be extremely painful. However there was evidently also an injury causing infection.” During her first 5 months in Passaic County Jail Jean Baptiste writes, “they had me in a punishment cage with no water, no bathroom.”

In an undated official complaint, she states: “I arrived in Passaic [County Jail] on July 28, 2004. Since I came I had more than enough reason to beg for deportation.” After fourteen months in detention she reports: “My foot bust all by itself. Swollen leg for over 14 months (right leg). The right hip cannot respond to hold my body. The good left hip is acting up now. The right foot is black, dripping water.” In another complaint she writes: “Every time I fill out a [grievance] INS refuses all treatments for me. And I get Tylenol for 2 weeks.” Still there after 14 months she writes, “the nurse in charge said there is nothing wrong with me. The only thing I have to do is get up and walk….How can I trust someone while my pain is unbearable.”

On November 1, 2005, sixteen months after her arrival at PCJ, at Blum’s instigation, a Dr. Waba agrees to see her. Her report continues: “Dr. Waba yell and scream at me. Very angry. He told me that he is going to take the crutches away from me, and I don’t need them because the X-Rays come out negative.” Blum adds that “upon release she had an operation where they told her they would have had to amputate had she waited much longer.”


Blum describes visiting a woman who was suffering from AIDS. “Her medications were never administered in a regular and timely manner—even though her condition required it. Despite official neglect, the other detainees had been so supportive of her that her spirits remained high. As her condition continued to deteriorate however, the jail administration scheduled her for release. But once released, she succumbed to a depression so severe—with no supportive community around her—that she retreated completely and communicated neither with her sister detainees nor with her lawyer who remained unable to reach her.”


According to The New York Times, the Organization of American States actually had to intervene asking the United States not to deport Andrea Mortlock, a terminally ill AIDS patient, to Jamaica because it claimed that deportation would violate her basic right to life. In the August 27, 2005 article, the Jamaican government is reported to have refused to issue travel documents on the ground that there was no medical care available to treat AIDS in Jamaica.


Part III of this series appears next Sat.

Jean Blum is the subject of a documentary by Janice Weber entitled
"Janina's Letters," which will appear soon.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

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

© Cecile Pineda 11 22 09

Cecile Pineda traveled to the East Coast to interview Jean Blum. Blum is a Holocaust survivor whose memories of being hidden from the Nazis and living her early years as a traumatically displaced person motivated her to start ALAFFA, an organization devoted to helping immigrants incarcerated in the immigrant detention centers of Passaic and Monmouth Counties in New Jersey, who are held in “administrative detention” a provision of a 1996 law which deprives them of the right to legal representation. Below begins the first segment of her report to appear each Saturday.

Immigrant detention centers, now over 300, are located throughout the United States--federally run jails, county facilities, some run by private operator Corrections Corporation of America and Wackenhut, doing business under the sanitized name the Geo Group. They house more than 400,000 persons, almost all immigrants, and with few exceptions, people of color.
Her hands working constantly, Jean Blum loops yarn over the pins of her knitting bobbin; the spool pays out the makings of a fashionable red scarf. Behind her as she talks, a conservatory of exotic plants catches the sunlight, bouncing it off an abstract painting on the wall. Jean Blum is a short woman, standing barely five feet tall, with a sharp mind, given to rich imaginings.

Her photograph, taken against a backdrop of the Monmouth County Correctional Institution in an article dated April 3, 2009, by Nina Bernstein of the New York Times, shows a forlorn looking woman, a woman identified as a Holocaust survivor, founder of an immigrant detainee advocacy organization American Liberty and Freedom for All, or ALAFFA.

On a first viewing, I wondered who she was. What drove her to engage for many months in such discouraging and thankless work? Was it her memories of her World War II experiences as a displaced person? Had those memories been put aside as she lived an early life described in the article as closely modeled on the American Dream? Did love have anything to do with it?

“When I was maybe six years old, my mother warned me, ‘you have to go away for a while, but you must never forget that you are a Jewish child. You must remember not to tell anyone, because if you do, terrible things will happen to you and to your parents.’” Jean Blum pauses to unravel the tangling red scarf before continuing with our interview.

“The next day my teacher—one of the unsung heroes of the French Resistance—spirited me away to a convent where I lived with other girls whom I discovered much later were also Jewish.” When Blum’s mother came to take her back, although Blum failed to recognize her--“I never thought I would ever see her again,” she explains--the gravity of her mother’s admonition never left her.
Jean Blum in her living room
photo credit Janice Weber
Now 73, Blum was born in Warsaw, an only child, whose father was an electrical engineer. The Polish government charged him and an engineering colleague with designing and overseeing the installation of the telephone and telegraph communication system for the country of Poland. The first week of September, 1939 immediately after the first German bombs fell on Warsaw, her father received a phone call in the middle of the night from the Office of the President of Poland ordering him and his electrical engineering colleague to show up at the bus depot at six A.M. with their wives, their children and one suitcase for each family. They were allowed to escape, not because the Poles were particularly concerned for the family as endangered Jews, but because her father possessed the information they needed to deactivate the system he and his colleague had designed so that it would not fall into German hands.

After conducting them to Romania where they debriefed the two engineers, they left them to shift for themselves. Stranded in Romania, Jean’s father began making the rounds of all the embassies in Bucharest searching for a country willing to take them—to no avail. Finally, through their embassy, the French government made him a deal: if he agreed to join the French forces, Jean and her mother would be permitted to travel to Nice, where they would be allowed to stay throughout the duration of the war. Her father, however, would fight with the French. But after the fall of the collaborationist Vichy government he was captured by the Germans. He was sent to a P.O.W. camp, and as a prisoner of war he escaped the almost certain extermination that awaited most European Jews in the death camps.

“The Germans treated him better than Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) treats our American Immigrant Detainees here in the U.S.,” says Jean Blum. “These are people who work hard, many of them heads of families, trying to better themselves, striving for their piece of the American dream, as all of us did. My father loved America; he believed in America because this was the only country that would take us in at war’s end. I am glad he didn’t live to see what’s happening now.”

Although American public attention is still focused on the horrors of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the existence of a growing number of domestic immigrant detention centers still largely remains under the radar. There are now over 300, located throughout the United States, some federally run jails, some County facilities, some run by such private operators as Corrections Corporation of America and Wackenhut, now doing business under the sanitized name of the Geo Group. They house a total of more than 400,000 persons, almost all of them immigrants, and with few exceptions, people of color. Prior to the elections of 2008, these institutions were subject to little or no government oversight, and even now under the aegis of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano, the new administration is not showing signs of producing much in the way of change.

Blum remembers the limbo state that people displaced by World War II experienced. When at war’s end, her mother and father were reunited, no country was willing to take the family in until, through the intercession of her father’s brother, Sholem Asch, the family was permitted to enter the United States by way of a special Act of Congress. Used to a pre-war life of relative comfort, they found themselves living on the fifth floor of a roach infested Bronx walk-up apartment. Her father repeatedly had to scramble for work, first as the employee of a brother who owned a record company. Her mother found work as a fabric picker. Left at home alone, and overwhelmed by the adjustment to a new school where she spoke no English, Jean cried incessantly. One day her father came across Margaret Bourke White’s photographs of the concentration camps taken at the time of the liberation. He carefully cut them out of Life Magazine and taped them to the walls of Jean’s bedroom. “These are the people who have something to cry about,” he told her, “nothing happened to you.”

“We fear for our lives…”

The pictures of WWII concentration camp survivors remained on Jean’s wall for a limited period of time, but they never left her imagination. When Blum first discovered that there was a New Jersey-based advocacy organization, the New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee (NJCRDC), that tracked incarcerated detainees, she was quick to join.

Shortly before the Memorial Day Weekend in 2005, NJCRDC had fielded a call on its hot line from an inmate reporting that there had been a violent incident at the Passaic County Jail in Paterson where a number of detainees were being held. But with the holiday approaching, there was no one available to investigate. True to form, Blum stepped up to the plate. “I had a habit of volunteering when I saw a need,” she says, “and from that moment, I was hooked.” Her first report, running to four pages, documents the statements of four detainees who described being repeatedly roughed up, beaten, seriously injured, and verbally abused by guards.

“This [summary] of the events of May 26…starting at 8:20 P.M. [combines] information from Luis Ortiz, Willy Hernandez, and Nguyen Vu. [Vu] had asked another inmate to have his girlfriend mail him a musical birthday card that he wanted to send to his wife. When…Corporal C. Jimenez handed out the mail, she …wanted to remove the musical portion of the card. Nguyen…asked her to leave [it] on because he was sending it to his wife. Corporal Jimenez yelled, ‘No, I can’t do that. This card does not belong to you.’ He replied…‘no, this card belongs to me.’ She continued yelling… that she would call the Sergeant or the Captain...’ He answered ‘I don’t care who you call over because this card is mine.’

“A few minutes later Sergeant J. Arturi came in, plus ‘about 5 or 10’ other officers…. They told the prisoners to face the bars, aiming chemical spray inches from their faces. All the…reports agree: ‘they grabbed Nguyen Vu by the arm and the neck. He was pushed, shoved, slapped, punched down the hallway in sight of…two units returning from recreation, until they got him down the hall where they closed the door so the others could not see. NGUYEN STATES 2 VIDEO CAMERAS TAPED WHAT HAPPENED THERE….

“…The sergeant…slammed his head into the wall where it started to bleed. [Vu] felt dizzy. Three or more officers ‘pushed me to the ground, started punching me, pulled me up, handcuffed me and took me to the Medical Unit.’ He was ‘so upset and scared’ that all he wanted was to be left alone and [he] refused medication. Then they …strip searched him…and threw him into the hole…. [In all] he requested meds or a doctor four times over four days, to no avail. The next day two officers took him to a hearing telling him he was charged with Attempt to Assault. He was found innocent and the case was dismissed….

“[The inmates who observed the initial beating] ‘yelled, protested, banged on the tables….’ While this was going on, Hernandez ‘fixed his pants.’ Officers yelled he had a weapon in his sock that he was trying to place in his shoe. He was ‘yanked by his neck, arm and shirt over the edge of the table. He was slapped on his neck …and on his back….They continued to slap…and rough him up. They kept inquiring about a weapon, but it didn’t exist.’ Hernandez states: ‘THEY ALSO RAISED THE CAMERA,’ meaning they did not tape this incident.” Blum’s report concludes with a fourth inmate, Luiz Ortiz’ statement that for now they would suspend their hunger strike “because we fear for our lives.”

Administrative detention: (il)legal stranglehold

But Blum soon became dissatisfied with the emphasis placed by the NJCRDC on freeing all immigrant detainees based on the unconstitutionality of holding them without charge. She resigned to found ALAFFA because she preferred to concentrate her efforts on the more immediate task of helping the detainees directly and believed she would be more effective intervening at the local level. Through an umbrella organization, she obtained tax exempt status, but her efforts to secure funds to support her activities and to expand her operation were largely unsuccessful. She continued on her own, very much as a one-person operation, occasionally supported by the help of volunteers like herself.

An excerpt from an early A.L.A.F.F.A. newsletter dated November 26, 2005, speaks volumes about Blum’s sense of mission:

“A.L.A.F.F.A. cares a lot about what is happening to you.
—We don’t want to see people maltreated, separated from their families, be denied justice and compassion.
—We care about you because you are our neighbors, our friends, our family.
—We know that if they can do this to you today, they can do it to us tomorrow.
—We are ashamed about the disgrace to our country and the violation of our laws.”
From the time Blum’s name and coordinates first became known to the prison grapevine, she began to field collect calls from detainees incarcerated in the Passaic County Jail. Besides visiting, she wrote letters on their behalf, helped them file official complaints, made contact with their families and lawyers when the jail phone lines remained blocked for long periods of time, made sure to obtain signed releases from each one of them allowing their stories to be made public, and, although she is a retiree living on the uncertain bounty of a fixed income, she gave them money, and helped them obtain food and clothing when they were released. “They called me only for legitimate problems. They never complained. In fact, I remember one conversation I had with a Nigerian to whom I observed that conditions there were abysmal. His reply was: ‘Jean, it is better than so many other places on earth.’”

Although immigrant detainees are arrested and held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) under the aegis of the Department of Homeland Security, it is important to understand the place they occupy within the present U.S. justice system. They are not criminals. In fact, “these are people who work hard, many of them heads of families, trying to better themselves, striving for the piece of the American dream, as all of us did,” insists Blum, but she points out that many of them will be deported anyway for past misdemeanors such as having a broken tail light, or not paying tax on a packet of cigarettes because they are being held in “administrative detention,” a provision of the Illegal Immigrant and Immigrant Responsibility (IIRIRA) Act of 1996 which under Title III denies them the right of appeal such that they can be removed without judicial oversight.

Whereas under the constitution, not only citizens, but all persons are accorded the right to defend themselves before a court of law, under the provisions of “administrative detention” an entire group of people—mostly poor and almost all persons of color—has been denied that right. In fact, although mostly staffed by Caucasians, the detention system holds persons primarily from Central and South American countries, the Caribbean, Africa, and the Middle and Far East. “The entire ICE operation is in violation of the U.S. Constitution,” Blum points out, “so they excuse it by saying that [the Constitution] only applies to U.S. citizens—yeah, like being a little bit pregnant.” Not only does “administrative detention” establish and perpetuate a dangerous parallel, unconstitutional system of punishment, but once the law is compromised, it may be used to apply to any other demographic group.

Part II of this series continues here.

Jean Blum is the subject of a documentary by Janice Weber titled "Janina's Letters" which will appear soon.