LEGAL BASICS AND HUMANE TREATMENT MUST BE GUARANTEED
BY FEDERAL OFFICIALS IN LOCAL FACILITIES HOUSING IMMIGRANTS
Philip S. Anderson
President of the American Bar Association
In my home state of Arkansas in the '60s, inmates of Tucker Prison Farm routinely were beaten and tortured by despotic jailers. Among the tools used by jailers to control inmates was the diabolical "Tucker Telephone," an old crank telephone adapted with electrodes that were attached to prisoners' genitalia and then hooked up to a car battery. When the telephone was cranked, inmates received a short, intense and paralyzing shock.
In Arkansas and throughout the country there was widespread outrage when the practice was revealed.
Unbelievably, almost 30 years later, Florida jailers have invented another instrument to torture prisoners with electricity.
In Jackson County, Fla., sadistic jailers wired a plastic, body-sized police shield, used in riot protection, to punish immigrant prisoners. The device was placed over a naked immigrant, who was subjected to an intense electrical shock.
After complaints surfaced, the Immigration and Naturalization Service removed 34 detainees from the Jackson County Jail and vowed to conduct an internal investigation.
That is an inadequate response. Abuses will occur in other locations, because the INS does not adequately regulate or monitor treatment of detainees in local jails, where thousands of detained immigrants are sent due to overcrowding in federal detention facilities. In fact, human rights organizations report numerous incidents of inhumane conditions in local facilities.
The tough 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act has mandated that the INS detain more immigrants than ever before. With more than 16,000 people in custody, the INS has the fastest growing detainee population of any federal agency -- up 30 percent since 1997.
With INS-operated facilities filled, the INS officials insist that their reliance on local facilities must continue and will probably increase.
In addition to instances of physical abuse, immigrant advocates raise the legal issues of denying detainees access to a lawyer.
A number of the contract local jails are in remote locations, isolating detainees from lawyers, friends and family. Frequent transfers from facility to facility without notifying lawyers, restrictive visitation policies, limited telephone access and inadequate or no access to legal research materials create significant obstacles to adequate legal representation for detainees.
Until this year, the INS had no standards for access to legal representation for detainees in their own facilities.
After lengthy meetings with the INS, the Department of Justice and the White House, the American Bar Association and advocates for immigrants convinced Washington officials that there must be standards regulating basic fundamental rights concerning conditions of detention, including guaranteeing access to a lawyer.
In January 1998 the DOJ and INS issued standards ensuring that immigrants held in INS facilities would have access to a lawyer.
This step should be applauded, but it does not go nearly far enough.
The same rights should be extended to immigrants being held in local and county jails, where 60 percent of all INS detainees are warehoused.
The INS pays handsomely for housing prisoners. However, it is not enough for the INS to simply hand over thousands of detainees to local officials, and then shrug their shoulders when abuses occur. Experience has shown that abuses occur where there is no supervision.
The federal government should accept responsibility for the treatment of immigrants it detains - even in local facilities. The fact that the Florida immigrant detainees were not in federal jails does not mean that the federal government is not culpable. It is.
The ABA currently is urging the Department of Justice to ensure that the new standards for INS-operated facilities are promptly extended to every state and local facility that houses immigrants.
It is hard to fathom the kind of mind that devised an instrument to torture a naked immigrant, but it could occur again without oversight.
The federal government must make certain that it never happens again.
© The Washington Post
December 23, 1998