HEADLINE: ASYLUM SEEKERS SUE ELIZABETH JAILERS ; SAY INSCONTRACTOR HAS POLICY OF ABUSE
BYLINE: ELIZABETH LLORENTE, Staff Writer
BODY: Two asylum seekers have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit
alleging that they suffered beatings and other inhumane treatment at the immigration detention center in Elizabeth. The lawsuit against the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) accuses guards and supervisors of using excessive force against the asylum seekers after they complained about conditions. CCA is the private company that runs the Elizabeth Detention Center under contract with the U.S. government.
The lawsuit also accuses Nashville-based CCA, the largest private
prison management company in the world, of having a tacit "corporate policy" that sanctioned "abusive practices to control and discipline the refugees."
It further contends that the alleged abuse by CCA employees at the Elizabeth Detention Center echoes longtime aggression by guards and senior officers at other CCA facilities.
"There's a corporate policy encouraging a kind of use of force that's illegal under American law," said W. Gaston Fairey, a South Carolina civil rights attorney who is representing the asylum seekers.
"That policy results in the use of violence as a means of controlling dissidence. And a result was that these two individuals were abused, and that's putting it mildly." Citing the pending litigation, Warden Christopher Brogna said in a written statement that CCA could not specifically address the charges of abuse at Elizabeth.
He said: "We have provided a secure environment, as well as the
highest level of safety and humane treatment that can be realized....
We take great pride in our efforts and our professionally trained staff, who are always made aware of the importance of maintaining the dignity and respect of the unique population for which we are
Susan Hart, a spokeswoman at CCA headquarters in Nashville, also declined to comment on the lawsuit. But she said,"CCA's policy is to use the least amount of force necessary to calm an individual or group that could jeopardize security or harm themselves."
Hart said every CCA facility has a grievance process for detainees to voice complaints about treatment, and that all allegations are
investigated. "We have zero tolerance for any excess or unnecessary use of force," she said.
Officials at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in
Newark, the district office that oversees the Elizabeth Detention Center, declined to comment.
The asylum seekers, Oluwole Aboyade of Nigeria and Salah Dafali of Gaza, first publicly complained of mistreatment in January 1999, when they allegedly were beaten. The accusations triggered a massive staffing shake-up at the detention center, and led the INS to transfer Dafali and Aboyade to county prisons in Pennsylvania.
They also sparked renewed criticism of the immigrant detention system, which human rights organizations and some members of Congress
In media interviews and in the lawsuit, Dafali charged that guards held him down on the floor while the chief of security at the time kicked him in the face. The lawsuit adds that CCA employees kept Dafali
chained for hours to a bed in a small cell and ignored his repeated requests for water.
Aboyade has alleged that a supervisor pushed him against a wall, resulting in injuries to his head. He also said there were other forms of mistreatment at the hands of CCA guards and supervisors over several months.
In one of the more serious incidents, the lawsuit charges that guards placed Aboyade in a filthy isolation cell after he complained
about conditions. Aboyade spent"more than seven days"in the cell, which"had its walls, floor, and doorway smeared with human feces and urine,"the lawsuit said.
"I've been doing civil rights law for 20 years,"Fairey said,"but it shocked me when I found out how we treat non-criminal detainees who are asking for asylum in this country."
Fairey has several other lawsuits against CCA pending in courts in
Tennessee and South Carolina. Some of the charges allege that CCA employees hogtied juveniles at a South Carolina correctional facility and subjected them to physical abuse. The Tennessee suit contends that CCA employees beat inmates at a prison in that state and tortured one by using electrical devices on his genitals.
"This kind of conduct, violence and the threat of violence," Fairey said,"seems to be CCA's manner of doing business."
Hart said CCA plans to "vigorously contest those claims" in South
Carolina. "We don't believe they have any merit. "She said some CCA employees were terminated for "inappropriate use of force" in the Tennessee prison. Hart said she could not discuss such cases in detail
because litigation is pending.
The lawsuit concerning the Elizabeth Detention Center does not name
the INS as a defendant and was filed in U.S. District Court in Knoxville, Tenn.
Elizabeth center in the spotlight
Most detainees at the 300-bed Elizabeth center arrived at airports in the region without valid documents and requested political asylum. Federal laws mandate the detention of such individuals until they are given political asylum, deported, or released to family or friends while awaiting a decision on their asylum requests.
The center has been 1 NEW3 under a national spotlight since 1995, when more than 100 detainees rioted to protest inhumane conditions. The INS released a report confirming the charges of mistreatment, censured the private contractor, Esmor Correctional Services, and shut the center.
The INS reopened it in 1997 under CCA, and pledged to turn it into a national model.
Immigration advocates acknowledge that the center is nothing close to the dysfunctional place it was in 1995. But problems have persisted, including several widely publicized hunger strikes, an Albanian
detainee's apparent suicide, and a string of senior-level management changes.
Last year, CCA vehemently denied the charges by Aboyade and Dafali, noting that their own reviews showed no wrongdoing. In interviews with The Record last year, CCA officials said that in the Jan. 28 incidents, both men were agitated and that guards used appropriate force. They also dismissed Aboyade's other charges of mistreatment.
But the INS considered the charges worrisome enough to take dramatic steps. At the agency's insistence, CCA transferred the chief of security, Darwin C. Mitchell, to a non-INS facility in Arizona and barred two supervisors and six officers from going near detainees. The warden at the time, Karen Nicholson, left after 11 months on the job, citing personal reasons.
All but two of the eight CCA employees who were reassigned internally have left the center, INS officials say. Mitchell, who was chief of security at a CCA criminal facility in Arizona, died in
The INS has stepped up its presence at the detention center, more than doubling the number of its on-site supervisors from seven last year to 15 this year. The agency also plans to install more video monitors, which will allow INS supervisors a broader view of detainee dormitories and corridors.
The FBI reviewed charges last year
The lawsuit comes as the U.S. Department of Justice is
investigating possible criminal civil rights violations at the center in relation to the charges by Aboyade and Dafali.
Christine Di Bartolo, a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., declined to discuss details of the investigation.
"The matter is open and under review," she said.
FBI officials in Newark reviewed the charges last year, but then said they were not pursuing an investigation. Later, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark handled the case, INS officials said. The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment. It is unclear whether other
agencies have been involved in the case, or why one passed the matter to another. All these agencies, including the INS, fall under the U.S. Department of Justice.
Lynn Durko, spokeswoman for the Newark office of the INS, said: "Those investigations are separate from us. We don't know how they conduct their investigations."
The lawsuit and other problems apparently have not hurt the partnership between the INS and CCA. The INS recently renewed its
multimillion-dollar Elizabeth contract with CCA, and also signed CCA to house 800 detainees in San Diego. The INS consistently has characterized the problems at the Elizabeth center as isolated ones, not reflective of systemic flaws. The agency notes that the center has American Correctional Association accreditation.
Rep. Robert Menendez, a Democrat whose district includes Elizabeth,
said he hopes the justice system clarifies whether mistreatment occurred at the center. But ultimately, he said, the INS bears the greatest responsibility.
"It's through the INS's power that people are detained,"Menendez said."They have a clear responsibility for how the detention center is run and what a contractor does under its supervision."
Fairey said his clients are seeking an unspecified amount of money.
But more important, Fairey said, the men hope to heighten awareness of the pitfalls of putting immigrant detainees in the hands of private
"It appears that more and more private correctional systems use excessive force as control techniques," said Fairey." The private prison business is a competitive market where companies cut costs by cutting corners on salaries and training."
CCA officials defended their training and salaries.
Brogna, the warden at Elizabeth, said that prospective CCA guards undergo an intense background investigation. Successful candidates receive 160 hours of training, he said, and complete an additional 40 hours of instruction each year with emphasis on safety and security.
Fairey said, "If the court determines that CCA does have the policy and I'm not talking about a written policy, that we're alleging, we
hope the INS and other government agencies will take a good, hard look at the conduct of privat