Common sense and fantasy in a private immigration prison
by Mark Dow
Maybe it was cynical courtroom theatre, or maybe the attorney for the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) believed it when he ridiculed the very idea that correctional officers would retaliate against prisoners for conducting a hunger strike to protest their incarceration by the Immigration & Naturalization Service (INS). In his closing for the defense late last year in Aboyade and Dafali v. CCA (US District Court, Newark, NJ, cv-00-2067) lead counsel Brad Simon made repeated, sarcastic references to "wild conspiracy theories about retaliation" and asked jurors to rely on their "common sense" rather than on the "fantasies" offered by plaintiffs that CCA guards had beaten and isolated frustrated detainees. Simon was either unaware that such repression in INS facilities is the norm, or he cleverly chose to rely on the "common sense" that gives a uniformed abuser the benefit of the doubt.
The plaintiffs were suing CCA on the theory that "consistent with corporate practices, [the company] promoted individuals who demonstrated a willingness to use excessive force and harsh behaviors toward the detainee population." CCA attorneys countered that plaintiffs were suing the company rather than individual officers or the INS because they wanted money. Simon told the jury that CCA "has the right not to be extorted." He also reminded them that the plaintiffs were "illegal immigrants."
In 1998, asylum seekers Oluwole Aboyade and Salah Dafali were detained at the INS's Elizabeth, New Jersey, detention center, owned and operated by CCA. Aboyade, a Nigerian, alleged that after his name appeared in the Bergen Record and other papers in connection with a detainee hunger strike, CCA officials put him into a segregation cell that had been covered with human feces by another hunger striker and was told by a CCA official to eat the other protester's shit. INS appears to have ordered Aboyade isolated. CCA officers allegedly hit and kicked him, and one former CCA officer actually testified that Aboyade "ran into the supervisor's hand." All this came in tandem with other CCA taunts - the usual unimaginative stuff about fucking his mother and Africans eating like monkeys.
From seg, Aboyade filed numerous complaints - directed to the INS, but which must go through CCA - and these went unanswered. The seg logbook noted that Aboyade was "very verbal." He continued working on his asylum appeal while denied access to the law library and submitted the appeal from segregation - via his CCA keepers - but somehow it never reached the Board of Immigration Appeals (Aboyade would later be granted political asylum). After about a week, he was moved to another cell in seg and held there for three more weeks. Former CCA/Elizabeth warden Chris Brogna testified that CCA headquarters had been notified of the hunger strike "because this is a high profile facility," but Brogna acknowledged that the protest for which leaders were thrown into isolation was completely nonviolent.
Palestinian Salah Dafali arrived in the United States as a stowaway - but only because he thought the ship he took from Italy was headed for Canada. INS detained him in Elizabeth, refusing to deport him as he requested. CCA officers allegedly threatened to send Dafali to a county jail to be sexually assaulted by other inmates. Dafali met INS detainees who had been held at Elizabeth for two and three years, so he believed it when officers threatened to keep him there for 15. He finally cut his wrists and began having "tantrums," according to Brogna. Dafali too began a hunger strike. He was forced into four-point restraints. While he was restrained, a CCA employee allegedly hit him in the face. The water to Dafali's isolation cell was cut off, according to CCA's own records, and he remained tied down for hours. A former employee of TransCor America - a prison transportation company and subsidiary of CCA - testified that he saw "a bootprint" on Dafali's face shortly after Dafali was assaulted. Plaintiffs alleged that the chief of security "stomped" on Dafali; CCA records called the wound "self-inflicted." "They beat me on the 28th," Dafali told me in the hallway of the New Jersey court. "They transferred me on the 29th." He was detained for a total of 41 months, and remains subject to detention and deportation at the agency's discretion.
In September 2003, after the two week trial before New Jersey district court judge Dennis Cavanaugh, the jury found CCA not guilty of Aboyade's charges. It found CCA guilty of both assault and battery - but not of infliction of emotional distress - against Dafali, and awarded him $1 (one dollar). Aboyade and Dafali were represented by Gaston Fairey and Steve Johnson of Columbia, South Carolina, and by Robert Ritchie of Knoxville, Tennessee. They have entered a motion for a new trial.
As the CCA legal team noted in its defense, the INS could have terminated the company's contract "if INS felt they were not acting properly." Pretending that the lines are clear-cut when in practice they are blurred is integral to the strategy by which both CCA and the INS (now the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or BICE) evade accountability. In a letter to investors, CCA has warned about the "risks" of "public scrutiny"; in connection with this article, BICE public affairs officer Kerry Gill refused to arrange a tour of the Elizabeth detention center, in violation of the agency's own media standards.
Back in 2000, four years after CCA took over the INS Elizabeth prison from the Esmor Corporation in the wake of a detainee uprising, New York Times columnist John Tierney wrote that CCA was "still running it to the satisfaction of the INS." For the moment, the successful collaboration continues.