Inside the people pound
It looks like a warehouse. In a way, that's exactly what it is. But the low, windowless structure on 30th Avenue in Aurora doesn't contain car parts, refrigerators, or computers ready for distribution on the global market. It warehouses human beings awaiting shipment to far-flung corners of the planet.
The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service detention center holds about 340 people on any given day. Most of them will spend only a couple of weeks in INS custody. But some spend months or even years there without ever having committed a crime. Some have no idea when they'll be free again or where they'll end up. For them, time spent in INS custody is wrought with uncertainty, fear and desperation.
Critics say the system is dehumanizing and subjects people who haven't committed crimes to the same kind of treatment given criminals, while government officials say they're doing their best to handle a complicated situation involving the thousands of people who come illegally to the United States each year.
Not a jail?
"It's a nice place," says Captain Dawn Johnson, chief of security for Wackenhut, the private company that manages the detention center on behalf of the INS. She speaks into a radio, and the door before us unlocks with a click.
We've come to tour the facility and to speak with Colleen Brown, a detainee who called Boulder Weekly in April hoping to air complaints against the INS. Accompanied by John Good, the INS supervisory deportation officer, Johnson leads us down one cinderblock hallway to another. Uniformed Wackenhut employees watch from control rooms.
We see the intake area, where new detainees are processed upon arrival. We see the fully secured recreation areas-outdoor areas roughly the size of basketball courts that are fenced in on all sides, including the top. We see the medical area, where detainees are screened and treated for a range of medical and dental problems ranging from lice to tuberculosis. We see the laundry room, the kitchens and the library, which offers a wealth of legal resources as well as reams of donated fiction. We see the Special Management Unit, where problem detainees are locked down in small cells 23 hours a day. We see the dorms, which, apart from their rows of cots where detainees sleep, resemble prison dayrooms with tables, chairs and a couple of televisions.
Good and Johnson remind us several times that this is not a jail or prison, and no one is here to be punished. While 65 percent have some kind of criminal record, ranging from petty offenses to serious ones, their cases are resolved. Detainees are here because they're not U.S. citizens. Some are awaiting the outcome of their immigration cases. Others are waiting for deportation.
Still, it's hard to distinguish this facility from a prison. The most obvious difference is that guards carry no weapons. In addition, posters listing a 1-800 number detainees can call to report abuses hang on the walls.
But, like prisoners, detainees are strip-searched on arrival. Their personal belongings down to their last stitch of clothing are taken away and put into storage, and they are dressed in orange uniforms identical to those used in prisons and jails. They are allowed no direct contact with family members who come to visit, but speak via telephone from opposite sides of sealed windows.
Their days are spent locked behind heavy metal doors in dorms where no one has privacy, not even on the toilet. As we pass one cluster of men's dorms, dozens of curious detainees peer at us through large windows, pressing against the thick glass like fish in an aquarium at feeding time. Surveillance cameras are everywhere.
Some of the people here have already received final deporation orders. The INS has 90 days to return these people to their homelands. For Mexican nationals, the deportation process might entail an overnight stay, as Mexico and the United States have an agreement that allows for quick repatriation.
For people from other countries, like Vietnam or Cambodia, the process could take months, depending on how quickly the other nation responds. The United States must first obtain permission and proper documentation for the detainees, then must buy a ticket and schedule the actual deportation. In some cases, the INS is required to escort the detainee home, a requirement that can cause scheduling delays. In cases where a country refuses to accept a detainee, the government may eventually be forced to release that person.
Other people arrive at the detention center at the beginning of the deportation process. They must first appear before an immigration judge, who will hear and decide their cases. Detainees can appeal the judge's decision and follow the appeal process through the courts until they exhaust their options or win their case. If they choose to fight deportation, they could be in INS custody for years.
The bulk of the detainees are always male. Only 14 women are here today. The causes for this discrepancy are many. Men are more likely to cross the border to work, leaving their families at home. Also, as males commit crimes at a higher rate than females, criminal immigrants are more likely to be male. In addition, the INS often releases women on their own recognizance if they have children to care for, keeping their husbands in detention for good measure. This prevents the government from having to place children in foster care.
Johnson leads us to the women's dorm, where half a dozen Mexican women watch television. Toward the back of the room, a few women sit on their cots. One of them is the person we've come to interview.
Johnson introduces us to Colleen Brown, a tiny woman whose hair is twisted into four unlikely braids. Brown shifts nervously and glances surreptitiously at Good and Johnson.
"I'm afraid now," she says.
I ask her to be brave and tell her two of us have come to hear whatever she has to tell us.
"I'm not feeling so brave now," she says.
Colleen grew up in a violent, crime-ridden neighborhood in Jamaica, the fifth of 10 children her mother had by seven different fathers. Her neighborhood is a place where shooting deaths and crimes of all kinds are staggeringly common. But the crime that drove her from her homeland was much more personal: incest.
One of Colleen's older half-brothers raped her regularly from the time she was 13. As a result, she became pregnant, and her mother insisted she have an illegal, back-alley abortion.
After she got married, she and her husband decided to leave her past and her half-brother behind and made their way into Canada, using false documents. They've lived in Canada for 12 years and are now parents to two boys, Travis, 10, and Tevain, 8, who are Canadian citizens. Both boys are autistic and receive special education from the Canadian government. But Colleen hasn't seen the boys since Feb. 2, when she crossed the border into the United States.
Sitting in a conference room in her orange garb, Colleen tells us she came to the United States looking for a warmer place to live. She had planned to scout Phoenix, Ariz., for possible housing but was pulled off a Greyhound bus outside Grand Junction by agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency. Two other women were pulled off the bus with her.
Colleen says she has no idea why the DEA targeted her. But DEA agents say that, between the three of them, the women were carrying an enormous quantity of marijuana.
"It was not my marijuana," she says. "I've never done marijuana in my life."
Colleen freely admits she broke the law, however. The documents she used to cross the border from Canada to the United States were falsified. Because she believed that crime meant she'd be deported no matter what, Colleen says, she agreed to plead guilty to the drug charge. If she hadn't pled guilty, she would have had to wait until September for her trial, which meant even more time away from her children. She says her decision to agree to a plea bargain was also influenced by advice from an employee at the detention center, who allegedly told her she'd risk serving a year in prison if the jury found her guilty.
All she wanted, she says, was to get back to her children as quickly as possible. A quick deportation process, even if it meant admitting to a crime she didn't commit, seemed the best solution, she says.
But the process has been anything but quick, she says. Claiming to speak on behalf of the other female detainees, Colleen says people are spending far too much time locked up.
"My consulate told me this is one of the offices they have trouble releasing us (from)," she says. "When you're sitting here... not knowing when you're going home is a little frustrating."
But it's more than a little frustrating for Colleen, who breaks into tears when she mentions her children.
Since her arrest in February, Colleen has been moved back and forth between the INS detention center and the Mesa and Montrose County jails. During that time she has tried to stay on top of her case by calling her consulate and writing to INS officials via kites, official forms used by inmates in jails and prisons-and INS detainees-to communicate with officials. In her kites, Colleen says she asked the INS do whatever it could to speed up her deportation so that she could be reunited with her children. She even offered to pay her own way out of the country and sought voluntary deportation.
Her persistence was not appreciated by a former supervisory deportation officer, who allegedly called her into his office twice to reprimand her for making too many calls to the Jamaican consulate and writing too many kites. Colleen says the officer, who is still with the INS but no longer at the detention center, grew confrontational and called her a "liar" and a "drug-dealer."
Colleen says she lost her temper.
"I said, 'Don't call me a drug-dealer, because I haven't had my day in court.'"
Shortly thereafter, she was transferred to Mesa County jail to face the drug charge, a turn of events she blames on the officer. Someone in the court told her the INS had called and asked Mesa County officials to resolve the case. Colleen had expected it to slip through the cracks, as she was being deported anyway.
As she speaks, it becomes clear that the source of much of Colleen's frustration is the result of not understanding INS and U.S. policies. As we watch, Good explains to Colleen that the drug charge made it impossible for her to be given the option of voluntary deportation. He also explains that it is standard INS policy to let other law-enforcement agencies know when a detainee is going to be deported so that the other agencies can tie up any loose ends before deportation occurs.
It was not retribution, Good says. It was standard procedure.
Good refers to Colleen as a "criminal alien," words that conjure up an image of E.T. gone bad. But in the immigration community, criminal alien is a technical term used to describe a non-citizen who has been convicted of a crime.
This brings Colleen to her most desperate fear. Because she agreed to a plea bargain on the drug charge, she could face big obstacles when she leaves Jamaica and tries to get back into Canada. Her mugshot and finger prints are now available to the law-enforcement community, as is her criminal record.
If she can't get back in, she'll face an agonizing choice: Bring her boys to Jamaica, where autistic children are institutionalized and receive no special treatment-and where they would be exposed to her half-brother-or never see them again.
"My only concern is for my children."
A dehumanizing system
Few detainees in INS custody have legal counsel. While the highly motivated and well-educated can make use of the INS legal library, most spend their time confused and wondering what will happen next.
Misunderstandings and miscommunication is perhaps inherent in a facility which combines multiple languages and cultures with high-stakes legal battles and issues of personal freedom. Most communication is handled impersonally, through kites and announcements about court dates that are posted in the dorms each morning.
"The uncertainty-that's what kills you," Colleen says. "It's the not knowing."
Good acknowledges that it's impossible for him to meet for two hours with each detainee and go over their concerns item by item as he did with Colleen while we were there. Most people have just one question they want answered, he says: "When am I going home, and is my passport here?"
While staff is happy to inform people when their documentation arrives, they are prohibited from telling them when they're leaving the country. In the past, detainees were told their departure date, and family members sometimes came to the airport for tearful farewells that posed a security risk for INS officers, Good says.
Laura Lichter, a local attorney who practices immigration law, says time in detention can be frustrating for another reason. The INS facility doesn't have some of the amenities common to prisons and jails.
"They're going to go crazy because that place is not designed for long-term detention," Lichter says. "Detention is being seen as the solution, when detention is part of the problem."
Lichter says lack of privacy is one complaint she encounters fairly frequently among clients. Dorms have no private space, and some detainees find the noise level hard to handle. As a result, some people ask to be placed in lockdown in the Special Management Unit, she says.
But, despite INS efforts to play down the institutional nature of their detention facilities, the truth is inescapable.
"A detention center by any other name would be a jail, and that's what it is," she says. "The only way it's not a jail is that the reason for detention is related to effecting their removal from the United States should that become necessary."
Still, the facility in Aurora is one of the nicer ones, Lichter says.
"The types of abuses we hear of that take place in other INS facilities don't happen here," she says. Those abuses include rape of female detainees.
Lichter says she decided to practice immigration law because she found it compelling.
"I have a huge impact on my clients' lives," she says.
Of Colleen's case, Lichter says non-citizens charged with drug crimes face a hard road. The United States has a zero-tolerance policy toward drug-related offenses, even offenses as small as possession of a pipe. The result is often messy, she says.
"It's not always a fair system," she says. "It separates families."
Laurie Herndon, who provides pro-bono legal assistance to undocumented immigrants through El Centro Amistad in Boulder, is also critical. Particularly repugnant to Herndon are the no-contact visits.
"There's so many families where one person is going to be deported and there's no physical contact," Herndon says. "They're doing to be deported, and they can't embrace."
Good says they sometimes make exceptions to the no-contact rule if the detainee or a member of their family petitions for a contact visit. The facility even allows marriages on site. There are security concerns, however.
"It seems a very inhuman system to me," she says. "It's very dehumanizing."
Meanwhile, Good reports that Colleen will be deported to Jamaica soon.
Colleen says she'll have to spend the first night in her family home, where her sexually abusive half-brother still lives. Then she'll try to make it on her own. When she's on her feet, her husband will send her boys to Jamaica for a visit.
"Going back is going to be hard. I'm concerned for the safety of my sons," Colleen says. "There's lots and lots of concerns, but my first priority is to get my freedom. After I get my freedom, if I have to sleep on the streets, I'll be OK."
Boulder Weekly intern John Peabody contributed to this story.
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