Sunday, December 05, 2004

Detainee abuse in NJ

Another piece I wrote from today's NYT NJ weekly, also not on the web. NPR broke this story in November.


IN a pattern of abuse over the past three years, prison officials allowed guard dogs to intimidate, attack, and in at least two instances bite immigrant detainees at the Passaic County Jail here overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, according to former prisoners and internal jail documents.

Last week, federal officials said they would no longer send detainees to facilities that use dogs to patrol their jails. ''It has been our determination that we will not endorse the use of K-9's to manage detention populations,'' said Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, adding that ''there are other mechanisms in place that will work just as effectively, if not more so.''

Moreover, the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the bureau, said it had begun to review the treatment of immigrant detainees nationwide.

Responding to the federal agency's concerns, officials at the Passaic County Jail said that dogs would no longer patrol inside the jail. ''We're going through a trial period,'' said Bill Maer, a spokesman for Gerald Speziale, the county sheriff. ''But the department will not agree to anything that even remotely jeopardizes the safety of the personnel that work in the facility or the safety of inmates. We'll work with the contracting agency in a manner that works for both agencies. They had asked for some modifications in our policies, and we're certainly accommodating them.''

While the use of police dogs at jails and prisons is not unusual, their activity is largely limited to searching for drugs and explosives. Currently, 81 jails and prisons around the country that house federal immigrant detainees employ the use of dogs, while only 7 of the facilities use them to control prisoners. As for the Passaic County Jail, the warden, Charles Meyers, said 20 dogs, mostly German shepherds, had patrolled the facility for the past 24 years.

Although Mr. Knocke did not deny that incidents had occurred, he said that the timing of the announcement and reports of abuse by National Public Radio were ''a matter of coincidence'' -- even though the new policy was announced a day after the first of two reports were broadcast.

Immigration advocates, lawyers and civil rights groups said they had been questioning the treatment of the detainees for several years. The prisoners are held for a variety of reasons, ranging from overstaying visas to minor drug possession charges to committing major felonies -- and are awaiting deportation.

In one incident involving the guard dogs and witnessed by 10 corrections officers, an internal report from the Passaic County Sheriff's Department said, a 29-year-old Cuban inmate, Rosendo Lewis-Oropesa, had raised a clenched fist at an officer, cursed, and tried to swing and kick at him.

According to the report, ''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.''

Mr. Lewis-Oropesa, who has lived in Miami, Manhattan and Brooklyn and has served time for armed robbery, is still being held at the Passaic County Jail. He was transferred there this spring from Riker's Island.

In a telephone interview from the jail, he said that the dispute arose around 8 a.m. in May when he questioned guards who ordered that televisions be turned off because not all of the detainees were present for roll call. But he denied making threats or raising his fist at the officers.

''He pulled me out with nine officers, that's when the beatings started,'' said Mr. Lewis-Oropesa of one officer. ''At one point one guy was twisting my leg, twisting my foot. So I got up. That's when they grabbed me by my right hand, pinned me up against the wall with my face to the wall. My left side was exposed. And that's when the K-9 officer said. 'Let him bite him. Let him bite him.' He had no reason to let the dog bite me. I was restrained. The dog bit me on my leg, and I put my arm in the way and he clamped down on my arm and I started screaming. And I heard people in the cells going 'Oh my god.' And they said, 'Stop resisting!' I said, 'I'm not resisting!' And they threw me on the ground and put their knee on my back.''

In February, another detainee, Luis Valdez, says he was bitten in the back. Still, Mr. Lewis-Oropesa said that conditions at the jail improved after the incident involving him occurred.

Despite the decision to stop using the dogs, officials at the Passaic County Jail defended their use, and said the age and condition of the jail necessitated their presence.

''We utilized the dogs as part of our operation because of the fact we have an institution that has deficiencies, and the utilization of dogs worked into that overall plan,'' said Mr. Maer, the spokesman for the jail.

Mr. Meyers, the warden, put it this way: ''There's a lot of question as to whether or not he should have been bitten, but you have to realize this is not an easy job. We're not dealing with Boy Scouts at a summer camp. There are hardened criminals here.''

A report last year issued by the Justice Department's inspector general gave the facility high marks and said that it ''had much different (and significantly less harsh) detention experiences'' than those in Brooklyn, where conditions have been described as grim.

In addition to the biting incidents, many former inmates spoke of surprise late-night inspections, or what officials here call ''shakedowns.'' During those inspections, they said, dogs were brought into the cells and the inmates were ordered out of their beds. For several minutes, they said, officers would search their beds and clothing for contraband while officers handling the dogs would often loosen their grip on the leash and allow the dogs to snap.

Dogs 'Come Rushing up'

''They'd come at 2, usually 1,'' Hemnauth Mohabir, 43, an air-conditioning repairman and former detainee now living in Guyana, said in a telephone interview, ''and the dogs would come rushing up on you. They'd have the dog jump in and you couldn't turn your head around to see what's going on. The dog is going back and forth, back and forth, and is jumping and growling at you.''

Akhil Sahchdeva, a 32-year-old Indian national now living in Toronto and who was in the jail from December 2001 to May 2002, said in a telephone interview that the dogs were released and allowed to snap just a foot from his face before being yanked back ''just to make you afraid or terrorized.''

''The dogs used to bark in your face, and you'd get really scared,'' Mr. Sahchdeva said. ''I remember everyone was sleeping. Then suddenly, officers stormed in, they told us to get outside, and the dogs started barking on us.''

Mr. Sahchdeva also said that convicted felons were regularly housed with immigrant detainees, and that on one occasion he was punched in the face by one of them while the guards stood by and watched. In 2003, the Justice Department inspector general's report concluded that many of the detainees were mingled with violent criminals, a violation of detention standards.

Mr. Mohabir's former attorney, Bryan Lonegan of the New York Legal Aid, said that on one visit to the jail, he was startled when a dog snapped at his face. Later, Mr. Lonegan said, he saw the same dog with a K-9 officer, who allowed it to snap at a detainee mopping the floor.

''The biggest complaint was always the dogs,'' Mr. Lonegan said.

For their part, jail officials contended that there was no policy to intimidate the detainees.

''Yes, the dogs bark,'' Mr. Meyers said. ''But we never use them to terrorize people, as has been alleged. This isn't a torture chamber. This is a modern-day jail.''

Mr. Maer, the spokesman for Mr. Speziale, said he was skeptical of some of the claims. ''I'm only going to draw conclusions on real evidence or facts,'' he said. ''Just because Detainee One allegedly says that Detainee Two said, 'Yeah, that happened,' doesn't mean it happened. In the past, when we've had cases where our personnel have acted inappropriately, they have been charged internally or criminally.''

Brian Bendl, the deputy warden, said that while four corrections officers had been brought up on criminal charges in the past three years, none had to do with the current accusations, and that the jail did not plan to discipline any of the officers involved in the recent events.

'A Great Deterrent'

The Passaic County Sheriff's Web site offers the following explanation about the presence of dogs at the jail: ''K-9 teams escort inmates on all mass movements and otherwise patrol all areas throughout the facility. Their mere presence is a great deterrent to would-be troublemakers or the infiltration of narcotics.''

The Department of Homeland Security, formed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, enters into what are called Intergovernmental Service Agreements with counties to hold federal immigration detainees in local facilities. The federal government pays for local governments to house the detainees until they are deported, and has oversight of the treatment of detainees.

The Passaic facility, built in 1956, has about 1,900 beds and houses, on average, around 200 detainees for which it is reimbursed $77 a day, though that total exceeded 400 in the aftermath of Sept. 11. According to some detainees, the alleged abuse has not been limited to the Passaic County Jail, but has also occurred at the Hudson County Correction Center in Kearny.

An Egyptian immigrant, Sadek Awaed was beaten severely by a guard in March. In a telephone interview from Egypt, Mr. Awaed, a former Jersey City cab driver, said the incident began when another detainee, Fathi Ganmi, began arguing with a guard. The guard began beating Mr. Ganmi, Mr. Awaed said, and then ordered everyone back into their cells. He said he started to make his way back to his cell, but was slowed by recent knee surgery.

''He punched me in the face and in my lips,'' said Mr. Awaed. I said, 'Give me one second, cuz.'''

He said the guard cursed at him and said, ''Stop faking.''

''He pushed me down on the floor,'' Mr. Awaed said. ''He started kicking me. There were 12, 15 of them, but 2 was holding me down. He was kicking me in the face and in my neck. I said, 'Do whatever you want, but stay away from knee, I just had an operation.' After they finished beating me up, they pushed me against the wall. When I fell down I was dizzy, and blood started coming out of my nose and mouth.''

Treated for Injuries

Hospital records show that Mr. Awaed and Mr. Ganmi were treated for wounds that day --Mr. Awaed for injuries to the neck and back and Mr. Ganmi for injuries to the testicular area and a chipped tooth.

Hudson officials say that Mr. Awaed had been a problematic inmate, and had been placed in confinement two weeks before the incident for trying to incite a riot.

A spokesman for the county, Jim Kennelly, said that an internal review of the incident had just been completed, and that the two guards directly involved would be dismissed, and those who witnessed the beating would be retrained.

''Everyone is very displeased and upset that this happened,'' Mr. Kennelly said.But he insisted that it was only ''one incident'' and the case should not be interpreted as evidence of a chronic problem at the jail ''It's an unfortunate black eye,'' Mr. Kennelly said, ''because these guys lost control of themselves.''

Permalink posted by Jonathan : 1:11 PM

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