The roots of a hostage crisis

The angry Cuban detainees in Louisiana are just some of the illegal immigrants trapped in the INS's permanent limbo.

By Robert Bryce - Lisa Tozzi

Published December 20, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Frustrated prisoners, tough immigration policies and money-hungry local officials combined to create the powder keg that erupted last week in St. Martinville, La.

The drama began last Monday when five Cuban-born prisoners armed with homemade weapons seized control of part of the parish jail. They threatened to kill their hostages -- including the warden and three prison guards -- if they were not set free. The siege ended Saturday when the hostage-takers freed their prisoners and surrendered, in exchange for the promise of safe passage to Cuba.

It is an unusual ending to the six-day standoff that shined a spotlight on thousands of otherwise forgotten prisoners -- the roughly 2,400 Cubans caught in a prison twilight zone. In Immigration and Naturalization Service lingo, they are "non-removables" -- inmates who cannot be deported because the U.S. doesn't have diplomatic relations with their countries. Nor can the prisoners be released. In 1996, Congress passed a law requiring the INS to incarcerate criminal aliens until they can be deported.

But for the Cubans in St. Martinville, and more than 3,600 other non-removable inmates from countries like Iraq, Libya, Vietnam, Iran, Syria, Cambodia and Laos, deportation is not an option. Even if they have already served their criminal sentences, non-deportable inmates are forced to serve a second indeterminate sentence -- sometimes for life. One Cuban involved in the St. Martin Parish takeover says he has been in jail 13 years awaiting deportation to Cuba. INS and prison officials have not been able to confirm his story.

INS detainees have become the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. prison population. In 1995, the agency had 6,600 inmates in custody. Today, the agency has more than 17,000. The non-deportable segment of the population is also soaring. A year ago, the INS had 2,800 non-removables. Today it has 3,600.

While the INS says non-deportables make up only a small segment of its detainees, officials admit that their detention creates an important revenue stream for local communities.

The crackdown on detainees has so overwhelmed INS's own detention centers, that the agency is paying local facilities -- like the St. Martin Parish Correctional Center -- millions of dollars each year to board its prisoners. But the local jails are often ill-equipped to deal with the inmates, and that lack of preparedness likely contributed to the current standoff, say human rights watchdogs and immigration advocates.

"You see in letter after letter from prisoners the level of frustration, the level of depression that comes from years of indefinite detention," says Allyson Collins, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. The Washington, D.C.-based international human rights organization issued a lengthy report in September 1998 titled "Locked Away: Immigration Detainees in Local Jails in the United States," which chastised the INS for warehousing its prisoners in local jails for indefinite periods of time. The organization contends that along with substantial sums of money, the INS is surrendering the welfare of indefinite detainees to officials of small-town jails which in most cases, are not subject to a uniform set of guidelines and are not regularly monitored.

In response to pleas from inmates across the country, Human Rights Watch spent 18 months investigating the INS detention system. Monitors visited 14 jails in seven states and received letters from and interviewed more than 200 INS detainees, including detainees in St. Martin Parish Correctional Center. (Human Rights Watch investigators were not allowed to tour the jail, however.)

What the group discovered was troubling. Detainees cited the denial of appropriate medical care, lack of outdoor exercise, correctional officers without language or other skills necessary to deal with INS prisoners. They also mentioned a shortage of law materials and reading materials in foreign languages, excessive or inappropriate discipline, commingling with accused or criminal inmates, and isolation from family and friends through restrictive telephone, correspondence and visitation policies.

Immigration detainees, whether held in INS detention facilities or in local jails, have a right to legal counsel, but holding them in local jails makes it more difficult for them to obtain legal assistance. And since INS prisoners can be frequently and unexpectedly shuffled from one local jail to another, depending on available bed space, maintaining consistent legal representation can be nearly impossible.

Because the INS doesn't have space for its burgeoning inmate population, it has farmed them out. Its jails of choice are often in small towns and counties in Louisiana and Texas, where rents range between $30 and $55 a day, per prisoner. That's cheaper than elsewhere -- the INS pays an average of $58 per day, per detainee, with rates running as high as $100 a day in some places. The agency pays $45 per day to the St. Martin Parish Sheriffs Office to house each of its approximately 60 prisoners.

This system of farming out detainees to area jails creates a harsh environment for non-removables, Human Rights Watch concluded. While INS enforces minimum standards in its own detention centers and privately contracted facilities, there are few standards for local jails. The result has been inconsistent, inadequate treatment for some detainees. The only laws or regulations regarding detention conditions for INS detainees are four minimal requirements contained in federal regulations: 24-hour supervision, compliance with safety and emergency codes, food service and emergency medical care. No other laws or regulations are in place for facilities holding INS detainees. The loose regulatory environment has fostered an active market for counties eager to make money off of federal prisoners.

A survey of Texas counties with INS contracts conducted last year for the Austin Chronicle found communities making as much as $6 million per year by housing INS prisoners. It's a windfall that has helped stabilize or lower taxes in some areas and enabled several counties, including Comal County and Denton County, to embark on major capital building projects. These projects include prison expansions, which local officials say are planned at least partly with future INS detainees in mind.

And Texas is not alone. St. Martin Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Capt. Audrey Thibodeaux told reporters recently that the reason the county is holding INS inmates is that, "It's a source of revenue." Before the hostage crisis began, 60 of the 160 prisoners being held in the St. Martin jail were non-removable Cubans.

The hostage situation in St. Martinville is the latest incident in which frustrated INS prisoners have lashed out at the system. In March of last year, INS detainees in El Centro, Calif., assaulted security officers, barricaded themselves in their barracks and burned mattresses. In June of 1998, 34 INS detainees were moved out of a Florida jail after they alleged that they had been mistreated by officers at the Jackson County jail. In 1987, Cuban inmates being held by the INS rioted at facilities in Oakdale, La., and in Atlanta.

INS officials contend that the non-removable population is a relatively small part of the 170,000 prisoners who will pass through INS custody this year. "The average length of detention in INS custody for a criminal alien is about 45 days. Our population turns over rather quickly," said INS spokesman Russ Bergeron. In addition, Bergeron said his agency is trying to move as many non-removable inmates into more secure federal facilities. But it is being constrained by the federal budget. At present, about a quarter of the INS's non-removable prisoners are being held by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The federal prison system is "better able to handle them and better able to meet the needs of people in long-term custody," said Bergeron, who added that the INS plans to transfer an additional 1,000 non-removable prisoners to the Federal Bureau of Prisons during the current fiscal year.

But even this INS project won't do much to quiet critics. In its report last year, Human Rights Watch specifically condemned the U.S.'s indeterminate sentencing policy, saying it is "clearly prohibited by international law." It also said that "detention becomes arbitrary when detainees, who are not serving a criminal sentence, do not know when they will be released and have no genuine mechanism to challenge the indefinite nature of their detention."

Two international human rights documents prohibit the use of indefinite detention, including the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which was ratified by the members of the United Nations in 1948. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by the United States in 1992, also prohibits the practice.

Robert Bryce

Robert Bryce is the managing editor of Energy Tribune. His latest book is Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of "Energy Independence."

MORE FROM Robert Bryce

Lisa Tozzi

Lisa Tozzi is a freelance writer in New York City.

MORE FROM Lisa Tozzi

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cuba Immigration Immigration Reform