The Horror of Detention Centers is Making a Comeback

I can’t get the pictures out of my mind. The barracks. The women with babies and bundles disembarking from buses. The guards. The packed dining halls and inadequate living quarters. The sons in US military uniform.

They are, of course, the pictures of Japanese Americans interned at Manzanar and other internment camps during WWII, many of them now on display at the Smithsonian’s national Museum of American History in Washington, DC.

Seventy-five years ago, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order authorizing the imprisonment of Japanese Americans, about 120,000 of them – men, women, children, elders - were held in ten camps across the country where appalling conditions prevailed. Toilets lacked privacy, barracks were filled with rows of cots, guards with rifles patrolled from towers, barbed wire surrounded the desolate landscape, and fear was ever-present.

“It was like Nazi Germany concentration camps,” recalls a woman who was interned at the age of seven. “We were constantly under threat if we went near the barbed wire fences.”

Today many people are rightly worried that the growth of “detention centers” to be run by large private corporations that profit hugely from operating such centers will be used as holding camps for immigrants awaiting deportation. They have every reason to be afraid following Donald Trump’s recent executive order and his promise to remove “bad duded” quickly and completely.

And anyone who thinks the recent roundups aimed at capturing undocumented immigrants aren’t an escalation needs to think again.  Recently, passengers on a domestic flight arriving at JFK airport in New York were not allowed to disembark before showing their IDs.  An undocumented immigrant diagnosed with a brain tumor while in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody was forcibly returned to a detention center from her hospital bed in Texas. She told reporters her ankles and wrists were tied as she complained of severe pain. Neither her family nor her lawyers were allowed to communicate with her. It’s pure Kafka.

According to the ACLU, the U.S. immigration detention system locks hundreds of thousands of immigrants away unnecessarily every year. These detainees are subject to brutal and inhumane conditions, confined sometimes indefinitely, at huge costs to American taxpayers. Mothers and children are torn from each other in many cases. No regulations or enforceable standards are in place so that medical and mental health treatment, access to telephones, access to legal services, and even to religious services are denied. And many of the people trapped in such Draconian settings are lawful permanent residents and asylum seekers.

Such detention centers have grown exponentially in recent years and more are planned as ICE turns to contracted facilities such as for-profit prison corporations. These facilities operate outside the purview of public oversight and accountability and they have limited, often untrained staff, which translates into poor care and treatment of inmates, in order to maximize shareholder returns. They have, ACLU says, “a particularly grisly record of detainee abuse and neglect.”

Human Rights Watch Reports that indefinite detention of asylum-seeking mothers and their children takes a severe psychological toll. Many of them report serious depression, suicidal thoughts, and other symptoms of major psychological trauma.

Detention of innocent people is not new in America as we know from the Japanese American experience. In another example, after 9-11, several innocent men who had overstayed their visas were detained, abused, and otherwise badly mistreated because they were suspected of being radical Muslims. Several of these men who had been detained for months or in some cases years sued the Justice Department’s Attorney General (John Ashcroft), the FBI director (Robert Mueller) and several other government officials for violation of their fourth amendment rights. In January of this year, their case reached the Supreme Court. With Justices Kagan and Sotomayor having to recuse themselves, only six justices, four of them right-leaning, will decide the case.

It’s a case that brings together the Muslim Ban, the increasingly brutal roundups of immigrants and asylum-seekers, the issues surrounding private “detention” centers, and the role of the courts in addressing and ending law enforcement transgressions, especially in a Trump administration. Let’s hope the courts, at every level, get it right. The very future of our nation, which prides itself on being dedicated to freedom and human rights, depends on nothing more vital than a sound, well-reasoned, compassionate and moral judicial system.

 

 

Is America a Failed State?

As we say in New England, it’s been a wicked bad time lately. What with Ebola, ISIS, climate change induced weather crises, the situation in Ferguson, MO, the Secret Service scandals and more, we all feel shaken and fearful for the future.

 

It’s not only Americans who are feeling less secure and more frightened about what lies ahead. Worldwide, there is a growing sense of insecurity, anxiety and vulnerability. Still, I can’t help noticing the ways in which the U.S. is moving in dangerous directions, revealing flaws so serious that one wonders what separates us from countries that we like to call “developing countries.”  “American Exceptionalism” – a term that smacks of superiority – may no longer imply what is best in our national culture.  Now it may stand for all that is exceptional in negative ways in American life and politics.

 

Think about the growing corruption in our electoral system, typical in “less developed countries.” The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision dealt a terrible blow to our political process when it ruled that essentially corporations are people. The rise of Super PACS and the power afforded individuals like the Koch brothers will have alarming consequences in the 20016 elections.

 

Anonymous political giving is growing exponentially. Voters are increasingly accosted by advertising from groups with seemingly benign names and dubious agendas.  These groups are required to disclose their finances only on federal tax returns, and the names of donors are exempted.  Approximately 55 percent of broadcast advertising has been paid for by groups like this recently.  Then there is gerrymandering and changes – attempted or achieved - to voting laws designed to keep certain people from voting the way some folks want them to. 

 

Then there’s police brutality and our deeply broken justice system. I’m not only talking about what happened in Ferguson or St. Louis or other places where black kids are shot to death by white cops, which obviously has a lot to do with the abysmal state of race relations in this country.

 

I’m talking about stories that seldom make the news, although the case of Lisa Mahone and her boyfriend Jamal Jones did get coverage. Mahone and Jones were rushing to the hospital where her mother was dying when they were stopped by police because Lisa wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. Before the whole thing was over, police had drawn their guns and Jamal was tasered because he didn’t have an ID and was too afraid to get out of the car.   All of this occurred with two terrified children in the back seat of the car.

 

The police are simply out of control. They have turned into militarized forces and SWAT teams because they’ve been trained to act like they work in a war zone by people who have done exactly that, many of whom are now cops on the beat. 

 

Police departments and drug task forces have been allowed to take millions of dollars from Americans under federal civil forfeiture laws with which they buy Humvees, automatic weapons, night-vision scopes and sniper gear, according to the Washington Post. The Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program allows local and state police to keep up to 80 percent of assets they seize, even without charging anyone with a crime. In order to retrieve their assets, victims must prove that the seized money or property was acquired legally. Mainly used by the Drug Enforcement Administration or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, there have been 62,000 cash seizures since 9/11 without search warrants or indictments. 

 

As for the justice system, take the case of teenager Courtney B. who was falsely accused by another teen of unwanted sexual touching, an accusation invented by a mother who wanted to sue a school district for money.  Courtney was arrested in Arizona without due process, held without bail for 66 days, and wrongfully convicted of child molestation by a judge. Sentenced to 11 years, she is required to register as a sex offender upon release. Despite proof that the alleged crime never happened, the county attorney, disbarred after copious alleged ethics violations, refused to admit he’d made a mistake. So this young woman languishes in jail - like so many others with similarly tragic stories, and many exonerees who finally make it out.

 

Clearly, we are failing as an exceptional, First World, democratic country in many ways.

 

In a recent column in The New York Times related to the Secret Service debacle, Thomas Friedman put his finger on something important and relevant. “Just look at Washington these days and listen to what politicians are saying,” he wrote. “Watch how they spend their time. You can’t help but ask: Do these people care a whit about the country anymore?”

 

We should all be asking that question with all due speed and gravity before we too become known as a “less developed country” struggling with political and moral corruption.