Thursday, February 4, 2010

"The Prison at Varick Street": Coming Soon, to an ICE Lock-Up Near You. (ICE Censors Previews)

The problem with locking up people indefinitely who have not committed a crime is that....

Okay, so at this point there are several million answers, at least one for every single individual who has been ripped away from his or her home and community and locked up by this government, exacerbated because men and women with guns and uniforms who break the rules know they can hide the violations from the public in real-time and later deport the evidence.

At least in prisons, the convicts stay in your country and you know they might figure out a way to get your badge, or worse.

Civil rights attorneys and journalists have been diligent in exposing the abuses that occur in these places, but as the articles and reports below indicate, it's a little like Whack-a-Mole. The government shuts down one evil facility but then opens up two more.

The public finds out about San Pedro's deadly mold and human rights violations? The ACLU wins some lawsuits? No problem. Just stick the people held there in another miserable place, perhaps a basement of a federal building, B-18 in Los Angeles.

People learn about the Hutto Detention Center treating kids like felons? The government's right on it. Close it down and lock the kids up in Pennsylvania, or better yet, steal them from their parents and place them in foster homes, as attorneys in southern Arizona observe is now happening when mothers are placed in detention centers.

Folks protesting at a NY detention center and filing a lawsuit because of poor conditions?

Open Varick. That's right. OPEN Varick. See for yourself, from an amazing, must-read 1993 ACLU report that appears in PART ONE and PART TWO:

The recent protests about Varick and the plan to shut it down, as well as the reports and reports on reports and reports on reports on reports since the 1980s reveal two things:
1) This particular failure of self-governance is an embarrassment to the U.S. Constitution and the concept of democracy. It is disgusting that this irrational and cruel system is so impervious to the rule of law.
2) We gotta make the Moles feel like they are surrounded by bright sunshine and that everywhere these creepy beasts pop up it is easy for journalists and anyone else to show up, making ICE lock-ups so queasy about their very existence that they die out or mutate into something a democracy can live with.

This means telling ICE its rules on visiting detention centers and press tours have got to go. Partly that's been done (it's called the First Amendment) but it needs to be followed and if it's not followed, then we need to make them follow it.

Right now ICE stonewalls on allowing press tours of any detention center and, in the case of Varick, simply prohibits it altogether. Varick lets in other groups for tours, just not the press, and that's unconstitutional discrimination. That's the policy implemented by ICE Propagandist Richard Rocha, who, according to two ICE agents, denied my request for a press tour.

(He also has said, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, "ICE does not detain U.S. citizens," a lie sufficient to earn him this special, though not unique, title.)

And yes, the government locking up U.S. citizens at Varick also was happening in 1993:

Deja Vu All Over Again

"A startling petition arrived at the New York City Bar Association in October 2008, signed by 100 men, all locked up without criminal charges in the middle of Manhattan. In vivid if flawed English, it described cramped, filthy quarters where dire medical needs were ignored and hungry prisoners were put to work for $1 a day."

--Nina Bernstein, "Immigrant Jail Tests U.S. View of Legal Access," New York Times (November 1, 2009).

I bet Lucas Guttentag, Judy Rabinovitz and Lee Gelernt -- all still with the ACLU Immigrant Rights Project, which published the 1993 report -- do not find this petition that startling. They were moved to write their report because in the spring of 1990, guess who approached them with their problems?

Right, the Varick Street detainees.

(I was at Varick Street recently and a woman visiting her boyfriend told me he was concerned about a Chinese cellmate. He didn't have anyone on the outside sending him money and without being able to buy snacks from a commissary account people go hungry.)

Well, at least the government might do something, right?

"In response to ongoing reports of abuse, INS Commissioner Doris Meissner appointed a Citizens' Advisory Panel in March to review complaints. It is still too soon to gauge the impact this 15-member group will have on an entrenched system."

Well, not really.

The passage is from a terrific piece of investigative journalism Alisa Solomon wrote for the Village Voice. It appeared on August 8, 1998.

12 years later it seems fair to say that the group had no impact.

Still Groundhog Day. Again

[D]ozens of protesters gathered outside a Greenwich Village detention center on Thursday to demand the release of Jean Montrevil, a Haitian immigrant rights advocate and a community leader in New York who has been detained since December while awaiting deportation.

Kirk Semple, "Demonstrators Press for Haitian Advocate’s Release," The New York Times, January 14, 2010. article in The New York Times,

That was now.

This is then:

On Sunday, 150 people gathered outside the Immigration and Naturalization Service's detention center on Varick Street in Manhattan to protest the inhumane treatment of those held inside.

This is from an opinion piece Alisa Solomon wrote that appeared in the New York Times on Saturday, June 11, 1994: "The Prison on Varick Street." Solomon's essay describes the plight of Lulseged Dhine, who had been held at Varick for four years. At 4:30 a.m. he was awakened and sent to Arizona, according to INS, to "accommodate his request for fresh air."

What's Next? OR Next Year's Punchline?

26 years later, it seems the government is listening, sort of. Semple writes: "[F]ederal immigration officials announced that they would close the center, in part because it lacked access to open-air recreation."

New York Times staff writer Nina Bernstein also had her request for a tour turned down -- she writes about this in "Immigrant Jail Tests U.S. View of Legal Access," November 1, 2009.

And, yes, in the 1990s, Alisa Solomon said, she, too was turned down when she requested a tour.

President Obama Thinks Transparency Means He Disappears on Constitutional Rights

If the government has its way, on February 26, 2010 the "Prison on Varick Street" will end its run and the press will have never set a foot inside. And an important if shameful part of New York City's history since 1984 will vanish without specific documentation of its mildew, lack of fresh air, light, and unsanitary conditions that all sound vague and abstract as described here because I have never been allowed to see what it's really like in there and the people who are allowed in are not supposed to write about this. (These descriptions are third-hand summaries from my conversations with visitors at Varick and second-hand reports by Ms. Solomon and Ms. Bernstein.)

This would be not only a crime against history, but also a violation of the First Amendment. As long as a prison, or any other government agency, provides access to one group, as has been the case at Varick for law students, judges, and attorneys, then it cannot discriminate against the press.

I presently have a new request pending and am hoping for a different result. If you have been on a tour at Varick some point, please write and let me know!

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