Journalists have been sharing stories about the illegal and inhumane treatment of people with mental illnesses by Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees for several years. The problems range from suicide and suicide attempts to tortuous levels of anxiety for those in their custody to wrongfully rendering U.S. citizens stateless. (For more on ICE's unlawful imprisonment and mistreatment of U.S. citizens with mental illnesses, see "Thin ICE.")
People whose demons make life hard if not impossible to navigate not only suffer uniquely, but may pose special threats to those confined in their proximity, including ICE officers. In January and February New York residents and employees at the ICE lock-up on Varick Street in lower Manhattan were traumatized by this first-hand.
According to former Varick inmates, one man was persistently masturbating openly, and another had fixated on the idea of brutalizing another Varick inmate, Chao Chen, and set about doing just that, but only after he assaulted a female ICE deportation officer. (She was dissuaded from sending the assailant, H.Y., to jail by those in his pod who said he was mentally ill; by ignoring earlier complaints ICE and Ahtna Technical Services -- the private security firm managing Varick -- appear to have negligently exposed her to hazardous working conditions.)
According to Queens resident Chao Chen, private security guards and an ICE officer had first-hand knowledge that a man who was demonstrably violent was being held with the general population, but no one acted until after Mr. Chen was beaten, after which ICE tried to cover this up.
Chao Chen Stalked and Beaten
Following several days of verbal threats and feints with a ball point pen that was taken away, at 2:30 a.m. on February 2, H.Y. waited in the dark on an empty bed, #155, on the far side from where he was supposed to be. A grievance written by the occupant of bed #156, B.D., states that he was disturbed by H.Y.'s menacing presence and asked him to return to his own side of the room. H.Y. told B.D. that "he wants to attack Mr. Chen Chao, who was sleeping at that time" in bed #158. H.Y. offered noodle soup to the occupant of bed #125 to "help him beat up Mr. Chen Chao, which he refused," B.D. wrote, "and told him to stop acting crazy."
That night the occupants of B-1 were able to protect Mr. Chen from H.Y., who went back to his bed. But later that same day, after lunch, H.Y. lunged and stomped on the bed of the napping Mr. Chen. When he turned toward the noise, H.Y. began ferociously punching him in the left eye. Through a translator, a friend whom he had met at Varick Street, Mr. Chen described how others described the beating to him, "According to a witness, it seems like he had a rush of blood and just ran over and attacked." He began moving his fists up and down rapidly and said this went on for about ten seconds, "My eye was very swollen, like a panda."
(Mr. Chen's friend, Huck, is in his fifties, and speaks nostalgically of the olden days, including his time in Europe, when all you needed to travel between countries was some cash and legs strong enough to land the jump from a ship to a harbor boat. He was carrying a New York Times and spoke with disgust of the increase in deportations under President Obama, whom he described as "an empty vessel." Both he and Mr. Chen are waiting for work permits before resuming jobs in the restaurant industry. Mr. Chen was brought to Varick last June by New York City Police. When I asked him why he was stopped he said, "It was late, 11:30, and they saw me parking." I asked if the police gave him a ticket and he said no. Instead the NYPD was doing the work of ICE. Mr. Chen was released on ICE parole and had missed a 2005 meeting; this showed up when the NYPD ran a check on him.)
Mr. Chen said he and others at Varick were angry because everyone knew H.Y. had a mental problem: "Everybody was nervous because it was obvious he was dangerous and had a problem because he would walk on people's beds with his shoes." Even after the incident, Mr. Chen said that others conveyed that "Lt. Smith went to B-1 and told everybody that they did not have space to keep [H.Y.] in isolation and that it wasn't their problem." Shortly after that, H.Y. was gone.
Chunyu Jean Wang, Mr. Chen's attorney, is upset, "He was sleeping and attacked by a mentally incapacitated person who should have been isolated. ICE is responsible for [Mr. Chen's] safety, but as a result of what they did there was bruising to his eye, which was blind for a few days."
The events above were unfolding just before ICE relented to pressure from the ACLU and escorted me on a February 16 tour of the Varick facility, the very day ICE released Mr. Chen.
Based on reports that ICE deportation officers at Varick were holding people without authority by not meeting with Varick inmates and thus not following up on new legal documents, I asked about specific incident of an individual who said his deportation officer had not seen him in three weeks. ICE New York Field Office Director Christopher Shanahan, who has an office in the same building as the ICE prisoners, denied this was possible, "We wouldn't want to put someone in a dorm and leave them there. That's not good for them or for us." And yet Mr. Chen was held months beyond when he should have been released and went for long stretches without seeing his deportation officer.
Moreover, the tour guides' eagerness to emphasize the quality of their medical and psychological care seemed excessive and compensatory. Dr. Peter Dorazio told me that everyone had a psychiatric exam within 12 hours of being admitted, but didn't mention that he had recently read a report on Mr. Chen's attack and assailant indicating these tests were either inadequate or ignored.
The week before another Varick inmate had told me a version of the story I later heard from Mr. Chen himself. When I called Mr. Shanahan after the tour to ask follow up questions I mentioned this attack. I had some of the facts wrong but the basic outline was correct. Instead of explaining the incident fully, Mr. Shanahan categorically denied that anything resembling what I had described had happened. I asked whether, if something like this had happened, he would have been informed or whether I should follow up with someone else . He said that had anything like this he certainly would have known about it, and discouraged me from making further inquiries.
By the time Mr. Chen contacted me, the information was too late for inclusion in The Nation Comment I wrote about ICE's lawless refusal to regulate its detention operations.
The bureaucratic follow up noted on Mr. Chen's complaint states: "Referred to CSS and Dr. Dorazio on 2/4/10." (I am unfamiliar with Christoper Shanahan's middle initial, if any, and it may not be "S.")
In a recent email responding to my questions, Mr. Shanahan did not confirm or deny that his initial is "S" or that he had been notified of these events.
Again, the underlying problem is not Varick or even Mr. Shanahan but Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano's failure to obligate ICE detention operations to the rule of law, itself delusional reckless behavior threatening to different degrees the safety of the mentally ill, and everyone else in ICE detention operations -- those with shackles and keys alike.
It is likely that Mr. Chen will be filing a lawsuit and that ICE will settle it for an undisclosed amount. This is not justice but stupidity, the biggest dunces being the U.S. public who are eager to toss billions of dollars to government and private security, militarized borders, and payments for kooky practices instead of reaping the benefits of free movement. ICE and before that the INS have been happy to use the taxpayer's checkbook to fund their thuggery.
INS Agent Willie Witt Cost Taxpayers Big Bucks
An experienced San Francisco Bay Area attorney pointed me to the numerous lawsuits in the 1980s against INS because of agent brutality, and mentioned one in particular, Willie Witt, Jr., was a special problem:"[INS] kept promoting him. It cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars in lawsuits. But they just kept paying out the lawsuits and promoting him."
A quick google and Lexis search confirms these observations. A 1989 article in the Los Angeles Times describes a trial against INS for failing to punish employees for abuses:
Despite repeated allegations of misconduct, the INS has investigated only one allegation of misconduct during a factory raid since 1982, said Steven A. Brick, an attorney for the plaintiffs. During that period, no INS agent was disciplined for violating the rights of the accused, he said.The article continues to describe the single investigation during this period:
That's the last line in that article, but the story wasn't over for Mr. Witt. A 1999 article in the SF Chronicle, "When the Case Is About Lawyers," shows how Mr. Witt applied lessons learned from watching INS settlements and sued for race discrimination. Mr. Witt is African-American. Another INS agent in the office, who was white, also sued. Witt's case settled for $55,000 and his agreement to retire.
The sole investigation involved actions of one agent at Modern Mode Inc., a furniture factory in the Alameda County city of San Leandro. About 20 INS and Border Patrol agents arrived on the morning of July 20, 1983, and began questioning, then handcuffing workers.
When Jose Mendes, plant superintendent and a legal U.S. resident from Portugal, demanded a copy of the warrant, an agent replied, "You don't have no rights to ask me what's going on," Mendes testified.
Forced to Ground
INS agents told Mendes that he would be arrested unless he went away. Mendes' run-in might have ended with him walking away. But as he left, he told the judge, he cursed the agents. One agent then ordered another to "get him."
Before Mendes could turn, Agent Willie Witt Jr. grabbed him around the neck, forced him to the ground, then threw him from a loading dock to the ground, about three feet below.
Mendes began hyperventilating as he sat, handcuffed, in an INS van. When he asked agents to roll down the windows, one of them replied, "You should have thought about that before." Mendes was arrested on suspicion of assaulting a federal officer. Prosecutors declined to issue charges, but Mendes spent a night in San Francisco County Jail.
Anthony Ratto, owner of Modern Mode, wrote to President Reagan about the incident. Describing himself as a "loyal Republican," he said: "Mr. President, something wrong occurred at my plant on July 20, and I believe the facts should be brought to light."
As a result, the INS investigated--but not until more than a year later, according to documents released to the plaintiffs. An INS internal affairs investigator interviewed none of the witnesses and never contacted Mendes. Instead, the investigator relied on notes an FBI agent took in interviews with INS agents and Mendes, and on depositions of some of the workers.
The INS found no evidence of wrongdoing when the investigation was concluded in September, 1984. INS Commissioner Alan C. Nelson wrote Witt that the charge was "unsubstantiated," and he "sincerely regretted any hardship or inconvenience you may have experienced."
Mr. Chen's Condition
A photograph taken last week shows that two and a half months later Mr. Chen's left eye remains somewhat dark and swollen in contrast with his right eye, and his vision is still blurred: "Its like a curtain that you open up, and there's another curtain," he explained.
Mr. Chen's attorney, Ms. Wang, is outraged, not just because of the attack but because Mr. Chen never should have been in custody. He is among those for whom China will not issue travel documents. (The Supreme Court has prohibited ICE from keeping people locked up solely because of statelessness or because a country refuses to issue travel documents to one of its citizens, but ICE routinely ignores this.) "Because ICE held him past a reasonable time, past the time legally allotted," she said, "they gave a mentally incapacitated person an opportunity to attack him."