Immigrant Jail Tests U.S. View of Legal Access
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LinkedinDiggFacebookMixxMySpaceYahoo! BuzzPermalinkBy NINA BERNSTEIN
Published: November 1, 2009
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.
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Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times
The little-known detention center in Greenwich Village, on the fourth floor, reopened last year.
Times Topics: Immigration Detention (U.S.)
Fordham Law Review article: "Barriers to Representation for Detained Immigrants Facing Deportation (pdf)
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Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times
Daniel I. Miller, a former detainee at the Varick Street center, complained of abuses there. “These people have no rules,” he said.
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.
The petitioners were among 250 detainees imprisoned in an immigration jail that few New Yorkers know exists. Above a post office, on the fourth floor of a federal office building in Greenwich Village, the Varick Street Detention Facility takes in 11,000 men a year, most of them longtime New Yorkers facing deportation without a lawyer.
Galvanized by the petition, the bar association sent volunteers into the jail to offer legal counsel to detainees — a strategy the Obama administration has embraced as it tries to fix the entire detention system.
“Immigration and Customs Enforcement considers the access to legal services at Varick Street as a good model,” said Sean Smith, a spokesman for Janet Napolitano, secretary of homeland security, who oversees immigration enforcement.
But the lawyers doing the work have reached a different conclusion, after finding that most detainees with a legal claim to stay in the United States are routinely transferred to more remote jails before they can be helped. The lawyers say their effort has laid bare the fundamental unfairness of a system where immigrant detainees, unlike criminal defendants, can be held without legal representation and moved from state to state without notice.
In a report to be issued on Monday, the association’s City Bar Justice Center is calling for all immigrant detainees to be provided with counsel. And an article to be published this month in The Fordham Law Review treats the Varick jail as a case study in the systemic barriers to legal representation.
The new focus on Varick highlights the conflict between two forces: the administration’s plans to revamp detention, and current policies that feed the flow of detainees through the system as it is now. A disjointed mix of county jails and privately run prisons, where mistreatment and medical neglect have been widely documented, the detention network churns roughly 400,000 detainees through 32,000 beds each year.
“Any attempt to get support or services for them is stymied because you don’t know where they’re going to end up,” said Lynn M. Kelly, the director of the Justice Center.
When she asked that the lawyers’ letters of legal advice be forwarded to detainees who had been transferred from Varick, she said the warden balked, saying he had to consider the financial interests of his private shareholders: 1,200 members of a central Alaskan tribe whose dividends are linked to Varick’s profits under a $79 million, three-year federal contract.
Federal officials would not discuss their transfer policies, but asked for patience as they try to make the detention system more humane and cost-effective.
“We inherited an inadequate detention system from the previous administration that does not meet ICE’s current priorities or needs,” said Matthew Chandler, a Homeland Security spokesman. Officials say they are committed to a complete overhaul, including less-penal detention centers with better access to lawyers.
The volunteer lawyers and the petition’s author, an ailing refugee from torture in Romania who spent eight months inside Varick, say many problems persist there, though the added scrutiny has led to improvements. Detainees who want a Gideon Bible no longer have to pay the commissary $7. Immigration officials are more responsive when a lawyer complains that a detainee in pain is not getting treatment.
But most detainees do not have a lawyer, and the few who do include men who have fallen prey to incompetent or fraudulent practitioners. Recurrent complaints include frigid temperatures, mildew and meals that leave detainees hungry and willing to clean for $1 a day to pay for commissary food. That wage is specified in the contract with the Alaskan company, which budgeted 23,000 days of such work the first year, and collects a daily rate of $227.68 for each detainee.
The Alaska connection is one of the stranger twists in the jail’s fitful history. Opened as a federal immigration detention center in 1984, Varick became chronically overcrowded after 1998, when new laws mandated the detention of all noncitizens who had ever committed a crime on a list of deportable offenses, expanded to include misdemeanors like drug possession.
A Dominican man there died of untreated pneumonia in 1999 — the first reported death in the nationwide detention system, which now counts 106 since October 2003.
The Varick facility, which is on the corner of Houston Street, fell short of national detention standards adopted in 2000, because it lacks any outdoor recreation space. But under a grandfather clause, it was allowed to remain open until 9/11, when the terror attack, blocks away, forced its evacuation. For years, it was shuttered. It quietly reopened in February 2008, operated by Ahtna Technical Services Inc., a subsidiary of Ahtna Inc. — still with no access to fresh air.