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INS Detainees Trash Private Prison

On June 18, 1995, some 300 im migrants being held at the privately-run Esmor Immigration Detention Center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, chased out the guards, trashed the facility and held off federal, state and local law enforcement agents for nearly six hours. Police finally threw a flash grenade into a barricade the detainees had set up and stormed the facility. Twenty detainees were injured in the melee.

The Esmor facility was hastily set up in a converted warehouse just over a year ago when the U.S. government decided to "crack down" on immigrants who land at Kennedy and Newark airports with no papers.

The 240 men and 60 women detainees at the 300-bed center included Romanians, Cubans, Chinese, Russians and Sikhs, most of them seeking political asylum in the U.S. None of the detainees had been convicted of a crime. They had not even been accused of a crime. Many of them had been forced to flee their homelands due to poverty or persecution. They came to this country seeking the "American Dream" of freedom and democracy. What awaited them, however, was a nightmare of concentration camp imprisonment and brutal mistreatment. One young Somali woman told of being tortured and imprisoned in her homeland before fleeing to this country only to be imprisoned and brutalized yet again.

The detainees were "warehoused" inside the crowded, windowless facility for months while awaiting hearings. Some detainees say they were physically and sexually assaulted by guards. The female detainees complained of sexual abuse and guards spying on them while they showered. The immigrants were often shackled to their toilets or other furniture, and they were constantly taunted with ethnic slurs by Esmor guards. Former detainees say they were forced to take anti-depressant drugs, denied food or served spoiled food. Detainees objected to blaring television and bright lights kept on almost all night in crowded dormitories, as well as guards pushing them around and trying to pick fights with them.

"They were really acting in self defense," said Peter Schey, an attorney at the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, who filed a class action suit against Esmor in April. After the uprising the detainees were dispersed to widely scattered prisons and county jails in an attempt to silence them and keep their story from coming out.

The detainees released the following list of demands to the press, but to our knowledge the only publication to print it is the Revolutionary Worker. The demands are: 1) We should be treated as "Prisoners of Conscious" and not criminals. 2) We are entitled to a fair hearing. 3) We should not be used as an avenue to acquire wealth. 4) We need our freedom. 5) Conditions of detention are unacceptable. 6) We are covered by the 1947 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- right to life, liberty and property. 7) The INS and the U.S. government should observe the United Nations laws on refugee status. 8) Asylum seekers should not be kept in jails with hardened criminals. 9) Our trials are not democratic.

Esmor Correctional Services, the Melville, Long Island-based private corporation has a five-year, $54 million contract to operate the facility, manages four correctional centers (mostly boot camps and halfway houses) and six detention centers. The other detention centers are in New York, Colorado, two in Texas and one in Seattle, Washington. Esmor's stock is publicly traded, with projected earnings of $36 million this year.

INS officials said on June 19 that they expect the heavily damaged facility to reopen in 45 days and that it will continue to operate under Esmor's management. Union County, NJ prosecutor Andrew Ruotolo said that he would file a civil suit if necessary to keep that from happening. Ruotolo said that only a dozen employees--who were trained for three hours and paid $7 an hour--were guarding the facility at the time of the rebellion.

In an interview on June 20, Esmor chairperson James F. Slattery claimed that the INS was responsible for the uprising because it ordered the center built for stays averaging 90 days, while in fact delays in processing cases meant that detainees were stuck there for much longer periods. But assistant prosecutor Michael Lapolla said, "Esmor put minimal effort into this place. If privatization is the future [of corrections] then we're all in for big trouble."

Sources: The Seattle Times, June 20, 1995; Revolutionary Worker, July 2, 1995; Weekly News Update on the Americas, Issue #282, published by the Nicaragua Solidarity Network of Greater New York, 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012.

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