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Union County, NJ, Jail Guards Convicted

In June, 1995, twenty-five political asylum seekers were hauled in chains from a federal INS Detention Center in Elizabeth, NJ, to the nearby Union County Jail. The 25 immigrant detainees many of whom are refugees who escaped religious and political persecution in their home countries were forced by guards to chant "America is number one!" while crawling through a gauntlet of jeering guards, who punched, kicked and beat them.

As a result of this brutal "welcome wagon" twelve Union County jail guards faced criminal charges. Four were convicted in jury trials, six others pleaded guilty to lesser charges, one was acquitted, and another died in an auto accident before his case went to trial.

The 25 asylum seekers were among 300 immigrants held at the privately-run Esmor Immigration Detention Center. Conditions at the crowded, windowless Esmor facility a converted warehouse were nightmarish. On June 18, 1995, the 300 detainees chased out the 12 poorly-trained and underpaid guards and proceeded to demolish the hated facility. [See: "INS Detainees Trash Private Prison," PLN Vol. 6, No. 5]

Five hours after the Esmor rebellion began, a contingent of local, state, and federal law enforcement agents stormed the facility in a hail of flash grenades and tear gas. The 300 dazed detainees were shackled and dispersed to widely scattered prisons and jails. Twenty-five went to the Union County Jail.

The first three guards to be tried in connection with the incident were convicted in March 1998, after a nine-week trial. One former detainee, Ato Donkoh an asylum seeker from Ghana testified that he made the mistake of telling Union County jail guards that he was thirsty. They "forced my face inside the toilet," Donkoh said.

Amitindar Pal Singh testified that guards used pliers on his genitals in between beatings. "I stopped seeing, I stopped feeling, and I didn't know what was happening to me," he said.

The guards tried to excuse their behavior by claiming that they were told they would have to deal with "rioters and hostage takers," and that they would be facing a "language barrier."

Convicted on nine counts each of assault, misconduct and conspiracy to obstruct the investigation were James Rice, 42, a guard for 16 years, and Charles Popovic, 35, an 11-year veteran. Also convicted on nine counts of conspiracy to cover up the misconduct was Michael Sica, 35, a Policemen's Benevolent Association official at the jail who was not working on the day of the assaults but who prosecutors said coordinated the cover-up effort that included threats aimed at guards who cooperated with investigators.

In May 1998, Rice and Sica received seven year prison sentences. Popovich, who prosecutors said followed the lead of other guards rather than initiating the violence himself, was given a five-year prison term.

After the first trial ended with three convictions, six other guards (Fred Bruno Jr., Charles Demarest, Lisa Graham, Lawrence Lee, Kwadjo Mensah, and Joseph Saley) pleaded guilty to "official misconduct", a lesser charge. Two others chose to go to trial. Edward Einhorn was acquitted, and the other, Joseph Werthmann III, was convicted of official misconduct, which carries a maximum 10-year prison term.

On May 15, 1998, State Superior Court Judge Walter R. Barisonek meted out unusual sentences to the six guards who pleaded guilty in March. The judge ordered the six to make sandwiches at local shelters twice a month for a year to feed homeless people, many of whom are immigrants.

"They have to lay out their own money to buy the bread and the meat," said Alan J. Silver, an assistant Union County prosecutor.

All but one of the six avoided incarceration altogether. Charles Demarest was sentenced to 180 days in the Somerset County Jail. All six received probationary terms, forfeited their jobs, agreed to never enter public service and were fined.

Socialist Worker, NY Times, Star-Ledger

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