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American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons, By Mark Dow University Of California Press, 413 pages, $27.50

American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons, By Mark Dow
University Of California Press, 413 pages, $27.50

Reviewed by Ashley Makar

Mark Dow's American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons is an articulate call for public scrutiny, when 23,000 federal immigration detainees suffer in U.S. prisonsunder most Americans' noses, on a given day. With the Abu Ghraib atrocities in the international spotlight, Dow illuminates the lesser known, more mundane brutality that characterizes the domestic detention of non-American prisoners of the United States. Published in August, 2004, by the University of California Press, American Gulag provides a timely account of the excessive incarceration, without due process, of non-citizens that makes automatic, often long-term prisoners out of asylum seekers, undocumented aliens, criminals who have already served their sentences and terror suspects alike.

Probably the most thorough and comprehensive account of immigration detention in the United States available, American Gulag is an accessible treatise, a tremendous source of information for human rights advocates, journalists, immigration lawyers, and the general public. Most readers will be surprised to find that immigration detainees are being held not far from their backyardsin private prisons in their boroughs or in their county jails, often in rural areas with no pro bono resources. This hardly visible, though extensive network of immigration prisons, Dow delineates, is the infrastructure of U.S. control of certain non-Americans among us'," a system of inevitable mistreatment.
In the first chapter Dow states that the book is about prisons and language. Though the federal government classifies the non-citizens it detains as administrative detainees" and the places where they are confined facilities," they are, Dow contends, prisoners in prisons. To make an otherwise inscrutable system more transparent, Dow translates convoluted bureaucratic jargon into what it means for people in detention, clarifies immigration law and its implications in intelligent laymen's terms, and demonstrates the power of political rhetoric in shaping immigration policy and the psyches of its enforcers: Those conditioned to believe they are responsible for controlling criminal aliens" and terror suspects" are bound to be brutal. Dow leaves the prisoners' English-as-a-second-language efforts to articulate their grievances to resonate, without interpretation.

The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (BICE, formerly the INS) has officially denounced American Gulag as a distorted view of immigration detention under the guise of objective research." Dow doesn't purport to be objective about incarceration. But, researching the book, he said he had to revise his idea of good guys and bad guys: Out west, Dow found an authoritarian and thoughtful man in INS Colorado District Director Joe Greene, with whom he discussed Witgenstein and poetry when they weren't talking about immigration detention. Dow said he's pleased that his readers differ over whom they find sympathetic and whom they find despicable in his account of U.S. immigration detention. It makes him feel that it's full enough: Different versions of reality co-exist in the gulag, and he thinks the book is completely fair.

American Gulag is based on fine investigative reporting, but it is a good narrative of a bad road trip. From the Everglades to Seattle, Dow connects the dots of his convoluted journey through the bureaucratic purgatory of immigration detention with incisive observations on the culture of repression and secrecy he discerns in the system. By integrating his critique with the voices of prisoners and their keepers, Dow humanizes the gulag from within. In one chapter, a Louisiana warden wonders out loud when enforcement becomes brutality and then elaborates on the predicament of prison and jail guards trying to establish authority among prisoners he fears. And Dow the narrator is shaken to conviction: the only solution for jailor and jailed is the abolition of prisons as we know them.

While the liberal press has offered sympathetic coverage of the excessive and often abusive detention of thousands of foreign nationals since September 11, 2001, Dow exposes such roundups, not as a post-9/11 phenomenon, but a systemic problem with a history and serious current implications. Codifying the use of detention as a deterrent to potential refugees that began in the eighties and the security-oriented approach to immigration that ensued after the first World Trade Center bombing, two immigration laws passed in 1996 mandated the detention of unprecedented numbers of non-citizens. Now, the international and domestic fronts of the war on terrorism are converging in Bush administration plans to detain terror suspects indefinitely.

American Gulag is on the Department of Homeland Security radar. The Office of the Inspector General has solicited information from government, NGOs, immigration attorneys and activists, including Dow, for an internal audit of the immigration detention system. The auditors are currently reviewing select facilities for compliance with BICE detention standards, which cover access to medical care, correspondence, recreation, religious practice, legal materials and counsel. ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project attorney Judy Rabinovitz has said that by refusing to make these standards regulations, the INS has ensured that they would be difficult to enforce. Of course Dow supports the DHS's overture at accountability, but maintains that truly independent monitoring and reforms must come from outside." In American Gulag, Dow provides information necessary for those who want to rise to the occasion of promoting transparency in the U.S. immigration detention system.


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