Thursday, August 06, 2009

Another Scandal Near New Orleans

There has been no shortage of news stories about how detainees have been treated at Guantanamo Bay, and Abu Ghraib before it. Likewise, there has been a lot of talk about so-called enhanced alternative interrogation techniques like waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and how even dogs have been used as a means to get "enemy combatants" to cooperate with intelligence interrogators, but the mainstream media has been conspicuously silent on the subject of prisoner abuse at federal prisons, and one private prison, in particular, in which men have been given solitary confinement for staging a hunger strike to protest conditions in which they're being held.

According to an article in New American Media, 100 immigrant detainees at the Southern Louisiana Correctional Center, a private prison about four hours outside of New Orleans, are being subjected to solitary confinement for complaints that run the gamut from lack of medical attention, even for major illnesses, no phone access to lawyers or family members, paucity of soap, toiletpaper, and toothpaste for weeks at a time, and even having to share their cells with rodents and insects.

A Jewish detainee said he was denied Kosher food, and others say they have been made sick by the food. Notably, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has oversight of the facility.

So far, there have been half a dozen hunger strikes, each lasting a few days, to call attention to the indignities detainees routinely suffer, and 60% of the men reportedly have participated in these hunger strikes.

Two detainees told of being brought to the "hole," and given solitary confinement, for speaking out about dissatisfaction with their confinement. Such retaliatory practices pale by comparison to some of the nightmare stories we've heard from Gitmo, but we must ask if ICE and INS view immigrants, who are here legally or otherwise, as "enemy combatants," too?

In mid-July, a field office director for ICE visited the prison, said he found everything satisfactory, and denied claims that detainees went without soap and toothpaste for weeks on end.

When asked about the practice of isolating immigrant prisoners, a spokesperson for ICE called it precautionary "medical isolation." Some might interpret so-called medical isolation as nothing less than a veiled preemptive strike against dissent. Clearly, it isn't merely coincidental that concerns with medical well-being correspond with prisoner expressions of disgust with their environment.

It is our understanding that a handful of detainees remain in isolation. Both their hunger strike, and ICE's retribution have gone largely unnoticed, and unreported, by the mainstream press.

That said, several notable national advocacy groups, like the Center for Constitutional Rights, have written to Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, expressing their outrage, and urging her to immediately investigate conditions at the prison.

What was her response? Last month, Napolitano denied a court petition that demanded "legally enforceable detention standards" at facilities that house immigrant detainees. DHS chose instead to continue so-called performance based standards enforced by private contractors.

It is not exactly breaking news that the U.S. is now in the business of awarding contracts to private companies like Blackwater to operate federal prisons, and immigration centers, within our borders, but DHS now says it is turning over decisions as to how those prisons are run to the contractors, too.

This is, in itself, not shocking. What is shocking, and scandalous, is how little attention holding immigrants in prisons inside our borders, as well as ICE practices are getting from the mainstream meda, and our elected officials, especially in light of all the righteous indignation over torture at Gitmo. It is nothing short of dereliction of duty for the major news organizations, in this country, to ignore another scandal of this magnitude so close to a city whose name has become synonymous with government scandal.

As the press release from the Center for Constitutional Rights states: "Solitary confinement as retaliatory punishment for peace protest of conditions is unacceptable. The men must be taken out of solitary immediately, and the Department of Homeland Security must commit to investigating these reports with the seriousness they deserve."

The mainstream media, too, must commit to covering this story with as much vigor as it covered Hurricane Katrina because the unlimited, and in many cases unwarranted, detention of immigrants in private prisons in Florida, Louisiana, and elsewhere in this country must be exposed, and Fourth Amendment protection must be extended to everyone within our borders. If we treat others who emigrate to our country as enemy combatants, we must expect the same treatment from them.