Democracy Now: Immigrant Abuses by Feds and Private Prisons

Note: It’s a rare occasion when we re-post such a lengthy document, but with so many friends of the issue from Texas involved, we feel it is important to import the archive of this rush transcript from today’s edition of Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman–gm

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AMY GOODMAN: We turn to the sprawling detention system within this
country that some have likened to a gulag and a series of domestic Guantanamo
Bays: the immigration prisons that over 300,000 pass through each year.

Earlier this month, a thirty-four-year-old Chinese computer engineer named
Hiu Lui Ng overstayed his visa, died in a Rhode Island immigration detention
facility. He had cancer in his liver, in his lung, in his bones. He had a fractured

Despite repeated complaints of severe pain, Mr. Ng was refused independent
medical evaluation by immigration officials. The New York Times reported
this. Instead, he was taken in shackles to another prison two hours away, where
an immigration officer tried to convince him to withdraw his appeals and accept

Before Jason Ng—his American name—died on August 6th, he told his sister the
doctors at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Center in Rhode Island had told him
to “stop faking” his illness.

Jason Ng’s story is the latest in a series of similar cases of neglect and
abuse at the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE. Investigations
by the Washington Post, the New York Times earlier this year
revealed as many as eighty-three prisoners have died in or soon after ICE custody
in the five years since the agency was created in March of 2003.

When contacted for response, ICE said they could not comment on Jason Ng’s
death, because it’s under investigation.

Congress is responding to these deaths with legislation aimed to improve conditions
for non-citizens in ICE custody. Congress member Zoe Lofgren from California
and Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey have sponsored the House and Senate
versions of the Detainee Basic Medical Care Act of 2008.

We’re joined right now by Joshua Bardavid, attorney for Mr. Ng ‘s family.
We’re also joined by California Congress member Zoe Lofgren. And we welcome
you both to Democracy Now!

Before we go to the legislation, Joshua, tell us the full story of Jason Ng.
Where was he born? How did he come to this country?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: Jason was born in Hong Kong, and he entered with his
family at the age of seventeen. They applied for political asylum. Unfortunately,
a notice telling them to go to court was mailed to a nonexistent address. So
an immigration judge had ordered Jason deported in absentia, unknowingly. Meanwhile,
he went to school in the United States, graduated high school, went to college,
graduate college, became an engineer working at the Empire State Building.
He married, had two US citizen children. He married a US citizen, and they
applied—he applied for his green card. When he went for his interview, instead
of having his green card adjudicated, he was picked up. This was in July of

AMY GOODMAN: Wait. So when he and his wife went to the green card interview?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: Correct, correct. What they thought was their final
interview to get his green card, that he would finally become a lawful permanent
resident in the United States, he was picked up and swept into this system.

AMY GOODMAN: If he hadn’t applied for the green card, would he ever
have been picked up? And he had been here for so many years, gone to college,
was working here.

JOSHUA BARDAVID: It’s possible that he would have been picked up. It’s
possible that he would have lived his life not knowing that he had an order
of deportation pending against him and not been touched. But the fact that
he was trying to legalize his status was actually what put him into this system.
Unfortunately, the system is sprawling. And he was first sent to a facility
up in Massachusetts—I’m sorry, he was actually first sent to Rhode Island,
then he was moved to a facility in Massachusetts, then to Vermont, and then
back to Rhode Island from July 2007 until August 5 or August 6, the day that
he passed away.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about what happened when he went into
the detention facility. Was he healthy, as far as he knew, when he went in?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: He was a healthy, robust man.

AMY GOODMAN: Thirty-four.

JOSHUA BARDAVID: Thirty-four. No history of medical problems.

AMY GOODMAN: Very tall?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: Average height, average height. And he was slowly
deteriorated as he was through the various facilities.

AMY GOODMAN: How long was he held?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: He was held from July 2007 until August 5th or August
6th. He died in the middle of the night.

AMY GOODMAN: About a year.

JOSHUA BARDAVID: About a year, a little over a year. During this process,
he had a stay of deportation, because the courts were reviewing his deportation
order, the fact that he was eligible for a green card, and immigration had
not yet fully adjudicated his green card, because instead of adjudicating it,
they had detained him.

During this process, he began to complain of various medical problems. In
April of 2008, he had a steep decline. In a ten-week period, he dropped twenty-three
pounds. At this point, he was in St. Albans, Vermont in a facility that had
absolutely no medical facilities whatsoever, not even a nurse on duty. He was
then transferred to the Donald Wyatt facility in July—I believe July 2nd.

AMY GOODMAN: In Rhode Island.

JOSHUA BARDAVID: In Rhode Island, excuse me, yes. July 2nd, 2008.

AMY GOODMAN: This, a public prison?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: It is a private prison. It’s owned by a private corporation
that only owns the Donald Wyatt facility. It had been owned by a major publicly
traded corporation, Cornell Corrections, until, I believe, June of 2007, and
then it was transferred to this private corporation, the Donald Wyatt Detention
Corporation, that owns the facility.

The reason that he was moved from Vermont to Rhode Island was because the
Vermont facility did not have any medical care facilities at all. Donald Wyatt
supposedly had adequate facilities to provide for his care. Unfortunately,
he was given basic medical evaluations. He was not given an MRI. He was not
given a CAT scan, despite the fact that he was complaining of loss of feeling
in extremities, despite the fact that he lost twenty-three pounds. At this
point, he had now dropped about thirty to thirty-two pounds, and he was given
just basic medical evaluation.

AMY GOODMAN: They put him on a top bunk? They had double-bunk?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: That’s correct.

AMY GOODMAN: So that he would have to climb up and down.


AMY GOODMAN: But he was complaining of extreme back pain.

JOSHUA BARDAVID: Right, and at various stages, complete loss of movement
in his feet, in his legs, and loss of feeling in his legs. Eventually he was
given a bottom bunk and some pain killers and given a basic medical evaluation.
But at this point, he was unaware that he had cancer.

We’re unsure when he had a fractured spine. It may have occurred when he was
moved by the ICE officials on
July 30th. We don’t know when the fractured spine
occurred. It’s possible, at this point, he did have a fractured spine. He was
not given a wheelchair, despite repeated requests by his attorneys, by his
family, by him, by his cell mate. He was cleared to walk with a cane, is what
we were told.

AMY GOODMAN: Why was he taken on a two-hour ride to Hartford, Connecticut?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: It’s not really clear, and that’s one of the many
unanswered questions in this case. When it became clear that we were not going
to be able to get through basic requests the medical care that was clear he
needed, we filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus, seeking his release
under due process grounds, because he was not receiving adequate care. This
was filed on July 29th in Rhode Island. The very next day, he was taken in
shackles in a van and driven two hours to Connecticut, where a deportation
officer met with him and said that the only way they would release him or deport
him is if he withdrew all of his appeals.


JOSHUA BARDAVID: No. He actually had become so desperate that he started
to discuss that with his family members. At this point, communication was quite
difficult, because he couldn’t use a phone, and he was not given a wheelchair.

AMY GOODMAN: Why couldn’t he use a phone?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: Because he couldn’t walk to go to the payphone, and
they wouldn’t give him a wheelchair to go to the payphone, and they wouldn’t
give him a wheelchair to meet with us, his attorneys. So he was communicating
through other Chinese-speaking detainees, although on the 30th, we were able
to speak with him on the phone. And at this point, he began discussing withdrawing
all his appeals.

And to give you an idea of just how much pain he was in and how much suffering
he was going through, this is a man with a one-year-old and a three-year-old
child with a US citizen wife who’s lived more of his life in the United States
than he did in his home country in Hong Kong, and he was considering giving
all of that up and accepting an order of deportation, even though it’s our
opinion that he was legally eligible for a green card, simply because he needed
the suffering to end.

AMY GOODMAN: When did the prison tell him he was faking it?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: That happened on several occasions. Just to correct
you, I don’t believe it was a doctor who in fact accused him of faking it.
I believe it was a nurse and several of the guards who said, you know, “You’re
exaggerating your condition. You’re exaggerating your condition.”

AMY GOODMAN: Where exactly did he die?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: He died in the hospital in Rhode Island.

AMY GOODMAN: In the detention hospital?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: No, they had taken him to an outside hospital. What
happened was, on July 31st, we had a hearing before a district judge in the
district court of Rhode Island, and the district judge, while he didn’t rule
on whether or not to release him, he, at the end of the hearing, said, “If
this guy needs a wheelchair, get him a wheelchair. If he needs an MRI, get
him an MRI.” And the US attorney, who was quite proactive at this point—only
became involved in the case when we filed the petition in July 29th—assisted
us in contacting the prison authorities and making sure the next day he was
brought to a hospital for a CAT scan. And it was then and only then that it
was discovered that he had cancer, basically all over his body, that he had
a fractured spine, and we were told it was terminal. And he was—he remained
in the hospital for the next three days, and he passed away on the night of
August 5th, August 6th.

AMY GOODMAN: Was his family with him?

JOSHUA BARDAVID: They were able to see him on the final day. It took
a little over two days for us to get clearance. The prison wanted and ICE officials
wanted the Social Security numbers of his family in order to permit them to
visit Jason. But we were finally able to get clearance so they could be with
him at his side.

AMY GOODMAN: California Congress member Zoe Lofgren is with us now.
She doesn’t represent his area, but has introduced federal legislation around
medical care for immigration prisoners, for immigration detainees. Can you
talk about the bill you’ve introduced and how it would affect, well, someone
like Jason Ng, if he were still alive?

REP. ZOE LOFGREN: Sure. I chair the Subcommittee on Immigration in
the House of Representatives, and we’ve had two hearings on the conditions,
medical conditions in ICE custody. One was last October. Then we had another
in June.

And as has been mentioned, there were a series of press exposes on really
just outrageous conditions in custodial facilities relative to immigrants.
And this is a terrible account to listen to what happened to Mr. Ng. Unfortunately,
it’s not an isolated incident.

And so, we have introduced legislation basically to require the ICE, the Immigration
and Customs Enforcement Agency, which is a part of DHS that runs enforcement,
to live up to the policies that they say they already are ruled by. It would
require them to actually provide basic medical care to those in their detention.
And it would also—the current system allows offsite, non-physician personnel
to overrule medical treatment that is ordered by physicians in a facility,
who are actually seeing a patient, that would preclude that. And right now,
oftentimes they remove lifesaving medication from people who they arrest. That
would—it would prohibit them from doing that. We’ve had people who’ve just
died, because their medication was taken away when there were taken into custody.
It has standards for screening and examination and continuity of care. It’s
fascinating that when individuals are moved from facility to facility, their
medical records aren’t sent with them. And so, that has caused some severe

AMY GOODMAN: I can already hear Lou Dobbs now, Congress member Lofgren,
screaming into the camera, “Can you believe it? We’re giving medical care to
illegal aliens in this country!”

REP. ZOE LOFGREN: I’ve been on Lou Dobbs, and it’s not always a pleasure.
But here’s the deal. I mean, when you arrest someone, you undertake some basic
obligations for their care, and that’s required in our Constitution. You know,
when you arrest someone, you have to feed them. That’s because they are no
longer able to run down the street to McDonald’s on their own. When you arrest
someone and they become ill, you need to provide basic medical care, because
they can’t run down the street to the clinic or their own physician. That’s
just the standards of decency that nations have, and it applies to the United
States, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and then we’re going to come back
to this conversation and talk about private prisons overall and follow up on
the case of a young man, a boy, that we talked to in Texas in prison—he was
nine years old, Kevin—and see what happened to him. He was imprisoned with
his family in a private prison. We’re talking to Joshua Bardavid, immigration
attorney here in New York, now representing Jason Ng’s family. Jason died in
prison. And we are talking to California Congress member Zoe Lofgren. Stay
with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests, Joshua Bardavid, immigration attorney in New
York; Congress member Zoe Lofgren in California. She has introduced a bill.
She’s chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship,

Refugees, Border Security, and International Law.

Awhile ago, we interviewed a little boy in prison. Kevin Yourdkhani was nine
years old when he and his parents were detained at the Don Hutto Family Detention
Center in Taylor, Texas for six weeks. They were flying over the United States
on their way to seek asylum in Canada from Iran when there were detained, when
there was this unrelated emergency. A person had a heart attack. They landed
in Puerto Rico. They didn’t have the proper papers for the United States. They
weren’t planning to come here. And they were sent to a detention facility.
Kevin spoke to us from the jail last February.

    KEVIN YOURDKHANI: I want to be free. I want to go outside, and I
    want to go to school. I want to be in my homeland: Canada.

    JUAN GONZALEZ: How are the other children there? Are you spending
    time with any of the other children?


    JUAN GONZALEZ: They don’t let you spend time with the other children?

    KEVIN YOURDKHANI: No. I’m sleeping beside the washroom, and I can’t—and
    I’m upstairs. I can’t go to the washroom all the time. And there’s a lot
    of smell coming out from the washroom. And the food is garbage. And the school
    is very bad. I can’t learn anything good. And I have asthma, and I got sick
    in here. I can’t stay here anymore.

    AMY GOODMAN: Kevin, you said you’re sleeping next to the bathroom?

    KEVIN YOURDKHANI: Yeah. And it’s not a separate room. It’s right
    beside the bed. And I’m sleeping beside the wall, and my back gets sick and
    it hurts.

AMY GOODMAN: Kevin was nine years old when we talked to him. This interview
was played all over Canada, hardly got attention in the United States. Ultimately,
the Canadian authorities let the family in. What’s happened to him since, Joshua

JOSHUA BARDAVID: It’s my understanding that he remains in Canada. He’s
a Canadian citizen and had every right to remain in Canada. His parents had
a political asylum claim that was reopened upon his return, in large part,
I believe, due to the public outcry that surrounded the interview. And it’s
my understanding that their legal appeals are still being fought in the courts
in Canada.

AMY GOODMAN: And a special thanks to our producer Mike Burke, who got
through to that prison, as we were able to talk live to Kevin and his dad Majid
in the prison facility on Democracy Now!

While thousands languish in immigration prisons, private corporations contracted
by Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, like GEO and Corrections Corporation
of America, or CCA, are making record profits. CCA is the country’s largest
private prison company, with strong political connections to both Republicans
and Democrats. Together with ICE, they have detained close to a million non-citizens
in the last five years.

But an award-winning investigative project by independent journalist Renee
Feltz and Stokely Baksh at reveals
there is little oversight of conditions within these prisons. We’re joined
now by Renee Feltz, who is here in our firehouse studio, a student at Columbia
University School of Journalism, formerly a producer and news director at Pacifica
station at KPFT in Houston.

Welcome, Renee.

RENEE FELTZ: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about the prisons.

RENEE FELTZ: We looked at the business of immigrant detention. We’ve
heard a lot about medical conditions for the detainees there, but we wanted
to look at the billion-dollar industry. Essentially, as the immigrant detention
population has boomed, the government has turned to the private sector, namely
private prison companies like Corrections Corporation of America, to provide
the detention services. Our investigation at looked
at the money they’re making and the connections they use to make sure that
the profits continue to roll in.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what you have found, specifically the names
of the companies, how they’ve grown, what prisons they run.

RENEE FELTZ: The main company we looked at was Corrections Corporation
of America. They’re based in Tennessee, but they’ve got plenty of connections
in Washington, D.C. Specifically, we found, for example, that one of their
main lobbyists, as the boom in immigrant detention beds was occurring, was
Philip Perry, who’s the son-in-law of Dick Cheney. He was lobbying for them,
went on to become the general counsel for the Department of Homeland Security,
which oversees ICE. And—

AMY GOODMAN: He’s married to Cheney’s daughter?

RENEE FELTZ: Yes. And then, the next year, CCA saw their highest revenue
ever, for example. So, we also looked at their—so that’s one example of their
revolving door. This is partly how companies make sure that the government—basically
they have the government’s ear.

We also looked at the lobby money that they give to political action committees,
for example, and to congressmen. We found that more than half of the senators
that they spent money on are actually on the Appropriations Committee, and
their most generous donations went to the House Appropriations Subcommittee
on Homeland Security, which oversees funding for these detention centers.

AMY GOODMAN: And overall, how many people are incarcerated now?

RENEE FELTZ: On an average day, you’ll see about 30,000 immigrants
in detention in the United States. About 20 percent of those—and that number
is growing—are in large sort of box detention centers, where they hold hundreds
to thousands of people, primarily in the South and Southwest, where it’s easier
to put people on planes and send them—return them to their home countries.

Essentially, this business has boomed after the government moved from a practice
of catch-and-release, as they called it, to a practice of catch-and-remove.
And the situation that has resulted has been an increase in the demand for
beds, because people are no longer allowed to be free as their deportation
hearings are pending or if they have appeals pending. Instead, they’re detained
in these facilities, and sometimes for as long as six months.

AMY GOODMAN: Sergia Santibanez spent sixteen months—


AMY GOODMAN: —at CCA’s Houston processing center, before being deported
to Mexico last year. Renee Feltz and Stokely Baksh spoke to Sergia from Mexico
this year.

    SERGIA SANTIBANEZ: [translated] The conditions there are horrible.
    Besides that, they treat you like an animal. When you first get there, they
    tell you you’re nobody. When I got there, the mattresses were torn. They
    gave us horrible things to eat, which I don’t think were even fit to feed
    to dogs. The one for immigrants is worse, because I have been in federal
    prison, and there, they give good food, treat you well, and if somebody complains
    about bad treatment they say they’ve been subjected to or to discrimination,
    they pay attention, but not here. Here it’s worse, because they even tell
    you that you have to put up with it, because we came to them, not them to
    us, and so we, in the meantime, don’t have a right to anything.

AMY GOODMAN: Sergia Santibanez is talking about the Houston detention
facility. This is her daughter Luisanna Santibanez.

    LUISANNA SANTIBANEZ: We actually enjoyed visiting her in the federal
    prison more than we did visiting her in the detention center, because at
    the federal prison the visitation room was—had a living room-like environment,
    so we could all sit around a small table. And we could only physically hug
    my mom before and after the visit, but we could sit there and speak with
    her for—like for the whole day.

    And we thought that detention center visitation would be somewhat different,
    if not more open, given that the people in there weren’t actually like convicted
    of crimes, right? They’re there for immigration proceedings. It was the exact
    opposite. There, we were divided by the Plexiglas, and we only had thirty
    minutes to see her. You know, long waiting period. And it was bad.

    Even though, you know, we were sad to see that she got deported, that probably
    would have to be the most happiest moment of our family’s life in a long
    time, because for the first time in like two years we would be given the
    chance to actually hug her and be with her a little bit. And it took her
    some time to recover. I think anyone who’s been in prison for a long time
    can tell you about the effects of having to go through that experience. But
    I would have to say that her detention was probably the most excruciating
    experience for our family.

AMY GOODMAN: Luisanna Santibanez, talking about Sergia Santibanez and
her detention. Renee, you had done this interview?

RENEE FELTZ: Right. Sergia Santibanez’s case is a classic example of
how these detention centers, largely run by private companies, play a key role
in ICE justifying its existence. As Congress has failed to pass comprehensive
immigration reform, the focus regarding immigration is on enforcement. ICE
has to have its numbers ramped up to show how many people they’re deporting,
as many as 300,000 last year.

Basically, when they put Sergia Santibanez in this detention center, they
refused to release her until she agreed to leave the country. And that’s the
case for the majority of detainees that go in there. They never see the light
of day, after whatever way that they’re picked up, when they apply for their
green cards, during immigration raids, some of them along the US-Mexico border,
and they’re there until they agree to leave the country. It plays a key role
in the US enforcement policy.

AMY GOODMAN: How much lobbying do these private corporations do?

RENEE FELTZ: They spend millions a year on lobbying. It’s not surprising,
when you look at the disclosure records, you’ll see that they are concentrating,
at least in part, on Homeland Security, which is ICE, on immigration issues,
on issues that have to do with transparency of what takes place inside their

AMY GOODMAN: Lobbying against?

RENEE FELTZ: Yes. And it’s interesting. If you look at the lobbying
expenditures of CCA between 2004 and the present, you’ll see a steady increase
in the amount that they donate to Democrats. Before, we would see—I looked
up the numbers this morning. In 2006, they spent about $4,000 on Democrats;
in 2008, $35,000. So you can already see a steady increase. In CCA’s most recent
earnings conference call with their shareholders and with analysts, they said
that they don’t really anticipate any change in the demand for detention beds,
depending on if Senator McCain or Senator Barack Obama get elected; they anticipate
that there will still be an increase and a steady demand. In fact, they’ve
got 10,000 beds in the pipeline ready for the government, should they want

AMY GOODMAN: Zoe Lofgren, Congress member from California, how much
power do these private corporations have that are running these prisons? How
much accountability? And what are you doing about it in Congress?

REP. ZOE LOFGREN: Well, I have serious concerns about how detention
is being conducted and also the fact that people are over-incarcerated in the
immigration system. Take the situation of Mr. Ng, who so tragically died. I
mean, this is an individual whose notice for a hearing was sent to the wrong
address. Consequently, he didn’t go to the hearing, because he didn’t know
about it. To arrest him, as the only result of that, and refuse to let him
go, when he has a US citizen wife, a job, owns a home, has two children, is
a ridiculous situation. And certainly, his matter needed to be reviewed and
sorted through, but there was no need at all, and he should not have been in
custody at all. The case of the Iranian family seeking political asylum in
Canada, they shouldn’t have been in custody at all. They should have been on
their way back to Canada. So, first you have to look at who’s being put into
these facilities.

AMY GOODMAN: California Congress member Zoe Lofgren, unfortunately,
we have to end it there, because the show has come to an end, but we will continue
to follow your legislation. Thank you so much to Renee Feltz and to Joshua

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