The Magazine

Jail House Blues

America's immigration prisons are a scandal--but writing bad books is no way to fix them.

Jun 14, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 38 • By ELI LEHRER
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American Gulag

Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons

by Mark Dow

University of California Press, 413 pp., $27.50

ON ANY GIVEN DAY, the United States government holds about 20,000 men and women in immigration detention; 200,000 pass through the system each year. Most are illegal aliens awaiting deportation, some are asylum seekers unable to post bond, and a few are stateless deportees refused entry by both the United States and their countries of birth.

Mark Dow's American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons explores the shadowy world of detained immigrants. Dow's work has the mark of an important book: It sheds light on some terribly run facilities, includes lots of fine-grained detail, and raises a bevy of interesting questions about a notoriously unresponsive government agency. The book, Dow says, is an attempt to record "the system of immigration detention itself, including the widespread mistreatment of the prisoners inside that system." Unfortunately, Dow overstates his case so much that it's difficult to take American Gulag seriously.

In fourteen chapters Dow, a freelance writer who briefly taught at a Miami immigration detention center, endeavors to expose the nation's immigration enforcers (now an agency called "Immigration and Customs Enforcement") as a group of brutal and arbitrary thugs who enjoy humiliating detainees. Dow goes inside the federal facilities, the detention centers outsourced to something called "the GEO group," and state facilities that receive federal payments for housing immigrants. He talks to detainees, guards, administrators, and his fellow journalists. His only discernible intellectual influence appears to be French postmodernist Michel Foucault (who believed that prison, not crime, creates criminals). Dow, indeed, gives no evidence of having read anything on modern prison management in the United States.

Still, Dow's Stakhanovite research proves that the United States is doing a very bad job at jail keeping. Guards, particularly at Miami's Krome detention center, frequently abuse detainees verbally and sometimes physically. Many state prisons that house inmates under contract do an equally poor job. Immigration officials move detainees around the country when they complain or talk to the media. Medical care in immigration detention is poor, entertainments rare, and conditions Spartan. Many men and women who have served out criminal sentences or, in rare cases, done nothing wrong, can spend months in prison-like conditions while awaiting deportation.

This is a scandal, and something must be done. But Dow is not much help in bringing this to public notice, for he consistently goes past truth to the land of indignant exaggeration. If a reader takes Dow at his word that he doesn't want to draw an analogy with the "purpose, scale, or often fatal brutality of the Soviet gulag," then why does he include the word in his book's title? Why does he repeatedly refer to the detention system as a "gulag"? And why does he litter the book with quotations from Russian gulag writers like Joseph Brodsky? It's offensive to compare a system that killed 4.5 million people to one that's usually just unpleasant.

Even when Dow uncovers something troubling, he blows it out of proportion. Early in the book, for example, he relates the second-hand story of an unnamed Somali man handcuffed and locked in a parked car for a half hour in the midday sun. The action, Dow's source says, stems from a supervisor's desire to stop other Somalis from applying for asylum. Dow, however, insists on finding a racial angle to the story: He refers to the event as a "nigger roast," even though there's no evidence that anyone involved used a racist slur or, for that matter, acted out of racist impulse. When negligence and poor management are uncovered, Dow asserts that jailers engaged in a deliberate attempt to make life miserable for inmates.

Nearly all of the most horrifying stories in American Gulag come to Dow second or thirdhand. None of the people he interviews suffered sexual abuse at the hands of guards or inmates. A few of his suspects were painfully restrained after attacking a guard or threatening suicide, and a few had tussles with guards, but none of them faced gratuitous beatings. Nobody Dow talks to has a story of being denied medical care, although a few complain about inadequate psychological services and overuse of behavior-modifying drugs. These two problems exist in nearly every American house of detention. Inmate-on-inmate rape--which victimizes about one in ten male inmates in American prisons--gets mentioned only in one account that comes to Dow fourthhand. Immigration detention is horrible, but, taking Dow's evidence at face value, conditions in most facilities are probably better than those in the bottom 15 percent of America's state prisons.