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.

Dow's own reporting occasionally makes an inadvertent case that some of the people sitting in immigration detention probably belong there. Mohammad Bachir, to whom Dow gives more ink than anyone else, is typical. Bachir, born in a refugee camp in southern Lebanon, was a legal permanent resident in the United States for most of his life but lost his status following a conviction for kidnapping and stalking. (Even Dow admits these are "seemingly good" reasons for detention.) He served his sentence and then landed in immigration detention while awaiting deportation. While in detention, he staged a number of hunger strikes, gave media interviews, and proved effective at getting other inmates to join his cause. Partly in retaliation and partly because his behavior made prisons so difficult to run, immigration officials transferred him all over the country and subjected him to a variety of indignities. Eventually, immigration officials released him and within a few months he began to stalk his ex-wife again. The authorities detained him again but, at wits end, eventually let him back out. Dow sees no problem with this.

Meanwhile, Bogdan Lawniczek, a Polish-born man who lost his legal status in both America and Poland following a murder conviction, also gets sympathetic treatment. Poland won't take him and the United States doesn't want him--and Dow implies that it is an injustice the authorities will not release Lawniczek to Afghanistan so he can join up with a friend who is (no joke) connected to the Taliban.

Dow relates these men's run-ins with jailhouse authorities in excruciating detail but dismisses their crimes with a few scattered words. While both served their sentences in prison before being detained, holding them and trying to deport them hardly seems an injustice: Both are convicted criminals who were eligible for citizenship before their crimes and chose not to apply.

Some of Dow's charges against the immigration authorities are red herrings. He complains repeatedly, for example, about the lack of educational programs in INS detention facilities. Most people in these facilities, however, are there for just a few days before deportation or release and don't have time for educational programs. Dow also criticizes indefinite immigration detention at great length. While there is no easy solution for stateless criminal aliens, holding them indefinitely without trial seems severe and undemocratic. For this reason, the Supreme Court struck down the practice in 2001. Except for a few Mariel Cubans (dangerous criminals Castro dumped in the United States), it's no longer an option for America's civil-immigration authorities. Because it would detract from his narrative, Dow mentions the court decision in only a few brief paragraphs near the end of his book.

In sum, Dow documents a real problem at great length but makes no concrete suggestions for reform. Like its precursors, Immigration and Customs Enforcement does a terrible job running detention facilities. This does not mean, however, that the practice of immigration detention is inherently unjust: Sovereign nations should be able to decide who can come in. Immigration detention needs to be humane and accountable. Dow has shone a lot of light into a seldom-visited corner of the American prison system, but American Gulag is so shrill and cynical that it is unlikely to draw much attention.

Eli Lehrer is associate editor of the American Enterprise and a fellow of the Sagamore Institute.

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