No Exit: Detained at “Export Plaza”


Pass through a door and you leave the mind-numbing concrete and Plexiglas of the inmate areas of the Houston Processing Center to enter the administrative offices that Warden Charles Martin has enlivened with Ansel Adams posters, potted plants, and fish tanks. “I like to see things living around me, because everything is dying,” Martin explains. “The older you get, the more appetite you have for life.”

Martin is only in his early forties, and since June of 1997 has been the man in charge of the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s Houston detention center – one of seven I.N.S. private contract facilities, this one run by the Corrections Corporation of America (C.C.A.). Like many C.C.A. employees, Martin had a career in public sector corrections until he moved on to the private side of the prison business. He is a twenty-one-year veteran of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, who started at the bottom of the T.D.J.C. and ended up as warden of a maximum-security facility in Lovelady.

In Houston, Martin has won the respect of at least two prisoners. Both of them are extremely frustrated, however, and their stories illustrate the despair that comes from the uncertainty of I.N.S. detention in general, as well as the discrimination that seems to plague African detainees around the country. “The warden here is a very good man. He has an open-door policy. You can go to him,” says Olu Balogun of Nigeria. “But he can’t get you out.” Kenneth Efe, another detained Nigerian, agrees: “The warden is good to us. He treats us like we are all the same.” The warden makes visits to the dorm, Efe says, “to tell us by the grace of God we’re going to go out of here.”

With a reporter, Martin is somewhat reserved; he won’t permit me to take his picture or to use a tape recorder, and I wonder if some of his caution is a reaction to the I.N.S. official monitoring our interview. I tell Public Affairs Specialist Luisa Aquino – a native of Mexico City who previously covered immigration and crime for Telemundo in Houston – that it is awkward for her to sit in. “I’m just here to facilitate the interviews that took place with the detainees,” Aquino says. Those interviews had just ended. The warden readily admits that he would avoid the media if there were a problem at his facility, and he agrees to give me a tour. The I.N.S. district director’s office initially approves, then cancels the tour. “I didn’t have a problem,” Martin tells me. If the I.N.S. will agree, “I’ll ease you around.”

After a second request, the I.N.S. agreed. Not surprisingly, the facility looked fine, if bleak, during the guided tour, but later a detainee phoned to tell me that between fifty and eighty men who had been sleeping on mattresses on the floor had been moved out before the tour and returned after it ended. The warden called this “hearsay.” But Aquino acknowledged that two groups of detainees were being organized for deportation at the time of the tour. It’s not uncommon, she said, for the center to be temporarily overcrowded, as prisoners from around the state are moved through the center, because of its proximity to Houston’s Intercontinental Airport.

“If people are sleeping on the floor, we try to accommodate them and make them more comfortable while they’re there,” said Aquino. The detainees are only subjected to these conditions for “four hours or so, and then they’re out. We certainly don’t like to overpopulate, simply because that creates a little bit of tension. We move people around constantly. There’s always a flow.” For C.C.A. the flow can be profitable. For even a four-hour stay, C.C.A. bills the I.N.S. the full fifty-five dollars per “man-day.” At the end of 1999, the I.N.S. had 19,284 people in its custody, with 4,478 of them in private contract facilities. The I.N.S. also uses its own Service Processing Centers and hundreds of local and county jails. Conditions and treatment vary widely from place to place.

Often journalists, like detainees, find themselves caught between two bureaucracies – one public and one private, as I.N.S. and C.C.A. officials pass the buck back and forth. This is a convenient relationship for a federal agency notorious for its lack of accountability. The I.N.S. district director’s office initially denied my request to interview Efe and Balogun. Community Relations Officer John Ramirez said that litigation was pending on both men. This meant only that the men had filed habeas corpus petitions seeking release from detention, and requests for protection against being returned to face possible torture in Nigeria. Aquino added that the I.N.S. felt interviews “were not in [the detainees’] best interest.” The detainees disagreed and the I.N.S. relented. Balogun later said that Aquino had tried to discourage him from signing a form authorizing the interview, saying “it might or it might not” affect his situation with the I.N.S. “I have been here two years,” Balogun said. “So there is nothing else I have to be afraid of. They couldn’t do more than what they have done already.” In this case, C.C.A. had already given permission for interviews before the I.N.S. attempted to discourage the detainees from meeting with me. C.C.A. had, however, insisted that my questions for the detainees first be submitted to company headquarters in Nashville.

Balogun has no gripes with C.C.A. “The guards are pretty much okay, you know – fair,” he says. “There’s no kind of abuse. C.C.A. is okay. They’re just doing their job: to detain us.” This is no small compliment for C.C.A. In 1998, after six prisoners escaped from a C.C.A. prison in Youngstown, Ohio, a “record of mismanagement and violence at that facility came to light… [including] allegations that harsh and humiliating abuses were systematically employed against inmates,” said Judy Greene at the Center on Crime, Community and Culture. There have been complaints of abuse at I.N.S facilities, too. In February, at a C.C.A. jail in Elizabeth, New Jersey, two I.N.S. detainees (a Nigerian and a Palestinian) filed suit alleging “a policy or practice that authorized C.C.A. staff to use abusive practices to control and discipline the refugees.”

“As far as jails go, that ain’t a bad one,” says local immigration attorney Peter Williamson about the Houston facility. Blanca Alvarez also praises the local C.C.A. management. She got no response from the I.N.S when, as a representative of Madres y Familias Unidas, she protested at the agency about inmates’ complaints of fever, vomiting, and diarrhea – which she attributed to heat and overcrowding. Then Alvarez and representatives of the American Friends Service Committee and the Houston Immigration and Refugee Coalition met with Martin. He assured them that he would address the problem “as if it were his own house.” Alvarez was skeptical, but the situation did improve, at least temporarily. It may be as a result of Martin’s leadership that “Export Plaza” (as the C.C.A. facility is known, by its odd street address) has not faced complaints for the patterns of abuse documented at other I.N.S. detention centers, county jails, and private facilities.

But there are exceptions. Kenneth Efe says that the guards are antagonistic and verbally abusive: “They just want to piss you off so that you’ll react and they get a chance to lock you up.” Efe reports that detainees have arbitrarily been locked in a shower room where the floor is covered with water. The warden acknowledges that small temporary rooms (including a “holding room” with a shower) are sometimes used to confine a detainee when it is inconvenient to take him to a segregation cell. But he insists that no one would be left in such a room for more than a couple of hours; later he says it would be for an hour or less, “until they have time to move them or whatever.” Efe says that he has been locked in the small room for three and eight hours at a time. “The world needs to know how we’re treated here,” he has written. “This is hell on earth.”

Kenneth Efe’s father was chairman of the Social Democratic Party (S.D.P.) in Nigeria’s Edo State. In 1997 Efe himself joined the S.D.P.’s youth division. He was thirteen, he says, at the time. In June of that year, Efe attended an S.D.P.-organized rally marking the anniversary of the annulled 1993 elections. Police officers began firing on the crowd and beating participants, including Efe. According to documents Efe’s attorneys filed with the Board of Immigration Appeals, “[b]leeding profusely from a head wound, he managed to escape into a nearby apartment building where he grabbed a knife to defend himself.” He was accosted by the same officers who again began beating him. Efe stabbed one of them in the stomach and escaped again. The officer later died.

Efe fled to his uncle’s house in Kastina State and then to Lagos, where he soon learned that police had arrested and beaten his father “for refusing to disclose his whereabouts.” In December 1997 Kenneth Efe stowed away on a ship that took him to Galveston. He asked to apply for political asylum, and was detained at the Houston Processing Center, an adult facility.

Efe says he is now fifteen. The I.N.S. says that he is at least twenty, and has based its findings on dental exams. His attorneys, Jennifer Reynolds of Houston, and Morton Sklar of the Washington-based World Organization Against Torture, have countered with evidence which includes a journal article titled “Eruption Times of Third Molars in Young Rural Nigerians.” The attorneys argue that the dental exam used by the I.N.S. is unreliable. And guidelines of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the lawyers argue, call for a “margin of error” in borderline age determinations. Sklar and Reynolds complain that the I.N.S. is violating its own guidelines on the treatment of juveniles. They want Efe removed from the adult facility in Houston and detained appropriately or placed in foster care. (Efe was also held for a month at the Wharton County Jail.)

The difference between juvenile and adult status has consequences for the protection Efe can receive as well as for the conditions of his detention. He was barred from asylum eligibility because of the crime (which the I.N.S. calls “nonpolitical”) for which he says he fled. So, instead, he applied for protection under Article 3 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture (C.A.T.). As implemented by Congress, the Convention prohibits the U.S. from returning someone to a country where she or he “is more likely than not” to be tortured. But Efe’s lawyers contend that, even aside from the question of whether stabbing the policeman was a political act, their client would not have been barred from asylum if his status as a juvenile had been recognized. They also argue that as a juvenile, Efe’s rights at his first hearing, where he represented himself, were violated “with respect to methods of non-confrontational questioning.” In fact, the stabbing in Nigeria barred Efe from full protection under the Torture Convention, too, although in January he qualified before a judge for a lesser “deferral of removal” provided by the Convention. Deferral does not require the I.N.S. to release him. With the habeas petition on age-determination pending, Efe’s lawyers have filed a motion to consolidate the asylum and Torture Convention appeals, hoping for reconsideration on what the I.N.S. calls Efe’s “outrageous criminal behavior.” The immigration court should consider the obvious political context of Efe’s “criminal behavior,” argues Sklar, which would mean giving him access to fuller protection. Efe has been detained for more than two years now.

“The problem is the I.N.S.,” Balogun told me. “They don’t really care about our welfare. They don’t come to talk to us.” Balogun has been detained at the Houston Processing Center since March 1998, but you are not likely to read about him in an Amnesty International fundraising appeal. He has criminal convictions for credit fraud and for using a false social security number to obtain a phone card from M.C.I. But his case is worth considering because it illustrates the complexities of immigration law, the brutal circumstances into which deportees can be delivered, and the often self-defeating battle detainees engage in against the I.N.S. Like many other Nigerians in I.N.S. custody, Balogun has made his complaints heard. He knows his rights, he fights for them, and he does so in English – a combination which does not endear him to the I.N.S. “What he did was badger them a lot,” says attorney Thomas Brannen, referring to his client’s pro se lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act requests.

Several attorneys around the country have spoken anecdotally, and off the record, about a perceived bias by the I.N.S. against Africans in general and Nigerians in particular. “You’re Nigerian, you’re lying,” is how one Texas lawyer sums up the I.N.S. attitude his clients have reported to him. Lauren Gibson of the University of California’s Center for Human Rights and International Justice tracks the implementation of procedures enacted under the 1996 immigration laws. Emphasizing that her data “does not constitute a random sample,” she says that it “raises the question whether [credibility determinations and parole policies] are applied in a manner that disfavors Nigerians.” An I.N.S. official in Washington who prefers not to be identified responds, “The Nigerians in the system have credibility problems because they lie,” not because of any “predisposition” against them. He quickly clarifies: “Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not saying that Nigerians are more prone to false claims” than other nationals.

Olugbemiga Olayinka Balogun first came to the United States on a student visa in 1984, at the age of twenty-one. He had studied business and management at the Sussex College of Technology in England, and, in 1987, completed a B.A. in accounting at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. Three years later, he was convicted of credit card fraud and sentenced to five years in the federal penitentiary at Talledega. The conviction made him a deportable alien. Soon he was taken into I.N.S. custody and transferred to the I.N.S. “Service Processing Center” at El Paso.

In El Paso , Balogun joined in a lawsuit filed by a Nigerian detainee who was eventually deported. The detainees, representing themselves in the suit against the I.N.S., alleged abusive treatment by guards and inadequate health care. But Balogun has problems other than his jailhouse lawyering. While in I.N.S. custody, he used a false social security number to obtain a phone card from M.C.I. “I was desperate to make phone calls to my people in Africa,” he explains seven years later. A “confidential source,” according to the indictment, contacted the F.B.I. with information about the mail Balogun was receiving from phone companies. Balogun pled guilty to the federal charges. He paid M.C.I. $3,735.50 in restitution, and was sentenced.

Balogun was moved through different facilities in Texas, Oklahoma, and finally Oakdale, Louisiana, where he awaited deportation. In December 1993, three months after General Sani Abacha annulled Nigeria’s democratic elections and imprisoned president-elect Moshood Abiola, the U.S. government chartered a plane to deport some eighty Nigerians, the majority of whom, according to Washington I.N.S. spokesperson Russell Bergeron, had criminal convictions for drug-related offenses and credit card fraud.

When the plane landed in Nigeria, Balogun says, all the detainees were handed over to the Nigerian security forces: “We were marched out of the plane to be handed over to the military.” While Balogun was being questioned, Nigerian officials slapped him repeatedly in the face. “That’s just the normal process,” he says. He describes three phases of interrogation. In the first, officials wanted to confirm that he was a Nigerian. Then they beat him for “destroy[ing] the image of Nigeria in the U.S.,” and “grilled” him about the crimes he had committed here. Finally, he was questioned to ascertain whether he was a C.I.A. agent. In
a letter from Lagos, a second deportee on the flight gave an account consistent with Balogun’s. Balogun says he was left in his cell without food for eight days, unable to contact a lawyer or family members. After the media in Lagos reported the return of the prisoners from the U.S., Balogun’s family tracked him down and paid the equivalent of $400 for his release.

Balogun soon joined activist groups protesting the new military dictatorship. Following his aunt, Chief Mrs. Fadeke Osinusi, he joined the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), according to his sworn statements filed in immigration court. He took on what he describes as the “dangerous but necessary job of assisting with illegally broadcasting NADECO’s message on the Nigerian airwaves.” He was subjected to torture twice for his political activities. The first time, he was held by the military for three days and, he wrote in his court filings, “had sharp objects inserted in my penis and anus. I had a gun put to my head and in my mouth. They pulled the trigger of the gun to frighten me. I had my hand broken, two fractured knees, internal bleeding where my bladder was injured.”

In the summer of 1995 he was arrested again for participating in a demonstration against President Sani Abacha. He was beaten until he gave up family addresses. He spent a month recovering from the beatings, he claims, but continued his work helping to set up temporary radio transmission sites to broadcast anti-military propaganda. In early 1996, tipped off by a friend with access to military intelligence that his movements were being monitored and that his family home had been searched, Balogun fled the country.

His journey would take him to Benin, Togo, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Trinidad, Tobago, and the U.S. After three months in New York, he moved on to the Bahamas, Cuba, and Cancún. “Drifting about in the hope that I could return back home if things change,” as he told the I.N.S., Balogun was in transit (returning from Cancún to the Bahamas) at the Houston airport, using a French passport with a false name on it, when the I.N.S. arrested him. “Do I have the right to remain silent?” he asked, according to I.N.S. records. He then said, “I will answer to the best of my ability.” He requested political asylum and was detained at the Houston Processing Center.

The reason Balogun wasn’t sent back home immediately is that he passed his “credible fear” interview with an immigration officer, a critical step in the process of applying for political asylum. But, because of his criminal background, he was ruled ineligible for asylum. Instead, he, too, applied for protection under the Convention Against Torture. After sixteen months in detention, he had his C.A.T. hearing, and the immigration judge in Houston determined that his credibility was “nonexistent.” Five months later, in October 1999, the Board of Immigration Appeals remanded the case back to the immigration court, observing that current conditions in Nigeria were “very relevant” to Balogun’s case but had been inadequately considered.

On February 15 of this year, Balogun’s claim for protection was denied again. As attorney Brannen explains the decision, Judge Howard Van Winkle reiterated the earlier finding against Balogun’s credibility, then considered current conditions in Nigeria, as instructed by the Bureau of Immigration Appeals. After decades of military dictatorship, General Olusegun Obasanjo was inaugurated in May 1999 as an elected president. Conditions in Nigeria, the judge found, are better.

But the strange twist in Balogun’s case is this: the reason he was a good candidate for deportation from the U.S. back in 1993 may be precisely why he deserves protection here now. Though he was subsequently tortured for political activity, the first time Balogun was tortured, “he was tortured for simply being a criminal,” says Brannen. The attorney cites reports from the State Department and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights to support his argument that torture is part of “the normal process” in Nigerian jails. Even with political change at the top, Brannen adds, it will take “decades” to reform local police practices.

Balogun has one more chance on appeal. When the Bureau of Immigration Appeals remanded the case last October, it ordered an automatic review should the immigration judge rule adversely. Brannen is confident about the new appeal. He says that Nigerian authorities are “gloating over improvements” in the country’s jails, “but the facts don’t bear them out.” He points out that since Obasanjo took office, only about 2,000 prisoners have been released – of a total prison population ranging from 40,000 to 120,000, depending on the estimate. The number released is miniscule in terms of reducing the overcrowding that makes the Nigerian jail system a human rights abuse in and of itself, argues Brannen. Moreover, “there are still credible reports of torture” in those jails. Finally, Brannen has submitted United Nations documentation of “illegal airport detention centers” in Lagos and the torture of Nigerians returned from Germany.

While Balogun awaits the court’s decision, he remains detained in Houston. Brannen filed three parole requests for him, the first in October 1998. His September 1999 request included a letter from an assistant warden calling Balogun a “model inmate.” In January the parole requests were denied by an I.N.S. assistant district director, because Balogun had attempted to enter the country with fraudulent French and Ghanaian passports and because he “never mentioned that he had been deported before.” In his next parole request, Brannen plans to include a letter recently written by psychiatrist Theron Bowers (who visits I.N.S. / C.C.A. detainees regularly on a contract basis) offering his opinion that Balogun’s “depression and post traumatic stress disorder” have “shown some improvement” with medication, and “could improve even further if released.”

But even winning his appeal would not necessarily mean release from detention for Balogun. Under regulations guiding claims based on the Convention Against Torture, the I.N.S. can keep him in custody if he prevails or remove him to a third country. Brannen admits his client “did some things wrong,” but he argues that Balogun “doesn’t deserve to spend the rest of his life in a U.S. jail if he wins his case.”

As our separate interviews ended, Balogun and Efe independently shared stories of detainees whose patience has run out. Balogun offered a scrap of paper with a note written on it: “2 persons (Spanish) attempted suicide because of prolonged detention.” In Dorm 4, a man had tried to slit his throat with a razor just days before. In Dorm 7, a month earlier, another man had cut his wrists and was found “lying quietly, bleeding.” Efe told of another who tried to hang himself after being held even once he had agreed to deportation.

“A lot of it is just attention-getters,” opines Assistant Warden Jimmy Cook of C.C.A. A farmer and rancher with a career in corrections at facilities in Texas and Louisiana, Cook’s approach to his work is different from Warden Martin’s. He says the biggest challenge in this field has always been breaking a man who thinks he can’t be broken. He has seen a lot of suicide attempts over the years, but doesn’t take them too seriously. They just want “to see the warden or the I.N.S. quicker, a lot of that is just a ploy and a game.”

If a ploy, it is a desperate one. “It’s very frustrating,” explains Balogun, “people are even willing to risk their lives to go back to their country of persecution just to avoid detention. They are tired of prolonged detention.” Then he offers the kind of insight that might be what makes him so unpopular with the Immigration Service. “That’s the strategy the I.N.S. [is] using right now – to frustrate asylum-seekers so they can give up and…go back home.”

Mark Dow is working on a book about immigration detention centers. He can be reached at [email protected].