February 26, 2007
For many miles of his protest walks, whether against border walls or children's prisons, Jay Johnson-Castro has walked alone. His four-day walk from Abilene to Haskell, Texas this week may be no different, as he protests the cruel and unusual treatment of the Hazahza family and immigrant prisoners like them. But there are two things to remember about Jay's walk this week. The first thing is how many people will be honking.
"There are literally thousands of people every day who honk, wave, and take photographs as they drive by," Jay explains over the telephone from his home in Del Rio. "They don't walk. Nobody wants to walk. But they honk in solidarity with no walls, with no prisons for children. By the time the walk against the wall got to McAllen and Brownsville, there was a chorus of horns nonstop from both directions. So if there is a perception that there is only one man walking, there is also the reality of the vast majority of people honking that they are offended and disgusted by a wall on American soil, or a prison for children."
The second thing to remember is how cruel are the conditions at Haskell prison. It's bad enough that convicted criminals are exported there from Wyoming. Who can justify such treatment for immigrant families whose only alleged wrongdoing is having an American address?
"Suzi Hazahza represents the kind of person we want in our country," says Johnson-Castro. "Yet there is an element in our country that doesn't want her here. That element is a minority, and lots of folks disagree with the way she has been treated by the highest powers in this country. Having her dignity violated physically, violated emotionally, violated intellectually, and having her family ripped apart by a country that's for family values, this is a condition that cannot continue to exist. It will cease. And we the people will see to it that that it does cease."
Ahmad Ibrahim agrees that the American people are going to oppose the harsh treatment of Suzi Hazahza at Haskell, just the way they opposed the treatment of his nieces and nephew at the T. Don Hutto prison. He tells two stories to make his point. On the one hand, there are Americans like the guards at Hutto prison who ate pizza in front of the children. When the children of Hutto put together some cash and asked the guards to order pizza for them, the guards told them no. The children would have to eat prison food.
"Those people are not only the minority in America," says Ahmad Ibrahim, speaking by telephone from Dallas. "They are the minority of the minority. Most of the people would not treat children that way. Most of the people are like the teachers. When the children returned to school, the teachers welcomed them back. The teachers told them that they could make up their work and get through the year. The teachers gave them all big hugs that melted them right back in."
Likewise, says Ahmad, the American people will reject the harsh treatment of 20-year-old Suzi Hazahza and her 23-year-old sister Mirvat, who have done nothing to deserve four months (and counting) of hard time in a place that nobody pretends is anything but a harsh Texas prison.
And how hard is life at the Rolling Plains prison? Speaking to that issue is Ralph Isenberg whose wife spent 52 days there at the command of US immigration authorities. Isenberg took phone calls that began with screams, or ended with screams, or had the screams of his wife in the background as she handed the phone to someone who was not in so much pain. Isenberg is a rich man, so he could afford to pay $10,000 for all the collect calls that kept him in touch with those sounds of misery.
When Isenberg heard about Suzi and Mirvat Hazahza spending their first 48 hours at Rolling Plains in a drunk tank without bed or toilet, sleeping on a concrete floor with a hole in the middle, he knew what he was hearing about.
Overcrowding, for one thing. There can be only one good reason for tossing sober honor students into a drunk tank for two days. All the prison beds were already full. Which means that technically, the first crime we can verify involving Suzi and Mirvat Hazahza, was the crime of delivering them to Haskell prison when it was already overcrowded.
Medical neglect, also. As a result of their two November nights on the cold concrete floors of the drunk tank, Suzi and Mirvat Hazahza came down with fevers. When they asked for a doctor, they were denied. Isenberg's wife had it even worse. She had gall bladder complications and an abscessed tooth, which are infamously painful, and she received the same initial answers from Haskell authorities that Suzi and Mirvat received. We can't get you a doctor, but here's a pain killer for you.
And sexual harassment. It's true, says Isenberg, that prisoners are supposed to be strip searched after contact with visitors, but what kind of strip search is called for, and how professionally is it conducted? Something about the fifth search of Suzi Hazahza at Haskell jail had her pleading for no more visitors ever. She won't even allow her mother or brother to visit.
For Isenberg, the conditions at Haskell prison have become something of an obsession. He has collected sworn statements from employees and ex-prisoners which he keeps safely stored for the day when an official investigation gets underway. With Jay on the outside and Suzi Hazahza on the inside, the day of that investigation may be near.
The problems with immigrant detention begin with transportation to Haskell from Dallas, says Isenberg. The vans are not always in great shape, neither are the tires. And occupancy limits are not strictly observed. If someone gets sick or throws up in an overcrowded van, there is only one thing to do. Drive faster. Imagine the experience of traveling in a van with worn tires at speeds over 80 miles per hour, with the smell of puke up your nose. Imagine being told it's your job.
If prison employees want to complain about conditions in a facility that holds immigrants for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), they are supposed to be able to file something in writing. But Isenberg says that complaint forms are not always kept where employees can find them. Workers would have to ask a supervisor.
The prison at Haskell is neither owned nor operated by ICE. It is a privately contracted prison managed by the Emerald Companies of Louisiana, and it holds both male and female criminal convicts imported from Wyoming. Isenberg says the pressures of profit are felt throughout the operation.
Prisoners at Haskell can choose to work, but they are not always told that they are entitled to some pay. Food menus approved by ICE are not always the meals actually served. And sometimes food gets recycled from last meal's waste to next meal's serving. Three years ago, it was beans and rice, or rice and beans, three plates per day.
"Temperature control is a joke," says Isenberg. In the winter it's cold, in the summer hot. Isenberg attended "video court" in Dallas one day and watched the immigration prisoners at Haskell, dressed in winter coats with winter breath that you could see on the screen. At night, women would heat water bottles in a microwave to keep under their blankets for warmth.
Every prisoner gets one roll of toilet paper per week. But suppose that conditions of diet, temperature, and sanitation bring on a case of diarrhea? You don't get a second roll. Or what if a prisoner has personal needs when the commissary is closed? You get one fresh pair of underwear per week. One towel. And you're lucky if you ever see clean sheets.
At a four-hour drive from Dallas (not to mention the distance from Wyoming) Haskell isolates its prisoners. Men can be visited on Saturdays, women on Sundays. If a family is held together, you spend the night sixty miles away in Abilene to visit both the men and women.
Phone conversations are monitored and if your topic strays from approved subjects, the line can go dead on you. Isenberg learned how to rush to his office and wait for his wife to call back on a business line after his home lines went dead.
In short, they kill your humanity at Haskell, or they try to. Programs have been whittled down to nothing. Going to Haskell is like going to hell.
"They destroy your will to live," says Isenberg. "My wife spent 52 days there, and she has yet to fully recover from her experience. She has been diagnosed with post traumatic stress syndrome as have her daughter and myself. I can remember laying in bed for two or three days, and couldn't get up. Thank god my adopted daughter would bring me food and drink. There are simply no words to describe the feelings of emptiness that go with being separated form loved ones with no reason."
Of course, people want to know, what did Suzi and Mirvat Hazahza do to deserve this treatment? The Hazahza family fled persecution from Palestine, arrived in the USA with visas legally, and applied for asylum legally. The family's asylum was denied, but there was no country that would take them. So they were living in the USA under a warrant of deportation that had never been presented. It's not clear what ICE expects of the Hazahzas either as prisoners or free people. What exactly are they supposed to be doing?
"The Hazahzas weren't given any restrictions to follow," says Isenberg. "If ICE wanted them to stay in one place, they could have gone to their home and told them that. They could have asked them to phone in on a regular basis. They could have placed them under bond. But these alternatives have not been made available."
Friday night Isenberg visited the Islamic Center of Irving, where he invited the community to join Jay's vigil outside the prison on Saturday, March 3. Meanwhile Jay says that Rosa Rosales, President of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) has pledged support of Abilene-area chapters. On Monday, Jay will travel to Dallas to meet Isenberg and Ahmad Ibrahim for the first time.
Last week, there was hardly a major newspaper that did not cover the topic of immigration prisons in Texas. It was a good week of news coverage, topped by Friday's edition of Democracy Now! If the media follow Jay to Haskell, the American people will come around. Half the Hazahza family have been released from Hutto. It would be a crying shame not to see Suzi Hazahza out of hell next week. Every day that passes at Haskell cuts a permanent scar of injustice for everyone to see.
"My wife still has nightmares, and so do I," says Isenberg. It's too cruel to put people through this. If you can't walk from Abilene to Haskell, be sure to honk for Suzi's freedom.
NOTE: On Friday, a federal magistrate judge in Dallas gave ICE two weeks to show cause for keeping the Hazahza family at Haskell. Following up on inquiries prompted by a Friday appearance on Democracy Now! Joshua Bardavid circulated a sample letter to ICE calling for immediate release of the Hazahzas (see below).