Immigrant Detainees Tell of Attack Dogs and Abuse

Passaic County Jail

Passaic County Jail Daniel Zwerdling, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Daniel Zwerdling, NPR
Hemnauth Mohabir, outside his home in Georgetown, Guyana.

Hemnauth Mohabir, outside his home in Georgetown, Guyana. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Daniel Zwerdling, NPR

Since Congress revamped the nation's immigration laws in the 1990s, the government has rounded up tens of thousands of immigrants each year who've committed a crime — from murder to offenses such as overstaying their visas — even if the offenders had already been punished.

These immigrants have been jailed for months or years while Homeland Security officials obtained a court order to deport them. Some have allegedly experienced brutal and violent conditions while in detention.

In a two-part series, NPR's Daniel Zwerdling investigates allegations that guards have beaten up detainees and mistreated them in other ways at two jails in New Jersey used by Homeland Security.

Zwerdling's first report looks at the case of Hemnauth Mohabir, a native of Guyana. In the spring of 2002, Mohabir returned to Guyana to visit his mother, who was ill. On his way back to New York that April, an immigration agent at Kennedy International Airport noticed Mohabir had a criminal record: Six years earlier, he'd been convicted of possessing about $5 worth of drugs. The judge fined him $250 for a misdemeanor and let him go.

Because of that past conviction, Mohabir was deported to Guyana and banned from ever coming back to the United States. But before returning to his native country, Mohabir was detained for almost two years at New Jersey's Passaic County Jail, where he alleges that guards taunted and beat detainees and terrorized them with dogs. One detainee was attacked by a dog earlier this year and sent to the hospital. Evidence obtained by NPR during the course of a five-month-long investigation suggests Mohabir's tale of abuse, corroborated by other detainees, is true.

Part 2 of This Report

Even a federal immigration judge expressed sympathy for Mohabir. But the judge said the nation's zero-tolerance immigration rules tied his hands:

Homeland Security Responds

On Nov. 18, 2004, one day after the first part of our story on immigrant detainees aired, NPR received the following statement from Clark Kent Ervin, Department of Homeland Security inspector general:

"As a result of work already underway regarding various aspects of the DHS' alien detention program, and complaints received by our office, we have undertaken a review, focusing on the treatment of detained aliens. We are looking at various DHS, Intergovernmental Service Agreement (IGSA), and contract detention facilities throughout the country, including New Jersey. We plan to have a report ready for public release by the Spring of 2005."

Story Credits

NPR's Anne Hawke produced this two-part report.

Reporter's Notebook

NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reflects on the challenges he faced in dealing with officials while reporting this story.

Mohabir's Tale of Abuse

Hemnauth Mohabir says that one night last year at about 11 p.m., a group of about eight guards at Passaic strolled up to the cell he was sharing with three other detainees. The guards ordered a "roll-call" — the detainees had to stick their arms through the bars so the guards could read their name bands. Mohabir says he stuck his own wrist through the bars from where he had been sleeping on his bunk. The head officer was standing a few feet away, and he was annoyed that Mohabir didn't get off his bunk and walk over to him. Mohabir describes what happened next.

(Note: Zwerdling tracked down one of the detainees who shared Mohabir's cell, and he corroborated this account. We've withheld the officer's name because there are several guards with the same surname at Passaic, and we couldn't confirm his first name. Officials at Passaic did not respond to our calls, letters and e-mails requesting comment. Their media spokesman, William Maer, refused to discuss any specific allegations that guards beat detainees.)

Listen: <b>Hear Mohabir's Story</b>

Evidence of Abuse

Official documents from the Passaic County Jail and confidential medical records show that at least two prisoners have been taken to the hospital this year for treatment for dog bites. Detainee Rosendo Lewis, 29, says he was bitten by a dog and beaten during a confrontation with a group of guards. The chief officer's report mirrors Lewis' account of the incident in most aspects except for who started the altercation: Guards allege Lewis cursed at them and raised a clenched fist; Lewis claims an officer hit him after he complained that guards were treating detainees unfairly.

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