Letters: Immigrant Detainees Allege Abuse

Passaic County Jail

Passaic County Jail Daniel Zwerdling, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Daniel Zwerdling, NPR

On Nov. 17 and Nov. 18, All Things Considered aired a two-part investigative report by NPR's Daniel Zwerdling on allegations that immigrant detainees had been abused by guards and attacked by dogs at two New Jersey jails used by Homeland Security. The series prompted many listeners to write in. Excerpts of some of those letters are presented below:

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"The parallels between your report on Passaic County prison and Abu Ghraib are startling. I was particularly struck by your mention of Sheriff Jerry Speziale and his refusal to respond to your enquiries, odd for someone who's adept at self-promotion. His father is co-owner of the barbershop I patronize. While there shortly after the U.S. had captured Baghdad, I overheard him telling a customer that Sheriff Speziale had been sent to Iraq as a law and order adviser."

— David Caithness

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"I have always maintained some kind of belief, instilled by an FDR-generation mother who has always fought for people's rights, that somehow the United States had advanced beyond most other places in the world when it came to human rights — even if we had made many mistakes along the way. For some reason, your report, coming as it does on the heels of the last four years, made me wonder if these kind of behaviors within the institution of a prison were really the rule and not the exception."

— Elizabeth Warner, Boston

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"As one who works on prison reform issues in Texas (and through Santa Fe's Coalition for Prisoners' Rights, in other states), I thought your report of 11/17/04 was just the best I had heard on prisons — period. I particularly appreciated your follow-up, on air and on the Web site, on the difficulty of getting to interview even one "detainee."

"The individuals who are in charge of our nation's alleged criminal justice system, from the White House to the lowest level of guards, obfuscate, delay, yell, and lie to keep secret the hatefulness they are too afraid or ashamed to reveal.

"Thank you for a superb job. Please know, however, that it will probably do no good. Witness how the Abu Ghraib scandal has sunk without a trace, thanks to the military's very successful stonewalling."

— Phyllis Guest, Dallas

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"I worked in a prison for three years as a nurse. I do not believe the prison system treats immigrants any different than a regular state prison does with their inmates. There are, currently, a million "acceptable" ways to mistreat prisoners in the name of security. I think being out of control is part of prison culture and is a matter of degree from prison to prison. Abu Ghraib is a prison problem, not a special case. If we think abuses aren't widely spread in this country, we are kidding ourselves."

— Gary Gagne

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"I just got through hearing your report and find myself with mixed feelings about it. No doubt there is a lot of truth to the things that happened, but I can't help but feel that this report will be used to weaken the law regarding the detention of criminal aliens.

"I feel you owe your listeners a better understanding of why the law was changed. It was done so because thousands of criminal aliens were being released back into American society after they had committed crimes.

"I have no sympathy for anyone who comes to America, takes advantage of our open society and then commits crimes. "Dog Bite" man is an admitted felon who could have spared us all time, money and grief by agreeing to be deported."

— Don Castle, Charlotte N.C.

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"I am the sort of person who gets tears in my eyes at readings of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. I want this country to be a light to the nations.

"But what Zwerdling has shown and what we need to know is that we have failed to hold ourselves to these ideals, and that failure is one that does us no good in our deepest hopes for this country."

— Ellen Dannin, Detroit, Mich.

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"I thought the photos of the Abu Ghraib prisoners would force changes in the Bush administration's policies and in how Americans regard human rights when they are abused in the name of keeping us safe. But I was wrong. And I wonder if Zwerdling's reporting, without photos, will shake the powerful at all."

— Paola Banchero, Anchorage, Alaska

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"I live in Saudi Arabia. I heard the program you did about the detainee abuse before deportation from the department of homeland security. I have heard stories of remorseless abuse and torture many a times, but I have been absolutely shocked to hear that anything like this could happen in our home country, where we say that we are the liberators and the supporters of human rights."

— Gerrard Kilban, Saudi Arabia

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"The "non-citizen" aspect of the story was practically negligible; rather, it seems the piece would have been more aptly titled "Prison Abuse in New Jersey Facilities". Further, while I certainly don't condone the mistreatment of anyone in the system, it hardly seemed appropriate for you to report only on the deportees' desire for accountability from the guards, etc., without seeking any sort of accountability from them for the crime or crimes that caused them to be placed in removal proceedings in the first place… Criminal aliens are a part of my world every single working day, and while they certainly should not be abused, it does not bother me in the least that non-citizens who break the laws of my country be sent back to theirs."

— Homeland Security employee, name withheld

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"I listened to Daniel Zwerdling's series on Immigrant detainee abuse with a mixture of horror and shame. Horror because my husband is an immigrant (from Canada). Could one wrong move on his part land him in the abyss of hopelessness, powerlessness and abuse that these men have experienced? Shame because this is happening in America — supposed land of opportunity, freedom and justice."

— Amanda Stonehouse, Mankato, Minn.

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"I came to the U.S. from India for my graduate studies… I must say, I have lived up to the expectation of my academic credentials and have contributed widely to this country's research & development. However, after having heard the story, I get this feeling that people are always looking for an opportunity to hit back on me, and that nobody would come to my rescue if at any time I would need to fight for my rights, rights of living as a decent human in a decent human civilization."

— Srinivas Balla, Fairfax, Va.

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