Immigrant Detention Centers Under Suspicion

The country's immigrant detention system produces close to half a million detainees a year, with many of them in privately run detention facilities. Nina Bernstein, of The New York Times, has written a series of articles about the Donald W. Wyatt detention facility in Central Falls, Rhode Island. The Wyatt facility remains under scrutiny following the suspicious death of a detainee while in custody.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, hundreds of thousands of unemployed Americans are looking for work and at least some of them might find part-time jobs. We're going to talk to our money coach Alvin Hall about what kind of part-time work it makes sense to seek out or accept. But first, we've been talking quite a bit about industries that are failing because of the economic downturn - construction, the auto industry, but there's at least one business that's doing well and in fact is growing. And that's the business of locking up illegal immigrants. Nowadays, about half a million people are locked up every year on immigration violations. That's up from more than a few thousand a decade, or so ago. But this is one of the least-examined types of incarceration in this country. The New York Times's reporter, Nina Bernstein, has made it her business to take a look with a particular focus on a particular facility in Central Falls, Rhode Island. And she joins us now from our New York Bureau. Nina, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. NINA BERNSTEIN (Reporter, The New York Times): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: How did you get drawn to this whole question of what happens to undocumented workers when they're detained? How did you get interested in this story?

Ms. BERNSTEIN: Well, it's so secret. I found that it was very difficult to find out what had happened to people even when they had been injured, when they had died in detention. There was no accountability. It was - there was no requirement, for example, that deaths in detention be reported to a public body. And I did some reporting on that, and then I really wanted to take a closer look at the relationship between detention, which is as you've said a growth industry now, and a community where it's actually in the backyard.

MARTIN: How did you decide to focus on this particular place in Central Falls, Rhode Island, which is a focus of a lot of your reporting - how did you find this place and why did you decide to focus on this particular place?

Ms. BERNSTEIN: There was a Long Island farm worker who disappeared into the detention system, and I discovered after a couple of weeks that he had been at the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls, Rhode Island during part of the time that he had vanished. And I was curious about how this played out, how this detention center had almost doubled in size due, in part, to taking in more immigration detainees. I wanted to know how this was playing out in a town with so many immigrants in the population.

MARTIN: Talk to me about this facility, and how big is it, and what are some of the things that you found when you started reporting on it?

Ms. BERNSTEIN: The Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls is now about 722 beds. It had started out in the early 90s with just 300 beds, and it was supposed to be for criminal federal detainees, and that's something I think I should explain. The detainees - the immigration detainees we're talking about are really civil detainees.

MARTIN: So, this is not a matter of people who have been drug dealing, drug trafficking, committing armed robbery. These are people whose crime, as it were, is that they - is an immigration violation only.

Ms. BERNSTEIN: Well, they haven't been charged with any crime. Even if they had committed one, they haven't been charged with one, or immigration detainees are basically being held on suspicion of immigration violations while the government decides whether or not to deport them. And one of the things I discovered about this facility is that people in the town itself had begun to disappear. For the most part, they were being held elsewhere, but some of them were in fact being held right down the road at the Wyatt Detention Facility, even though their relatives had been unable to find them for days.

MARTIN: Why is that?

Ms. BERNSTEIN: Well, that's what's so strange about this system. It's really very secretive. There is no requirement to let people know. They're supposed to give detainees a chance to make a phone call, to get legal help from a list of pro bono legal services. They don't have a right to a lawyer if they can't afford one. And the reality is that these telephone systems don't work very well or they're set up as the one in Central Falls is, to make money for the facility.

MARTIN: In fact, tell me a little bit about that, if you would, how big is this whole network of immigrant detention facilities? Who runs them?

Ms. BERNSTEIN: It's really a patchwork. They're county jails, they're private prison companies - are running the largest ones now, and the Federal government runs very few of them, actually. And I think there are more than 300 around the country, and there's even a tent city.

MARTIN: What happened to - there was one particular inmate whose case has drawn a lot of attention and criticism. He was also housed at the Wyatt facility in Central Falls. Am I right? Is it…

Ms. BERNSTEIN: Yes, Jason Ng or Hiu Lui Ng.

MARTIN: Exactly.

Ms. BERNSTEIN: As I was examining this facility, I learned independently of the case of this Chinese New Yorker who was extremely ill, and his lawyers were trying to get him outside medical help and they weren't getting it. And while I was just trying to find out more about this case, he died, and at that point it was determined that he had extensive cancer and a fractured spine that had gone undiagnosed until just five days before his death.

MARTIN: Did no one notice that he was in pain?

Ms. BERNSTEIN: He had repeatedly begged for help. He was in excruciating pain, but supposedly, people in the detention center - the staff accused him of faking. The care that he was given was largely painkillers, you know, like Motrin, and he was denied a wheelchair at a point when he could no longer walk because he was in so much pain and disability.

MARTIN: And what happened after - he died last summer. What's happened since then, since those facts or the circumstances around his case became public?

Ms. BERNSTEIN: An investigation started both internally and by the Federal immigration authorities. And in December, when I was close to going to press, suddenly the Federal immigration authorities removed all the detainees from Wyatt in connection with the investigation. They scattered them to jails in other states as far away as Louisiana and Texas. And even more recently, just last week, the internal investigation by the Wyatt facility determined that seven employees were to be disciplined, to be punished in connection with his case - with his - how his case had been handled.

MARTIN: Well, one of the points you make in the latest piece - one of the latest pieces that you've published is that that people have very ambivalent feelings about these facilities. On the one hand, they realize that people are being locked up, their neighbors in some cases, and in a way that can be very trying for a family and for a community. On the other hand, some of these communities see these facilities as economic engines, as a source of jobs, as a source of revenue. When you put it all together - I mean - I guess what I'm wondering is what's the policy? What's the policy question here?

Ms. BERNSTEIN: I think that there is this scramble to find sources of revenue and there are a lot of jail developers who are looking to immigration detention as a means of making money, or in the case of some of these hard-pressed communities like Central Falls, making up for tremendous deficits. You know, in the end, you have this facility that, as in the case of Central Falls, they're now scrambling to fill. Who are they going to fill it with? And finally, there's the question, I would say, of the accessibility of legal help. That's a difficult question that the ABA, the American Bar Association, I know is concerned about, too.

MARTIN: So, the people who have been detained in the system are entitled to counsel, but they're not entitled the counsel funded by the taxpayers.

Ms. BERNSTEIN: That's correct, and it's a different system. It's a kind of parallel or shadow justice system that has some of the same vocabulary that we're used to in the criminal justice system, but it just doesn't have the same rules as what you would expect from watching "Law and Order." There isn't a right to a hearing to face your accusers, the burden of proof is shifted.

MARTIN: Finally, Nina, I wanted to ask, what kind of reaction have you gotten to these stories? And for those who have not had a chance to read them in their entirety, we will have a link on our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore. What reaction have you gotten? I assume it's been probably very diverse since this…

Ms. BERNSTEIN: It's very diverse, yeah.

MARTIN: Since immigration is an extremely sensitive issue for many people?

Ms. BERNSTEIN: It's very mixed. There are people who are very upset about this, who feel that it's opening their eyes to a world they were unaware of in their backyard. Then, there are other people who are very angry at me because they feel that I was saying these people are not guilty of any crime, and they point out that illegal immigration is a crime. The difference, of course, is that these, as I explained, these are people who haven't been charged. And I think that's the dilemma for America right now is, how do we handle this without really alienating our own traditions?

MARTIN: New York Times reporter Nina Bernstein. She was kind enough to join us from our New York bureau. Nina, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. BERNSTEIN: Thank you.

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