From The Archives

The Worst Prison System in America

The INS is holding immigrants in filthy, overcrowded jails across the country — with no rights, no charges, and no relief in sight


Yearning to Breathe Free: A Voice Investigation
August 8, 1995

Lilian Loukakou stares at the cinder block walls of the York County jail in Pennsylvania, trying to make sense of the nightmare that has been her life since she traveled to the U.S. last December. What is she doing locked up in a maximum security cell? She has committed no crime. Why is the U.S. government treating her this way?

Loukakou, 26, came from the Republic of Congo last winter with a visa to study English in Colorado. She hoped to earn a degree in computer science. But hours after she landed in Chicago, the Immigration and Naturalization Ser­vice took her into custody. They accused Loukakou of lying on her visa application and intending to remain in the U.S. indefinitely. After a week in a local holding cell, she was sent to the immigration jail run by the notorious Esmor corpo­ration in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She was crammed in among some 240 men and 60 women from 40 countries, all nabbed at airports without proper documentation.

Most of these prisoners had applied for asylum as refugees from political repression, religious persecution, or ethnic warfare, only to find themselves jailed in a concrete former warehouse as they waited — typically months, possi­bly years — for their cases to be resolved. Loukakou’s only solace was finding another French-speaking detainee with whom she could communicate.

For four months she languished. Finally, in April, an­other detainee recommended an attorney, and a hearing date was set for July. If she could just hang on until then, Loukak­ou told herself — if she could endure Esmor’s spoiled food and freezing temperatures, the racial and sexual slurs from guards, the insect-infested bed and relentless stench from the open bathroom nearby — everything would be all right.

Then in the wee hours of a Sunday morning toward the end of June, the jail erupted in a riot. A small group of male detainees led the charge, tearing up mattresses, yanking down sprinkler pipes, cutting electricity, smashing up chairs, all in a desperate attempt to protest the inhumane conditions of the jail and the Kafkaesquc process of getting their cases addressed. After a night of turmoil, local police stormed the jail at dawn.

The prisoners were moved to other INS detention facil­ities or to county and federal jails. For 18 hours, their wrists were shackled behind their backs, and they were deprived of food, water, and the me of a toilet. Three Cuban men were immediately put into solitary confinement, isolated for six days until their lawyer — after hounding the INS to learn the whereabouts of her clients — paid them a visit.

Several men report that they were beat­en during the transfer, stripped naked, and forced to sleep on the floor. Among them was a Finn whose body, according to a local prison-rights activist, was covered with bruis­es. He smiled dopily at his visitor, pointing wordlessly to his head and lower spine to in­dicate pain. A week after the transfer, he had neither seen a doctor nor spoken to anyone who understands Finnish.

Loukakou, separated from her French­-speaking friend, was taken to the county jail in York. Guards dismissed her protests and cut her hair. Lilian Loukakou’s shoulder-­length dreadlocks dropped onto the cement floor, like her silent tears.

The riot shone a light on the govern­ment’s bizarre and often corrupt sys­tem of detaining immigrants. The case looked closed when the INS re­leased a scathing report on the Es­mor facility two weeks ago and an­nounced that it would not be renewing the company’s contract. The riot was treated as an object-lesson in the perils of privatization.

But a Voice investigation, including interviews with more than 50 INS detainees all over the country, has established that the in­humane practices at Esmor are common — ­whether facilities are operated privately or by the government. The 315 detainees from Eliz­abeth represent just a fraction of nearly 82,000 immigrants who were imprisoned by the U.S. last year in conditions that often fail to meet the standard set by the American Corrections Association, not to mention the UN.

In a labyrinthian system of 10 detention centers run by the INS, five contracted out to companies like Esmor, and hundreds of beds (an INS spokesperson could not say ex­actly how many) rented out for detainees in many of the country’s 900 county jails, im­migrants are subjected to human-rights violations that are the stuff of denunciations on the floor of Congress when they take place in Cuba or in refugee camps in Hong Kong. But here they go officially unchecked and un­challenged, as Congress makes increasingly restrictive immigration policy and the INS enforces it without having to account to any­one. In response to ongoing reports of abuse, INS Commissioner Doris Meissner ap­pointed a citizens’ Advisory Panel in March to review complaints. It is still too soon to gauge the impact this 15-member group will have on an entrenched system.

INS detention facilities have been investigated — and condemned — by the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, the UN High Commis­sioner for Refugees, and Amnesty Interna­tional. A national class-action lawsuit on be­half of detainees has been filed by attorney Peter Schey of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law. The case was grant­ed class standing in March — several months before Esmor exploded. The court, says Schey, “is signaling its belief that we’ve raised serious constitutional claims and its willing­ness to issue nationwide orders telling the INS how to run its facilities. Esmor was bad, but it’s hardly unique. No other correction­al institutions, state or federal, engage in such alarming practices. Only the INS.”

Over the last decade, as Congress has made it easier to deport immi­grants, the number of detainees has increased —  from 57,000 in 1991 to a projected 88,800 in 1996 — crowding the jails and overwhelming the system. The average length of detention has increased from 11 days in 1986 to 26 days in 1994, but those figures are skewed by the inclusion of thousands of Mexicans who are detained for a day or two before they are thrown back over the border. Advocates estimate that hundreds have been held for more than six months and dozens for years. In 1994, taxpayers spent nearly $200 million on immigrant detention.

It’s not just the INS’s widely reported er­rors and excesses that allow abuses to persist. Detainees have little claim to such all-Amer­ican principles as due process and equal treatment under the law. Even the Eighth Amendment, with its provision against cruel and unusual punishment, does not apply to these prisoners because of their classification as civ­il, rather than criminal, detainees. As such, they are not guaranteed attorneys. Even Alexander Aleinikoff, now a top INS official who defends such policies, once scoffed that U.S. immigration law resides “in the back­waters of constitutional jurisprudence.”

There are three types of immigrant pris­oners: “excludable,” “deportable,” and “criminal aliens.” Each category is governed by a distinct set of harsh and byzantine laws. Ex­cludables are people who, like Lilian Loukak­ou and most of those detained in Elizabeth, New Jersey, are apprehended by the INS as they arrive at the border. The INS defines them as never having entered the country, and this legal fiction means they are not enti­tled to the basic rights that apply to anyone who touches down in America. (Which is why it was in the government’s interest to wade into the water to round up immigrants on the Golden Venture before they could make it ashore.)

When Loukakou arrived last December, INS officials doubted that the passport she presented was her own because her long braided hair did not resemble the short style in the photo taken a few years earlier. Some faxes from the embassy in the Congo, and a scar on her neck that matched the one visible in the photo, cleared up the confusion. But by then, INS officials had searched her bag and found letters from her boyfriend in Col­orado in which he addressed Loukakou as “my dear wife.” For that reason, the INS ac­cused her of fraud: On the visa form, she’d checked the “single” box for marital status.

“Ayyyyy,” moans the boyfriend, Loui­son. “That’s just a traditional way to call your loved one in our culture. Since when is a let­ter the equal of a marriage certificate?” Louison recalls his own days in detention as a student opposition leader during the Congolese dictatorship in the ’80s, before he came to the U.S. as a refugee. “They took me away and put me in jail,” he says. “But I never met a sys­tem like this one in the U.S., this land of freedom and democracy.”

Ever since the Chinese Exclusion Act, more than a century ago, the Supreme Court has deferred to the “plenary power doctrine” — the prin­ciple that matters involving immi­grants should be determined by Congress and the president, not by the courts, limiting excludables’ access to due process. More recent laws call for the manda­tory detention of excludable aliens awaiting “further inquiry” into their right to step on American soil. That means virtually everyone arriving in the U.S. without proper documents goes directly to jail. (Parole is a distant, chancy possibility.)

These strict provisions were enacted in re­sponse to huge influxes of Haitians and Cubans arriving by boat in 1981. The Reagan administration sought to discourage refugees, and detention camps looked like a good way to do so. Then, in 1989, the INS announced it would detain all applicants for political asylum entering the country through Texas to deter others from joining them. The INS commis­sioner at the time said the policy would send a message to would-be Central American refugees: they would be held in conditions that “won’t be like the Ritz Carlton.”

In sum, before Reagan, detention was a short-term measure to assure that “flight risks” with pending cases would not disap­pear. Now it is an ideological matter: Putting immigrants in jail makes examples of them back home, the explanation goes. Only those with serious fear of persecution will risk de­tention. The INS asserts that this policy has worked, citing a decrease in attempted illegal entries at JFK, for example, from 14,700 in 1992 to 8,800 last year. So by its own logic, the INS is detaining thousands with credible asylum claims.

Nonetheless, the law is becoming even more restrictive. In an effort to expedite asy­lum hearings — in 1994 the INS reported a backlog of 425,000 applications — the agency set up entry interviews at airports. Anyone with false documents is excluded from the program, as if political refugees could always obtain official papers.

Illegal immigrants who have made it past a port of entry, or those who came legal­ly and then violated the conditions of their visas, have a little more leeway if only because the state recognizes that they are actually here. These are the people deemed “deportable” and the INS is cracking down on any of them who fall into the system.

Anis Lalani is a 25-year-old man from Pakistan who had been living and working in the U.S. for six-and-a-half years. He had ap­plied for a green card with sponsorship from his employer at a Los Angeles printing press, and he was engaged to be married to a U.S. citizen. Last year, he and his fiancee went to visit her mother in Tucson, and they all decided to pop down to Mexico for supper. On the way home, they were stopped at the bor­der, and Lalani was surprised to learn that his work permit had expired a couple of weeks before. On the spot, Lalani was taken into INS custody; after some days in a federal prison, be ended up at an INS-run facility in Florence, Arizona.

Lalani sought various remedies, but after learning that his appeal could take months — if not years — he withdrew it. “I decided it was better to risk prison in Pakistan than to sit in this Arizona prison for one more day,” he said, after having been detained for two months. “This place is driving me crazy.” So he “signed out” — agreed to be deported. That was June 27, 1994. But it rook the INS until the following April to actually put him on a plane.

The third category of detainees­ — “criminal aliens” — are immigrants (many of whom reside legally in the U.S.) who committed a criminal of­fense. As they complete their prison sentence, the INS takes them into custody and begins deportation pro­ceedings. Such immigrants are often shocked to find themselves shipped out to a new kind of jail just when they thought they had finished doing their time — and many who took plea bargains had no idea that deporta­tion was part of the deal.

If these detainees try to fight in the courts to stay in the U.S., they can spend years locked up while the case grinds along. In INS custody, the “sentence” is always indefinite. Lulseged Dhine, an Ethiopian Jew who has been resisting INS efforts to deport him to Ethiopia (where, despite the airlift of virtu­ally all Jews to Israel, an INS judge ruled he had no reason to fear persecution), has spent five years in INS detention — more than tripling the time he did for drug possession — ­and he sees no end in sight.

Ex-offenders comprise about 5 per cent of all those eligible for deportation — and about 60 per cent of those who are detained. In these days of inflamed anti-immigrant sen­timent and tough-on-crime mania, there’s no bigger bogeyman than these “criminal aliens.” The Republican “Contract With America” goes so far as to demand the summary deportation of all non-citizen criminals the moment their sentences are completed. Just this month, Governor Pataki deported 180 ille­gal immigrants with criminal records.

But despite a few notorious cases of vi­olent felons who have evaded the INS, most “criminal aliens” — like most of those incar­cerated in criminal jails nowadays — are guilty of drug possession and petty sales. The law says that all “aggravated felons” must be de­tained without bond and be deported — and Congress keeps widening the definition of a felony. The result is INS jails overflowing with detainees who would not have been considered deportable a decade ago. Serving their sentences paid their debt; there was no double jeopardy, no exile. What’s more, many of these immigrants have lived most of their lives in the U.S. and have no connection to the country where they were born. A young Vietnamese man, who came here as an infant with his refugee parents and, two decades later, got busted for drug possession, told the Voice he was terrified of being sent to a country where he didn’t know a soul and couldn’t speak the language.

Arturo Garay Burgos, a legal permanent resident born in Mexico, did time for a 1978 conviction for possession of heroin. He was granted parole in 1984, and his case was closed two years later. He moved to Phoenix with his wife and three children and started a new life, working in a community service or­ganization developing programs for abused children and helping low-income families secure permanent housing. His record remained clean. “Then in ’88 out of the blue,” he says, “I get a letter from the INS saying I have to appear in court and I’m going to be deported. They had passed a law making the crime I’d done 10 years earlier an aggravated felony and now they want to punish me for it all over again.”

Garay, 42, has lived in the U.S. for 38 years. He was educated — from nursery school through college — here. His wife, children, and grandchildren are all citizens. “I don’t have anyone in Mexico,” he says.

Garay’s case dragged on until 1993, when the INS ordered him deported. His ap­peal is still pending. Nonetheless, the INS is­sued him a final deportation order on Janu­ary 10, 1994. Arguing that his case was not yet closed, Garay was granted a stay of deportation. Then, on March 13, “here come two INS agents out of the clear blue sky to my house and tell me I’m charged with failure to appear on January 10. Like a stupid fool I go with them to the office. That’s the last time I see the streets.”

Garay was taken to the Florence immigration jail and remained there for nearly four months until, about four weeks ago, he was released on a bond (which he was able to muster only because of a timely income tax return). Garay — like many “criminal aliens” interviewed for this piece — decried the conditions in the INS facility. “That place,” he snorted, “makes the state penitentiary look luxurious.”

The Florence facility — or as the INS euphemistically puts it, Service Pro­cessing Center (SPC) — sits in a dusty, remote town whose primary industry is incarceration. Along the two-lane highway, federal, state, and INS jails have been sprouting like cacti.

The INS SPC holds about 500 men, most of them “criminal aliens.” Temperatures typically reach 102 degrees in the summer, but the men get clean shirts and underpants only every several days — and, they say, the clothing comes from the laundry still putrid with sweat. They worry that men are intro­duced into the population without being screened for communicable diseases like TB. But the chief complaint is that inmates are punished on a guard’s whim and sent to “the hold” — solitary, lock-down cells just large enough for a bed and toilet. Once there, they are denied visits, recreation, and phone calls.

Phone calls at Florence, as at most detention centers, can be made collect only. And the INS has contracted one of the most ex­pensive phone companies in the country, RCNA, for this facility. According to an RCNA operator, a 15-minute call to the East Coast costs $22 (compared to $8 charged by AT&T). Worse still, the INS gets 35 cents on every dollar charged to a call. (INS spokesper­son Daniel Kane says he was not aware that the INS profited by such arrangements.)

At other facilities, such as the SPC in El Paso, detainees can buy a $10 calling card to use on phones there. But few of them come in with $10, so they end up taking kitchen or custodial jobs in the jail, reaping $1 a day on these jobs. “This is particularly distasteful and probably illegal,” charges attorney Schey. “They work for the INS at slave wages as a quid pro quo for a seven-minute call to their attorney.”

Florence is one of three INS detention facilities that has passed inspection by the American Corrections Asso­ciation, the body that monitors stan­dards in criminal prisons. But ac­cording to a guard at the Florence SPC, who had helped spruce the place up before the ACA looked it over, “They found things that didn’t measure up and just said, ‘Fix this before we come back next year.’ ”

The detention center in New York doesn’t come close to passing an inspection. It is filthy, airless, and right across the street from one of SoHo’s prime cultural attrac­tions — the Film Forum at Houston and Var­ick Streets. On the fourth floor of this feder­al office building, 185 immigrants are confined.

Almost two years ago, the ACLU published a blistering report on the facility, pointing out that it was ill-equipped and over­crowded. The jail was established in 1984 to hold detainees on a short-term basis — no more than one week. Since then, the length of time has increased more than twentyfold. As of 1992 (the last year for which figures are available) the average stay was 154 days.

No one is permitted outside (a violation of ACA — not to mention UN — confinement standards), and the windows  are sealed shut. That means that for upward of five months, most detainees never see the light of day or inhale fresh air. In the four years he was confined at Varick Street, Lulseged Dhine watched his brown skin turn a pasty gray.

Visiting hours are more restrictive than at a high-security prison. Visitors are herded into one line after another, and none of the procedures are ever explained. Minors who show up on weekdays to see a parent typically burst into tears when they are gruffly turned away — and no one tells them they may come back on the weekend. One day a guard urged the crowd to move faster through the sign-­in procedure. When a visitor suggested the process would be quicker if instructions were posted in a few languages, the guard snapped “Yeah, it would go faster if all these people learned English.”

Visitors can’t catch a glimpse of the liv­ing area, and the INS said it could not ac­commodate a tour for press. But Sun Tok Stegeman, a detainee originally from Korea, describes the women’s dorm as a small room crammed with a dozen beds. There’s barely room to walk between then, she says, but that hardly matters as there’s little to do but lie in bed and stare at the ceiling. Detainees can watch a single television set for up to two hours a day, but they are forbidden to have books. The temperature is so cold, Stegeman sleeps in long johns, socks, and a sweatsuit­ — which she possesses only because her boyfriend has brought them. Others are not so lucky. They yank their single blankets over their heads, she says, and whimper through the night.

Lilian Loukakou spent a night at Varick Street in June. She was taken there after the Esmor riot. She slept on the cold floor with­out a blanket.

At a notorious INS SPC in Texas, where employees said supervisors and other personnel were sexually molesting female detainees and guards, it took years of pounding on government doors before the Justice Department would conduct an in­vestigation — and in the end little action resulted. Beginning in 1990, former guards at the Port Isabel SPC in Los Fresnos attempt­ed to publicize allegations of misconduct. In 1992 some brought a sexual harassment suit against private security companies the INS contracted for guard staff.

Reverend Anthony Hefner, who worked as a guard at Port Isabel from 1983 to 1990, says he saw supervisors pluck young women from the dorm late at night, bring them out to the parking lot, and take them into their cars. Another former guard (and a plaintiff in the sexual harassment case), Cyn­thia Rodriguez, says she was asked to escort a 16-year-old Salvadoran girl from her dorm to supervisors’ offices and then back to the dorm. “I was asked to take her three or four times that day and each time she’d come back all sweaty,” Rodriguez recalls. “I said to her, ‘What the hell were you doing, girl?’ and she said she was dancing the Lambada for the officers because they said if she did, they’d help her get out.”

All the charges were denied by the INS district director at the time. Nonetheless, these reports led to an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General in 1992 — which concluded that the allegations were unsubstantiated. But, former staff say, the probe was intentionally obstructed by officials. Several guards, says Reverend Hefner, were warned by superiors that they’d lose their jobs if they spoke to any investigators­ — and four signed affidavits attesting to these threats. Some detainees and staff who wit­nessed sexual misconduct were not inter­viewed, though their names had been sup­plied to the OIG. Meanwhile, the sexual harassment suit was thrown out on a technicality — the judge ruled that it had been filed after the statute of limitations had expired. An appeal is still pending.

Most detainees at the Port Isabel SPC come from Mexico and Central America; indeed, guards must speak Spanish to be hired. Rodriguez remembers having to go through 40 hours of training for the $9-an­ hour job. Part of it, she says, was learning not to care about people. “They told us not to talk to these people unless we were giv­ing them an order, not to crack a joke or even smile at them, to treat them as they’re supposed to be treated — which is not like people at all.” Still, says Rodriguez, “you just can’t help it. There was this lady pass­ing out and spitting up blood and I couldn’t just sit there. Another officer and I carried her to a cell, but one of the immigration officers yelled at us and accused the lady of bluffing so she could be let out. He kicked her and told her to get up. She passed away that evening.”

Along with Hefner and other former employees, Rodriguez described such inci­dents in testimony before a House Judiciary committee on International Law, Immigra­tion and Refugees almost two years ago. They called for a new, complete investigation and for extensions of protections of the Whistleblower’s Act to any personnel work­ing for a contractor in government facilities.

The INS spokesperson had no informa­tion on the status of the investigation. “They haven’t gotten back to us” says Rogelio Nunez, executive director of Casa de Proyec­to Libertad, which provides legal services for detainees at Port Isabel. “Conditions remain the same.”

Olanrewaju Ajayi has been detained at Port Isabel for almost almost three years. He was tak­en into custody by the INS for lying about his immigration status on a $2500 student loan application in 1982. Back in Alabama, Ajayi’s wife tries to look after their three chil­dren as best she can, but her hands are para­lyzed and Ajayi worries about his oldest, 11- year-old Yinka, who is “doing everything for her and losing his own youth.” Ajayi has lost 30 pounds at Port Isabel, and at 5-11 weighs a scrawny 150 pounds. “This place,” he says, “is like a concentration camp.”

Proyecto Libertad is one of a hand­ful of groups around the country that supplies free legal assistance to detained immigrants. Without the intervention of such organizations, attorneys, or the occasional jail­house lawyer, most detainees would never know they had any recourse at all. Indeed, one of the central points in the Schey class-action suit is that prisoners are de­nied meaningful access to legal assistance.

By law, they are supposed to be given a list of attorneys and phone numbers upon their apprehension. But according to dozens of detainees around the country, the lists are distributed without any explanation — prisoners, especially those who don’t read Eng­lish, don’t have a clue what they’ve been handed. Often, the lists are inaccurate or out date. And even if a detainee uses the list, there is no guarantee that a collect call from a stranger will be accepted. Especially if the law office has an automated voicemail system that can’t accept collect calls. A U.S. citizen was penned up at Varick Street for weeks in 1993, unable to obtain a copy of his birth cer­tificate because he couldn’t get a collect call through to the Department of Health for in­formation on how to obtain it.

Lawyers say that because there’s no way to contact detainees, their clients often arrive at meetings unprepared. And guards may take their time producing the clients for vis­its. One New York attorney says he has stopped representing inmates at Varick Street because he frequently had to wait nearly two hours before seeing them.

If the client is even there. Often de­tainees are moved from one facility to another without the attorney being notified — even the day before a hearing. During his three­-year detention, Franklin C. Bart-Addison, a 49-year-old Ghanaian national with a green card, was moved 26 times, shuttled from Texas to Oklahoma and Louisiana. “There was never any explanation for all this,” he says. “On the way, I lost all my legal papers and personal property. I would try to call my wife to tell her where I was each time. The farther from home I got, the more difficult it was for my family to visit me.” For four years, Bart­-Addison didn’t see the youngest of his six children, now five years old.

When the INS rents beds in criminal jails, there is even less accountability. After Lil­ian Loukakou was transferred to York, it took almost a week for her lawyer, Carmen Men­diola, to locate her. Then, after Mendiola drove three and a half hours from Elizabeth to visit Loukakou (and other clients), the warden refused to let her in. After 90 min­utes of haggling on the phone with INS au­thorities, Mendiola finally persuaded them to give her the access that is her clients’ right. The warden relented, but would not permit the assistants who accompanied Mendiola to go in with her; in fact they were threatened with arrest if they did not leave the waiting room.

The most notorious county jail to take in INS detainees is the New Orleans Parish Prison, a 7000-bed complex where current litigation alleges sexual abuse of female in­mates and men subjected to beatings and electric shock. Many of the Chinese women who were fished up by the INS when the Golden Venture ran aground two years ago were taken there; they remain in custody (though some have been moved to a Cali­fornia jail).

This prison gets $45 per detainee from the INS — almost twice the amount the state of Louisiana pays for criminal inmates. Employees there refer to INS detainees as a “cash crop.”

Medical access is often even worse than legal access, despite recent INS efforts to meet national standards on correctional health care. At Port Isabel, says Cynthia Rodriguez, “medical attention means Mylanta or Tylenol” — an assessment echoed by detainees across the country. A 22-year-old Russian man held at Varick Street who was HIV-positive was, despite repeated requests, unable to get his pre­scription filled. He became so depressed that he attempted suicide by slashing his arms, splattering blood all over his crowd­ed dorm. The INS had ordered him de­ported after he completed a criminal sen­tence for possession of stolen property, but couldn’t get him onto a plane because he had no travel document. For months he sat in the airless boredom of detention, fearing that he would die there. Finally, another de­tainee told a visitor about the Russian’s case and she contacted lawyers at the ACLU and GMHC. It took them three months to get him released — and only because the ACLU threatened a lawsuit.

One of the named plaintiffs in Schey’s class-action suit, Gladstone Jumbo, was de­tained for two years in a small jail outside Atlanta, all the while denied access to the walk­er he needed to get around and the care he needed to delay progressive paralysis. “Guards said he was faking it,” says Schey, “never mind that he had been getting treatment for two years before his detention, and was using a walker when the INS apprehended him. In his cold cell, his condition deteriorated. By the last few months of his two years there, he was dragging himself along the floor to get to the shower or visitation room. Just drag­ging himself along, and they said he was con­triving his condition.”

Stories like Gladstone Jumbo’s — along with the spreading fervor for legislation like California’s Proposition 187 — have spurred a grassroots movement for detention and im­migration policy reform. Contradicting the sweeping tide of anti-immigrant sentiment, private citizens, especially in counties where detainees are kept in local jails, have made reg­ular visits to detainees, pressed for their re­lease, and even offered to take people in until they can fend for themselves.

A group called People of the Golden Vi­sion: An Interfaith Coalition for Immigrants’ Rights has organized a series of regional meet­ings around the country to bring together lawyers, human rights activists for immigrants, religious groups and others “to call national attention to the conditions” and “put an end to human rights abuses” within INS detention centers.

At the first such meeting in Washing­ton, D.C., in April, some activists warned that detention reform is a tricky goal, especially as there’s talk in Congress of moving INS detention centers offshore, putting them under the control of the U.S. mili­tary in closed bases, or building huge pris­ons in the boonies. “You think we have access problems now,” said Wendy Young of the Women’s Commission on Women Refugees. “Just imagine.”

ACLU attorney Judy Rabinovitz elabo­rated: “We could lose by winning. They could build a giant facility that’s clean and has a ful­ly stocked library and plenty of outdoor recre­ation — in Oakdale, Louisiana, where detainees would be out of the public eye, and away from family and attorneys. The goal is not to have beautiful, wonderful detention centers, but to make  detention at most a last resort.”

In the meantime, Lilian Loukakou re­mains in maximum security at York County jail, awaiting an appeal. The ruling last week, in the July hearing on which she’d pinned her hopes, was decided against her. The judge said he did not believe her story.

The eight-month confinement has taken a toll. Loukakou stares listlessly at the floor and fidgets in her chair. Her fingernails have grown long and her skin is breaking out. “She looks totally different from when I met her in April,” says attorney Mendiola. “Mentally, she’s had it.”

Says her boyfriend Louison: “She calls me almost every day, and all she does is cry and cry and cry.” ♦