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Gulag Conditions Reported at Immigrant Jail

MANHATTAN (CN) - The New York Civil Liberties Union has described the immigration detention system as a Gulag with a New York prison that refuses to account for the people it is holding, denies medical treatment for months on end and allows guard to abuse the detainees, the vast mjority of whom have not committed any crime.

The civil liberties group released a report documenting "disturbing" treatment of inmates at the Varick Detention Facility, New York City's immigration prison. More than 380,000 immigrants were jailed there in 2009.

They include asylum seekers, families with children and victims of human trafficking, who are "held in a disorganized hodgepodge of federal, state, county and private prisons."

The Varick Street prison is slated to be closed at the end of February. According the report, it will leave a "disturbing" legacy of inadequate medical care, abusive staff and other problems.

The NYCLU says a Varick detainee wrote it a letter in August 2009 complaining that "officials at the facility repeatedly failed to provide him treatment for severe dental and digestive problems." The letter prompted the NYCLU to file a Freedom of Information Act request, which produced 210 grievances filed by inmates in the past year.

The most common complaint involved medical grievances, accounting for 34 percent of total filings.

The NYCLU says the facility left the 23-year-old "Detainee X" complaining of an abscessed tooth for 9 months without treatment. This prevented him from eating hard foods, forced him onto a liquid diet and made him nearly overdose on ibuprofen.

Varick granted him treatment only after the NYCLU's advocacy, nearly a year later, by which time the infection had spread to seven other teeth. Doctors recommended extracting all seven teeth rather than perform more costly procedures, the NYCLU says.

Another detainee, a 47-year-old Russian man, was threatened with deportation two days after seeking medical care for prostate cancer. He sought treatment for three weeks before asking, in his grievance report, "How long or when will you be able to get may (sic) appointment, will it be after may (sic) death?"

The report states: "According to a handwritten note on the Dec. 9 grievance form, the detainee was deported on Dec. 22, 2008. It is unclear whether he ever received his medical care."

The NYCLU documents detainees who were refused medical care for such conditions as an ill-fitting prosthetic leg that caused bleeding, metal pieces jutting out of gums that cut the lips and tongue, and three to four days of constant chest pains and vomiting.

One inmate said the staff refused to give him a stress test and handed him Maalox antacid after he complained of a blocked artery.

Abuse from guards was the second most-common grievance. Although the NYCLU notes "few grievances allege physical abuse," it says that one officer punched an inmate in the chest for going to see a nurse with his shirt untucked.

Another officer allegedly told a Muslim inmate that his co-religionists were "a bunch of women."

Detainees also complained of not having their dietary restrictions met and being prevented from visiting the law library.

The NYCLU says the detainees are expected to face continuing problems when they are transferred to Kearny, N.J., when the Varick Street prison is closed. It cites an ACLU of New Jersey finding that the Kearny facility has "no standards for access to legal services, legal materials, phone access, visitation or recreation."

The NYCLU recommends that the Department of Homeland Security adopt enforceable detention regulations, expand alternatives to detention, reform grievance procedures, release eligible detainees, and make sure that detainees remain close to family and counsel.

"Unfortunately, President Barack Obama has followed the same course pursued by the Bush administration and has refused to issue enforceable regulations governing the nation's immigration detention system," the NYCLU says.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D. N.Y., said, "The New York Civil Liberties Union has done a commendable job bringing to light many injustices at the Varick Detention Center. ... All New Yorkers deserve basic protections that our rule of law provides. The Strong Standards Act, which I co-sponsored, requires humane treatment of immigrant detainees and prevents unwarranted deaths and abuse by providing access to counsel, basic medical care, and appropriate protections for New Yorkers with serious health conditions."

Abuses in immigration jails, including torture, sexual abuse, deaths, drugging, lack of legal access and other problems, have been extensively documented since the early 1980s, but despite repeated injunctions and other orders, it remains unclear if the federal government has any standards at all on immigration prisons. The immigration prison business has increasingly been farmed out to private businesses.

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