“They didn’t warn us — we were just standing there. They didn’t say get down. They just started shooting [with wooden pellets]. Then they beat us up.” Thus did one inmate at the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service’s El Centro detention center describe a round of reprisals exacted by an INS “tactical intervention team,” which roamed the compound two days after a full-scale riot broke out the night of March 16.

Prisoners at El Centro refer to the teams as “goon squads,” and the label seems apt — as described by INS officials, the team consists of immigration agents dressed in camouflage gear, knit ski masks and riot helmets, and armed with billy clubs, pepper spray and guns loaded with wooden pellets. Team members wear no name tags or badges, and their uniforms bear no markings to indicate which agency employs them. As one inmate described the scene inside, “It looks like a war zone.”

INS spokesman Bill Strassberger confirmed in an interview that an altercation broke out after the riot, but said the fighting began when 20 inmates became “belligerent and violent” as guards attempted to remove them from El Centro. “In the course of removing them,” he said, “they became unruly and [guards] had to use a minimal amount of force.” One inmate, he said, received a cut on the ear, but the rest were unharmed.

But several inmates and their representatives said in interviews last week that the violence was punitive and unprovoked. The melee, they said, left inmates with cuts, bruises, broken hands and back injuries. The guards, one inmate recalled, “thought it was funny.”

In addition, while the INS maintains there was just one outbreak of violence since the March 16 riot, inmates at El Centro tell a very different story. “They’re beating people randomly,” said one inmate. Leonardo Lazo claimed he watched 15 guards beat an Armenian detainee with clubs the day after the riot. Muhammed Hamawi, who has spent more than four years at El Centro, reported seeing an inmate — who had done nothing more than ask to speak to a deportation officer — thrown on the ground by guards and shackled in handcuffs and leg irons. Chukwudi Ahuchogu, who has been at El Centro for three years, said he was badly beaten after talking back to a guard in the chow hall. “They picked me up and slammed me on the table,” Ahuchogu said. He was then cuffed and struck with a baton. “They know what to do. They didn’t hit me in the head. They hit me in the back and in all my joints.”

“After the riot they just been getting out of hand,” said Felix Cifuentes, who has been detained at El Centro since November. “They got mad ’cause we brought in the FBI and the media.”

Yet, while the riot did draw newspaper and television reports, there has been no coverage of the subsequent beatings described by the prisoners.

Allegations of violence, Strassberger asserted, are taken extremely seriously by the INS and should be reported by inmates. “If somebody did have a complaint,” he said, “there is a supervisor on duty at all times.” But inmates are anxious about lodging complaints with the same people who they say are assaulting them. “I’m afraid to talk to any of the people here,” said one. “I don’t know what they’re going to do to me.”

Tensions have been running high for months at the crowded detention center, located 114 miles east of San Diego and just this side of the Mexican border. Budget increases now allow the immigration service to run checks on virtually everyone who enters the prison system, driving up the number of inmates referred to the INS. And beginning in 1996, the roster of crimes for which an immigrant can be deported was broadened dramatically. Immigration law terms such offenses “aggravated felony,” but the expanded category now includes virtually all drug offenses, any theft or assault that carries a sentence of one year or more (even if the sentence is suspended, which means no jail time), and an array of lesser crimes from drunk driving to writing phony checks. “Someone can now conceivably be convicted of shoplifting and [have it be] an aggravated felony,” said Susan Alva of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA).

Even had these immigrants run afoul of the law a decade ago, served time and stayed out of trouble since, they could still be ordered deported today. “They’ve changed the rules after the fact,” explained Dan Kesselbrenner, director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild.

Moreover, since the federal law covering aggravated felony is so strict, few inmates are granted release during appeals. Jack Weil, a judge at El Centro, told a gathering of the L.A. County Bar Association on Saturday that he rarely approves bond requests anymore. “If I tell someone in a bond hearing that I don’t think there’s any possibility of their avoiding deportation, there is not a whole lot of reason for them to show up for hearings,” he explained.

As a result, INS jails are crowded with frustrated inmates, many of whom assumed they would be free to get on with their lives when they finished their sentences. And the system’s beginning to reach capacity: Despite construction of facilities for 6,000 new inmates nationwide over the last two years, crowding is an issue throughout the system. “Changes last year in immigration law are now beginning to take their toll,” said CHIRLA’s Alva.

The situation is especially desperate for immigrants from countries such as Cuba or Vietnam, which have no repatriation agreements with the United States. These “lifers,” as INS representatives call them, are trapped in a harrowing legal limbo: The INS will not let them out and cannot send them home, so they wait in overcrowded, increasingly volatile INS jails with no hope of release. These inmates, Strassberger admitted, “are not happy. They want to be released. That’s the reason we need to maintain the high-security mode.”

Edward Korkis is one of the many inmates trapped by the new regulations. He came here from Jordan 28 years ago. He had done time more than once for selling cocaine and landed at El Centro in May 1996 after serving 14 months on a possession charge. Korkis was ordered deported, but the Jordanian Consulate refused to issue him travel documents. “I’m not supposed to be treated like a criminal, because I’ve already done my time,” he insisted. “It’s like imposing a life sentence on a person,” Korkis said. “I want to go home. I don’t care where they deport me to. I want to go.”

Leonardo Lazo finds himself in similar straits. He came to the U.S. from Cuba in 1966 and last October, at the age of 42, was convicted of bringing 56 pounds of marijuana across the border from Mexico. He was sentenced to 39 days in prison and served 28 before being handed over to the INS and sent to El Centro in mid-December. Because he was guilty of an aggravated felony, Lazo was ordered deported. But because no repatriation agreement exists between the U.S. and Cuba, he can’t be sent home. “We can’t let them go and we can’t remove them, so they end up being detained indefinitely,” said Bill Strassberger.

Muhammed Hamawi arrived in the U.S. in 1979 when he was 10 years old. Before being sent to El Centro, in 1994 Hamawi served one year for voluntary manslaughter after shooting a man who was holding up his father’s store. Because his native Iraq will not take him, Hamawi has stayed at El Centro ever since. He no longer has any family in Iraq, and barely speaks Arabic. His relatives have exhausted their financial resources on legal fees. Two years ago, after the INS reneged on a promise to release him, Hamawi tried to kill himself. Last week he met with Hector Najila, the officer in charge at El Centro. “I said, do something with me. Deport me. Release me. Do something.” He has not heard back.

Not all long-term inmates are lifers. Some are immigrants convicted of minor crimes who simply won’t accept the new terms of deportation. But under the strict new rules, appeals of deportation generally just mean more time languishing in INS jails. “If they try really hard to fight, they may end up staying in detention for extended periods of time,” said agency spokesman Strassberger.

Beyond the formidable legal issues facing inmates at El Centro, conditions at the prison are far from ideal. “There’s a lot of things wrong here,” said Edward Korkis, who complained that in a facility where very few detainees can afford to hire lawyers, the legal resources are sorely inadequate. Moreover, according to inmates, officials at El Centro are less than helpful. Hamawi claimed that “The minute we ask too many questions about our cases, they put us on a bus and send us to county jail.” Several of the inmates who spoke to the Weekly reported having been sent to various county lockups for months at a time.

Amnesty International has taken an interest in conditions at El Centro. “We have some questions about how quickly people are treated for medical problems,” said Miraan Sa of Amnesty’s USA National Refugee Proj-ect — questions that Leonardo Lazo might easily answer. When he arrived at El Centro in mid-December, he requested treatment for a broken foot. His request was denied, Lazo said, and his foot was never treated. Lazo is also being treated for a heart condition, but on January 23, El Centro’s doctors gave him the wrong medication and he subsequently suffered a minor heart attack.

Crowding is another chronic problem. Though the facility is designed to hold about 500 inmates, there were 625 there on March 16. The INS says that the dormitories hold 50 beds each, but Hamawi claims that at times there were more than 100 inmates in his dormitory alone, all packed into bunks spaced two feet apart. “How are 100 people supposed to use four toilets?” he asked. “It’s like a kennel,” said Roberto Martinez of the American Friends Service Committee in San Diego. Martinez has been receiving reports from inmates at El Centro for more than 15 years and alleges “abuses going back at least that far.” “It was a riot waiting to happen,” he claims. “It just boiled to the point where they were ready to go for broke.”

The flash point came just before 10 o’clock at night on Monday, March 16, when guards switched on the lights and rousted the prisoners from their bunks to search the dormitories for drugs and weapons. “They went about it the wrong way,” said Felix Cifuentes. “They were throwing legal papers all over, ripping things up.” When one inmate protested, recalled an inmate who was there, he was assaulted by a guard. Other inmates intervened, and after a 20-minute scuffle, three guards were on their way to the hospital with minor cuts and bruises, and 180 inmates had barricaded themselves in two dorms.

INS officials attributed the presence of 180 inmates in the two dormitories involved in the riot to “overflow.”

According to Cifuentes, after the fighting broke out, guards massed outside the dorms with billy clubs in hand, and the inmates were afraid to leave. “Everyone refused to come out,” Cifuentes said. “They saw them use the sticks before, and nobody wanted to go through that again.” So the inmates smashed the light bulbs to avoid being seen and waited in the dark until two FBI agents trained in crisis negotiations arrived at the prison and sat down with a delegation of four inmates. It was not until after 9 the next morning, Cifuentes said, that the FBI convinced them they would not be hurt if they surrendered, and the inmates agreed to relinquish their hold on the dormitories.

Inmates took advantage of the FBI’s presence to set forth a list of demands. The first was for an end to unannounced late-night searches, which INS officials maintain are necessary for prison security. Inmates claim the shakedowns are never just innocent searches. “When they do a search, we lose legal paperwork, pictures of our families, phone books. They throw them in the trash,” said Korkis.

Although the searches were the immediate source of the inmates’ ire, “the more important problem was that you have a group of individuals there who feel they should not be detained,” said Strassberger. Thus the second demand: the return of detainees from nations like Cuba and Vietnam to their home countries; and the third: that they be released on bond. Strassberger contended that the inmates “were assured that their cases would be reviewed,” but added, “They cannot be bonded out if they’re criminals.”

The March 16 riot was not the first one this year. On January 8, 50 inmates — most of them from Asian countries, such as Vietnam and Laos, to which they could not be deported — briefly barricaded themselves in a dormitory before being forced out by INS guards. Several sources at El Centro claim another, smaller riot occurred in February, though INS officials avowed no knowledge of such an event. Roberto Martinez did not expect Monday’s riot would be the last: “The summer hasn’t even started yet.”

LA Weekly