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a1754: Haitian women seeking asylum worry as they wait atmaximum-security center (fwd)

From: leonie hermantin <lhermantin@hotmail.com>

Haitian women seeking asylum worry as they wait at maximum-security center

By Jody A. Benjamin
Posted April 22 2002

MIAMI -- Six months ago, she lay crying on a filthy street in Gonäives,
Haiti, fending off kicks and punches from machete-wielding men screaming
political slogans.

After arriving in Florida after nine days aboard a rickety, overcrowded boat
without food or water, Jeanne Noel is safe from her country’s political
violence. But because she is Haitian, the mother of three is now detained at
the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, following rules designed for
criminals — though she is not one.

“Our days are not good at all,” Noel, 40, said through an interpreter, her
dark brown eyes welling with tears. “You don’t sleep. You don’t eat. I don’t
know why I am in jail.”

Noel is one of 60 Haitian women seeking asylum who have been at the
maximum-security jail near Miami International Airport since Dec. 3.

As a Haitian, Noel is subject to rules instituted that month requiring her
detention even if asylum officers think she has a credible claim that
returning to Haiti would mean death or imprisonment. Members of other ethnic
groups — Cubans, South Americans, Chinese — who are not suspected terrorists
are released to relatives pending final asylum hearings.

Because she is a woman, Noel must be housed at the county jail, which the
Immigration and Naturalization Service says is the only safe place to detain
her. The less-restrictive Krome detention camp is not an option since
December 2000, when INS began to move all women to the jail in response to
allegations that guards were sexually abusing them.

“This is outrageous. It is unspeakable,” said Marleine Bastien, founder and
director of Haitian Women of Miami. “It is a travesty of justice. I wish the
eyes of the world will open to what’s going on in the U.S., which is
supposed to be a protector of human rights.”

INS says the change in detention policy was meant to discourage Haitians
from making dangerous sea crossings. U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard is
weighing a lawsuit filed in March by immigrant advocates alleging that the
federal government actively discriminates against Haitians because of their
nationality and race. Last week, the INS allowed the first media access to
some of the Haitian women of TGK who are at the center of the legal and
political controversy. The interviews come at a time when the INS is under
close scrutiny by Congress that could result in the agency’s reorganization.
In interviews with the Sun-Sentinel, the Haitian women said they felt
humiliated by conditions at the jail. They complained of strip searches and
constant body counts, inedible and monotonous food, lack of money to call
relatives living nearby, insults and occasional mistreatment by some of the
correctional officers.

“They say we smell,” said detainee Laurence St. Pierre, 27, a named
plaintiff in the discrimination lawsuit.

Last week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees criticized INS
handling of the Haitian refugees in Miami as “contrary to... international
refugee law.”

Likewise, the Miami-Dade branch of the NAACP complained about the plight of
the detained Haitians in an April 16 letter to Attorney General John

“Using the threat of detention to deter the arrival of asylum-seekers is
neither legally nor morally acceptable,” wrote branch President Brad Brown.
“These Haitians know full well the risks when they take to the high seas in
flimsy boats, yet they do so because their fear of remaining in Haiti is so

Life at TGK

At TGK, noncriminal asylum-seekers such as the Haitian women are housed in
unit K-46, a two-story open room segregated from the rest of the jail by two
heavy doors of metal and glass. Adorning its pale yellow walls are faded,
construction-paper flags — South Africa, Kiribati, Vietnam, Haiti. Two
large, round security mirrors hang from the ceiling.

Detainees are housed one or two to a room. In one corner of the unit is a
small kitchen and shower area.

An outdoor recreation area, covered in mesh fencing, is separated from the
main living area by glass walls and locked doors. It contains a basketball
court, a sagging volleyball net and plastic chairs. Pushed into a corner, a
banged-up ping-pong table sits unused, its warped surface covered in fine

On a recent day, a small group of women watched Spanish-language television
under a stairwell. Others braided hair in front of a mirror on the wall.
Still more wandered about in orange uniforms and rubber slippers.

Unlike at Krome, where male detainees play soccer on open fields and walk
around an open campus, the women at TGK spend most of each day in unit K-46.
That is especially true since February, when jail officials began limiting
detainee access to the recreation yard to one hour every other day and
requiring detainees to sign up in advance, rules instituted after a county
inmate escaped.

“It’s for security reasons,” said Janelle Hall, Miami-Dade County
Corrections Department spokeswoman. “Everybody has to be treated the same

Several Haitian detainees said they avoid the unit’s nearby recreation area
because they are patted down by officers wearing rubber gloves when they
come back inside.

“I haven’t been out there since February,” said detainee Claudia Casseus,
36, who was once too afraid to sleep in her home in Gonäives because of
threats. “Why do they have to search me if I am in prison already? It is
very humiliating.”

Besides recreation, visitation rules at TGK are also more restrictive than
those at Krome, according to the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, the
group pursuing the discrimination lawsuit.

“The treatment of female detainees at TGK is the result of a pervasive
pattern of discrimination and neglect,” said Cheryl Little, the agency’s
executive director.

While male detainees at Krome are entitled to two contact visits per week,
the women at the county jail are allowed one per month. Family members must
lean down to speak through a small opening in the Plexiglas that separates

Each time they are taken to Krome in southwest Miami-Dade for court, the
detainees are strip-searched when they return to the correctional center.

“We have to remove our clothes every time,” said detainee Josline St. Amand.
She said she has been strip-searched four times since December. “I don’t
like it.”

About a week ago, St. Amand and St. Pierre said, a female officer became
angry that the detainees had used a trash can without a liner and accused
the group of lacking respect for her. St. Pierre said the officer screamed
curses at the women, then dumped the can’s contents onto the floor. A
detainee mopped up the mess.

“After that incident I was so mad, I went to my room,” St. Pierre said.

Asked about the allegation, INS and jail officials said it was the first
time they heard of it. The detainees have been told in Creole that they have
a right to file grievances about such claims, INS spokesman Rodney Germain

“These things need to be brought to our attention,” Germain said.

None of the unit’s officers speaks Creole, according to both jail officials
and detainees. When officers need to communicate something important, they
usually call a Creole-speaking officer who works on another floor of the
jail, said Hall, the county jail spokeswoman.

On a recent day, a county nurse unable to communicate with some of the
detainees turned to a visiting reporter for assistance. “Do you speak
Creole?” she asked.

Worried about future

Many of the Haitian detainees are Pentecostal Christians from the
north-central coastal city of Gonäives. Active in a Haitian opposition party
called Mochrena, the Creole acronym for Christian Movement for National
Reconciliation, they fled by boat on Nov. 25 after a series of
confrontations with pro-government groups turned violent. St. Amand said
pro-government supporters attacked her when she tried to cast a vote for an
opposition candidate in October. “They were beating up on everybody,” said
St. Amand, 28. She was knocked to the ground. “When I tried to get up and
run away, a man wearing a ring punched me in the nose.”

St. Pierre said she was raped and beaten by a local leader of the
pro-government Lavalas party after she helped campaign for the opposition.
In a statement to INS, St. Pierre, a named party in the discrimination
lawsuit, said Lavalas members also forced her to roll in filth on the

After going into hiding for a few weeks, St. Pierre said she fled Haiti for
her life, paying $30 in Haitian dollars (about $6 U.S.) to board an
overcrowded refugee boat.

“I would prefer for them to get me a coffin than to send me back there,” St.
Pierre said “There is no security in Haiti. There is no doubt Lavalas will
kill me.”

But the women at TGK worry less about living conditions than their ultimate
fate: Will they be returned to Haiti, or allowed to stay? Most are hoping
for a miracle similar to the one that helped them survive the nine-day boat
trip that brought them here.

“Soon it’s going to be five months that we are in this place, but I still
don’t know what is going to happen,” said Noel, who prays every day, alone
and with other detainees. “It’s in God’s hands.”

Jody A. Benjamin can be reached at jbenjamin@sun-sentinel.com or

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