Sojourners Visitors Project's Tenth Anniversary Celebrations

Posted by Roberta Elliott on Wed, Dec 09, 2009 at 18:06 pm

This past weekend, Sojourners Visitors Project, run out of Riverside Church on New York’s Upper West Side, celebrated its 10th anniversary with a thoughtful program featuring Phyllis Coven, Acting Director of the Office of Detention Policy and Planning, Department of Homeland Security (ICE), and a panel of respondents. Founded in 1999, the Soujourners Detention Center Visitor Project recruits, trains, transports and mentors volunteer visitors to asylum seekers and other non-criminal, non-citizens held at Elizabeth Detention Center and other New York City-area detention centers.

Earlier this fall, I assigned myself an adult bat mitzvah project to be trained as a visitor at Elizabeth and have visited three times, and will continue to do so. After unsuccessfully searching for a Jewish group that conducts these visits, I turned to Sojourners. I have been very satisfied with the way they run their program. Since I have found my visits so fulfilling, I wanted to learn more about the project and to get an overview of the detention system – and its challenges.

The program did not disappoint, starting out on an emotional note as former detainees explained what it meant to be visited. Michel Tambwe is the driver for our bi-weekly Tuesday night visits to Elizabeth. During 1998-99, he was detained for three months. During that time, he never had a visitor, and when he was released, he promised to become a volunteer, visiting detainees. “If I didn’t do it, then no one else will,” he said.

Janet Wise, a longtime volunteer visitor, talked about the heartbreak of watching someone released without any place to go. She had been visiting a young woman from Nigeria for months, and when she realized she had no place to go, she decided to invite her into her home. “I felt so grateful that we had something to share with her. She came with one suitcase, is now a citizen, got her BA, and married a man from Nigeria. Now they live in New Jersey in a house with a white picket fence! I’m thankful that Sojourners was there for me to help this woman. I’m so grateful to be part of her experience.”

Anthony, a former detainee, told the audience of 75, “There is no light in detention, no color, no fresh air for us to breathe. Spiritually, we were totally dead. We were full of negativity – but with Sojourners, they put our spirits on track and restored our lives. I couldn’t wait for Tuesday and Saturdays [visiting days]. Some of our visits were lively – we’d pick a topic and argue. I’d say ‘Come on, I’m ready!’ We took the inspiration from Sojourners and took it back to the dormitory to help others.”

The formal portion of the program began with Phyllis Coven praising faith-based initiatives, saying that “my own parents were product of a Jewish charity, HIAS. Faith-based initiatives and immigration are joined at the hip.”

Coven outlined a series of detention reforms and initiatives recently announced by the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, based on a comprehensive review conducted by Dora Schriro, the former ICE Office of Detention Policy and Planning Director. Explaining that her job is to implement these reforms, she emphasized that the desire to reform the detention system comes from the top and is leadership driven by the DHS Sec. Janet Napolitano. I will not go into the details of all the recommendations here, but will only highlight some of Coven’s more interesting comments. For the full report, please go to: Here are some of her remarks:

  • “Immigration detention is a unique form of detention. “It’s administrative and not punitive. The report has this as the starting point….Detention has grown from 5,500 beds across the U.S. in the 1990s to 32,000 today.”
  • “There is no question that this system has developed from a penal model – our places look like jails and operate like jails. We want to get away from that!”
  • “Previously, we just obtained beds wherever. We need to analyze the detention population and create a mosaic of facilities.”
  • “We must develop a better intake process, so we know how to place detainees.”
  • “We need to develop more programming . We want to give people fresh air and exercise. This will take a while, but we are firmly committed to get people into a more normalized experience.”
  • “We want as much contact visitation as we can get – the hours need to be increased, and visits should not take place behind glass. Visiting rooms should be appropriate for families and children.”
  • “We want to make special provisions for asylum seekers.”
  • “A key goal is that when people have medical problems, they should be able to get help.
  • “ICE’s job is to put people through proceedings and help remove those who are not eligible [to stay in the U.S.].”
  • In order to ensure accountability, we are placing federal officers in facilities to make sure they are in compliance with our standards.”
  • “By June there will be an online locator system.”
  • “This will be a multi-year initiative – change doesn’t happen overnight, but we are committed to showing fast change. First we will start with the 22 facilities that house only immigration detainees.”

The panel of respondents came from a broad range of backgrounds and had some compelling points to be made. Here are the highlights:

Eleanor Acer, Director of the Refugee Protection Program, Human Rights First, NYC:

  • “How demoralizing to be put into a uniform and handcuffs!”
  • “Detention officers don’t need to look like police officers in a correctional uniform.”
  • “Handcuffs and shackles should not be used routinely.”
  • “There needs to be more freedom of movement in the facilities – detainees should be able to go to the library when they want.”
  • “Need contact visitation.”
  • “Need outdoor access.”
  • “Need English and education programs – detainees need more to do during the course of the day.”
  • They need phone and e-mail access.”

Justin Mazzola, research associate for Amnesty International USA:

  • “Transfers interfere with attorney/client relationships, especially when they are out of state. “
  • “Being sent to rural areas without NGOs to help with legal issues and visitations impedes the right to challenge their detentions.”
  • “Transfer takes an emotion toll on detainees and their families. “
  • “When detainees are released, they are frequently released without money or a means of transportation. They have no way to buy clothes or get home. Why aren’t they getting the discretionary funds that should be distributed?”

Silky Shah, Organizing and Outreach Coordinator, Detention Watch Network:

  • “We encourage a reduction in the number of beds! Don’t build new facilities – it will be driven by the need to fill beds. Right now there is a move to build two new facilities. It’s more important to do a better initial risk assessment.”
  • “We need an alternative to detention. This should be a civil system with the focus on case management through community-based NGOs.”

Dr. Allen Keller, Associate Professor, NYU School of Medicine, and founder and director of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture:

  • Speaking to the Sojourners: “As a physician, I can tell you what you do is a lifesaving service!”
  • “Detention in and of itself is a traumatic event. It has many levels of psychological distress and there is a clear correlation: the longer you are in detention, the more health consequences. We have applied criminal standards to detainees and it has had a horrific effect on them.”
  • “You don’t take someone to the operating room unless he needs to be there, because it has its negative effects. Likewise, you shouldn’t put someone in detention, unless necessary.”
  • “Segregation is solitary confinement and it is misapplied. We need to get rid of that…People with depression and who are suicidal are put into segregation – this is not the right model.”

David Fraccaro, Sojourners visitor since 2002, served as coordinator from 2006-2009:

  • “A little empathy and human-rights talk would go a long way. A call to each facility to tell them that they will be held to the fire – that would be a great good faith effort in the meantime.”

Coven followed each set of questions/comments with answers. She promised to negotiate hard with the industry [the private firms running the detention centers], and summed up by saying: “We can’t promise by June that there will be no orange jump suits, but we can try!”

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