No answers from inside ICE prisons

The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency holds thousands of undocumented immigrants in prisons around the country, and the truth of what happens inside is a closely guarded secret.

 An industrial part of Elizabeth, New Jersey is the state’s largest jail for the undocumented, kept full courtesy of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, otherwise known as ICE. Detainees inside usually face deportation, but in some cases, the outcome is much worse.

Boubacar Bah, 52, slipped and fell in a shower inside the facility. According to his attorney, although he suffered a traumatic brain injury, his strange behavior was treated as “acting out.” As a result of his behavior, he was placed in solitary confinement. After suffering a solitary cell for more than 12 hours, he was rushed into emergency brain surgery. Doctors found that he had suffered multiple brain hemorrhages and a skull fracture. He fell into a coma, where he remained for four months before dying.

Nearly three years later, family and friends are still waiting for answers as to why Bah was in the prison and how he died.

“He had never been arrested. Never done nothing wrong. We want to know what happened to him. He was a human being,” said Moussa Dia, Bah’s friend.

To US officials, the Guinean immigrant was a criminal. He lived in New York for roughly eight years with an expired work visa. In 2006, Bah paid a visit to his native land under a special Green Card program, but on his way back, he was detained and locked up by ICE officials.

“Right now, ICE is only accountable to itself. It engages in self policing. Therefore third parties can’t sue to enforce their own internal standards. ICE just has its own standards, and it can choose to follow them or not,” said Venita Gupta, an attorney with the ACLU based in New York.

An estimated 380,000 immigrants were imprisoned last year–up 300 percent from a decade ago–and punishing them can be profitable for the Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA. The nation’s largest private prison provider is subcontracted by ICE to operate more than 60 facilities, including the New Jersey jail where Boubacar Bah was last seen alive.

“There’s been a huge, huge increase and its part of the prison industrial complex in this country, and the growth of prisons and the growth of private prison contractors that get these very meaty contracts by the government and they are making a lot of money running these facilities,” said Gupta.

In 2008, CCA made just under $1.6 billion. Meanwhile, ICE is requesting a budget increase from Washington. They are hoping to get $5.8 billion for the next fiscal year.

However, a price tag can’t be put on Boubacar Bah’s life, and the official word from ICE is that the case is still pending.