The Endless Detention

by Pol Brennan, July 9, 2008

Days turn to weeks, weeks to months and I think back to when I was first arrested by Border Patrol agents in Texas and told that this would take, at maximum, a few weeks. That might have been true if at one's first court appearance you readily accepted deportation without challenging the underlying reasons for your detention. Even then, it's a lie because you'd still have to wait for three months or more before they can fill up a large aeroplane with enough deportees to make it economical. If you're from Mexico, they'll just drive you to the border less than 25 miles away from here, if there are no other charges pending.

There are men in this facility who have been fighting their cases for over three years. I have been here since January and my very first substantive hearing won't be until mid-August. Judge Achtsam will be hearing my request for adjustment of status, which could lead to a green card if all went well, and also for a change of venue back to the Bay Area where all of my relevant witnesses are located. I don't believe he will grant either of these motions as he has a reputation for routinely denying bail and not granting reprieves to those who qualify. However, he is doing exactly what he was put down here to do, namely deport the maximum number of detainees with the least amount of due process.

I have encountered many within these walls who have spent nearly their entire lives in the U.S. who are now being forcibly returned to their countries of origin which they left when they were small children. Often they have little or no knowledge of their birth country.

A cellmate of mine, I'll call Carlos, came to the states when just seven years old from Guatemala. He's now 32 years of age, so he came here during a time of unrest that would lead to upheaval and mass slaughter of the indigenous Mayan populace in the hundreds of thousands by the government military and intelligence agencies, both US trained and financed.

Carlos tells me he knows nothing of this recent history of his parent country; he grew up in the city of Compton, within greater Los Angeles as is obvious by his many tattoos. He was a member of one of the many street gangs that infest the South Central LA area.

When I say Carlos has tattoos, that doesn't begin to tell the whole story. Carlos is the most completely tattooed person I have ever seen. He is literally covered from the top of his head to the tops of his feet. He has his gang name stenciled in 2-inch Gothic lettering on his forehead and his whole face is covered in what resembles Maori tribal markings interspersed with snarling animal heads. Even his eyelids and eyebrows are employed to advertise where he has hailed from, Compton, Southern California. He has skeletal bones drawn on the backs of his hands, there are gang inscriptions arched across his midriff in common gangbanger fashion. But the vast majority of Carlos' skin tapestries are naked women in soft pornographic poses, with exquisitely drawn fully displayed pudenda, all copied from Hustler and Playboy magazines. To add to the complexity, the women all have clown faces.

These women cover his arms and legs completely and almost every inch of observable skin on the front of his torso and yet the irony is that on the whole of his back, from the nape of his neck to the small of his back is portrayed a large apparition of Our Lady of Guadeloupe.

Carlos is one of those people who, when you see him for the first time you're almost afraid to look him in the eye for fear of antagonizing him. In truth, I was in solitary when I first saw him from my cell door window as he was being marched by the guards to the TV room opposite my cell for interviews by the ICE agents, I did not return his gaze. But on the second occasion we exchanged glances and cursory nods as he went by. Ironically, within a few weeks we would become cellmates when I was moved into his cell to make room for more incoming "solitary confinement" detainees.

I arrived at his cell as Carlos was shifting his bedding from the bottom to the top, leaving me the lower bunk which is my preference. We introduced ourselves and I got the first chance to see Carlos within our 8' x 14' confines. We were almost the same height, perhaps he was even an inch shorter, but he was solidly built without being overly muscular. I was initially aghast when I learned we'd be cellmates even though a guard had said that, "the tattoo guy is easy going" but Carlos indeed turned out to be courteous and respectful.

From what I'd seen and heard of gang members, they were not sociable, relying more on abrupt confrontations to make their points and stake out their territory. If they did talk, it was ad nauseum about themselves, their clothes, cars, guns, bling, exploits, their homies and their bitches. I was preparing myself for all this, but it never came. Instead, Carlos was soft spoken, whose English wasn't great despite being raised and living in LA for 25 years. Like many street gang kids, he never finished school, in part because he lived in a war zone. Surprisingly, though, he hadn't done much time except for a few days here and there at the odd city jails. He hadn't done any county or state time; perhaps he was lucky, careful or both.

Over the coming weeks we spent as cellies, Carlos never opened up in any overt sense; instead he revealed himself in small ways as the time went by. He would not answer questions about his past either because he did not trust me or due to loyalty to associates and friends; he almost always evaded questions pertaining to his gang affiliations and lifestyle. Still, I got the sense that whatever youthful indiscretions he engaged in during those periods were far behind him now and he considered them wasted time. I guess we all have these feelings once and a while, but Carlos carries with him in indelible ink on every inch of his face and body, the tortured reminders of those years for everyone to see and gawk at. He was sent to the SHU because he's considered a security risk in that whether he likes it or not, he attracts notice to himself and this leads to probable confrontations, especially by members of opposing gangs. He seems resigned, though, to the fact that he'd be spending the remainder of his time here in the SHU.

It isn't merely the tats that bring unwanted stares, lots of detainees and prisoners sport them, but it was the fact that his whole face, neck and even head (because they disappeared up into his thick hair) were covered. This is what drew people's attention to him. Had he stopped at his neck, as he now realizes would have been prudent, he wouldn't be considered by many as a freak. What's bizarre is that Carlos, underneath all that facial ink, is actually a good looking guy, although he would disagree, saying to me that he was ugly with big lips (not true, which I told him whenever he brought it up). I suspect this was a cruel and possibly jealous taunt by his homies, that maybe those envious of his obvious good looks even encouraged him to the extremes he now regrets. On sunny days in LA, visiting family, his brothers' wives would admonish him to put on long sleeved shirts and long pants lest their children see his x-rated erotica.

"So, why all the naked women?" I ventured one day, "Because I like women." "And their clown faces?" "I like clowns." Go figure.

One day after much prodding, Carlos recalled for me how he came to be here. He recounted being stopped by the LAPD, who he said pulled up alongside him, stopped, and in the process of shaking him down, found a discarded pistol nearby, connected it to Carlos and arrested him. He insisted that the gun was a plant, and the way he told it to me, I was convinced that he had actually been framed because of his gang affiliations. So I was surprised the next day when he admitted that, in fact, the gun was his and it was a clean bust after all. Why he reversed himself and told me the truth of the matter, I'll never know. Maybe he felt guilty deceiving me, but I doubt it. I wouldn't have thought any less of him had he told me the truth. It would have been perfectly logical that he had the gun for self-protection in the notoriously violent area where he lived.

While I've given the impression that Carlos was slow of speech and unable to have much of a conversation in English, this was not the case if he was speaking in his native Spanish with either other detainees who would stop at our cell door to wish him well or when he'd be conversing with the guards through the access hatch in the lower half of our cell door. Then he had a melodious stream of unbroken vocabulary and inflection that was expressive and easy flowing. I think if I was a Spanish speaker, I would have learned much more from him of his past.

We came from such different backgrounds and differently troubled cities that were 6,000 miles apart. I'm not even sure if he'd ever been outside LA once he arrived there as a small boy. He knew nothing of the Northern Irish troubles and when I told him my story he was either uninterested or he just didn't get it (I'm not sure I get it all myself sometimes). He did like the story of the escape, though initially he was skeptical. When I produced a complete written and photographic narrative journal of the escape, then he was a believer.

A short time after I moved in with him, he stopped taking the one hour recreation time that we were allocated daily, either in the TV room or in the basketball cage that was used as the exercise yard for the SHU residents. It struck me as odd that Carlos would refuse all opportunities to get out of the cell. When two people are forced to share a small space, there is an etiquette connected to the arrangement and unless this is established early, it can lead to difficulties. Since we are only allowed to take recreation alone, taking it allows some private time to the other fellow left in the cell, relieving the pressure of close quarters by doubling the time each man has to himself. Also, it breaks up the day and reduces the monotony of daily cell life.

Although Carlos rightly observed that there wasn't much worth watching on TV, there seemed to be deeper reasons for his not wanting to leave the cell except for daily showers.

After many weeks here, I was finally permitted reading material and I had, thanks to friends and supporters, a steady stream of books pouring through my hands. Technically, I'm only allowed two books at a time, but I can camouflage extras in large envelopes and inside clothing. Over time the guards lessened their enforcement and I ended with many books at once.

I tried to get Carlos interested in reading, but he refused all offers of the many varieties of books that were being sent to me; but finally he was interested in one book. He slowly read and reread this same book for some eight weeks whilst we shared the same space. It was an interesting and practical choice, "Immigration Law and Procedure", a dense, 600 page paperback on every aspect of immigration history and law. He would ask for the book every morning and at lights out at 10 pm, he would respectfully return it to me and thank me for letting him read it. Over eight weeks he finished it, but the only passages he mentioned pertained to some American largesse of allowing a number of distressed people aid and occasional asylum and entry after natural disasters or political upheaval. This was strange from someone who was about to be dumped back in Guatemala without a penny in his pocket or a single person to call his friend. It almost seemed he was trying to rationalize what was coming his way with what he wanted to believe was American goodness inherent in the system. And while it's true there is enormous American goodness at home and abroad, it's just that it's mostly undercut by dysfunctional foreign politics, corporate greed and imperial overreach since W.W.II and more recently, 9/11. But Carlos either knew little or nothing or cared little or nothing of those issues. In his own way, he was battling to understand what was happening to him and how he was going to cope. He didn't have any answers.

I did inquire of him if he'd ever gone to tattoo conventions or been featured in any tattoo magazines in an effort to exploit his rather unique body art and turn a negative into a positive. But with a dismissive wave of his arm and an, "Oh, fuck that shit", he seemed resigned; he didn't want to be a spectacle. When I pointed out the illogic of this, he did allow that in the early years it didn't bother him at all, but when he quit the gangs, he realized his problem.

Apart from the odd phone call to friends who were rarely home when he called, the only other person he would contact regularly was his aging, nearly blind mother with whom he spoke 3 or 4 times a week. Whatever homies or affiliates he once had appeared to have evaporated since his arrest. I could see him struggling to cope with the realization that he was essentially now completely alone.

In moments of depression, he would utter out of the blue to me, "Pol, look at me, I am a poor man, I have no money, no home or house. I have done nothing, achieved nothing. I am a piece of shit".

In a bid to snap him out of it, my replies were sometimes harsh, "Ah, dry your fucking eyes will you and stop wallowing in this pathetic self-pity. You're only 32 years old and in the prime of your life. You just need to help yourself if there's no one else around to count on. Contact the Guatemalan Counsel and ask for a meeting with them to figure out what you should do when you get to Guatemala or get some books on the country and learn about the places to go and those to avoid. Get advice, arm yourself with information on what's available from the government for deportees from America. There must be something"! But again with the dismissive waves and the "fuck thats", reminiscent perhaps of a paternal or fraternal gesture he was used to seeing from his past. "I'll just get myself a job and a hotel room and I'll get by." He vacillated between being morose and clinging to simplistic remedies.

These outbursts were rare, but I suspect his uncertain future ate at him when he would sit quietly by the door or on the little bench just at the same level as my bunk on the opposite wall, with a blank look on his face. His conversations with me were remarkably similar from one to the next and after a while I could predict them.

"Mr. Pol, you read your book already"? "Wow! you got more books today again"! "What did you say when the guard didn't get you the right request forms, Mr. Pol?" "I told him to put his hands between his legs and pull his head out his ass", I answered. He would laugh heartily at such exploits and other interactions I had with various guards and medical personnel who I cussed out for their inept operation such as taking a week to get me some Tylenol or doctor ordered prescription medications. These encounters would be relived by Carlos days or weeks later, as if he'd suddenly remembered a good joke. "What'd you tell the man, Mr. Pol to do with his head again"?

If I was ever in pain or frustrated, it occurred to me that perhaps Carlos experienced a touch of schadenfreude. Here I was, after all, in the same cell as he, with lots of things to keep me occupied, books, letters, crossword puzzles, magazines, visits from my wife, lots of phone calls to family and friends; I had the advantage of lawyers, a growing outside support group, my name in the papers, getting to go on the radio to talk about my case; so self-absorbed in my own little cosmos, and yet, still finding time to complain. Here was he, just watching that deportation train coming, knowing he had nothing here and nothing where he's going, just waiting for it to hit him. I'd hate me too...but if he did harbor such justifiable sentiments, he had the grace and good form never to show it.

In all likelihood, if or when I'm deported back to Ireland, I'll survive through a large network of family, friends and former comrades plus a good deal of sympathy for my plight. Carlos, on the other hand, has no such comforts waiting for him in Guatemala. His tattoos shall make him a person of interest to the local police and I'm sure local street gangs will target him soon after he steps off the plane. How he'll manage to negotiate the hurdles is anyone's guess.

The recent history of that troubled country have left deep scars that, from a psychological standpoint, the nation has yet to recover as evidence by this short extract from Chalmers Johnson's book, "Blowback" (2000), that speaks to the many repercussions of American influences and over-reactions in other lands:

"In 1954 the Eisenhower administration planned and the CIA organized and funded a military coup that overthrew a Guatemalan President whose modest land reform policies were considered a threat to American corporations. Blowback from this led to a Marxist guerilla insurgency in 1980 and so to CIA-Pentagon supported genocide against Mayan peasants. In the spring of 1999, a report on the Guatemalan civil war from the UN sponsored Commission for Historical Classification made clear that "American training of the officer corp in counter- insurgency techniques was a key factor in the genocide. Entire Mayan villages were attacked and burned and their inhabitants were slaughtered in an effort to deny guerillas protection." According to the Commission between 1981-1983 the military government of Guatemala financed and supported by the U.S. government, destroyed some 400 Mayan villages in a campaign of genocide in which approximately 200,000 peasants were killed."

I shudder to think what might become of Carlos in Guatemala when he could so easily, if given half a chance, become a productive member of his own society, the one where he grew up: California. The caring America that Carlos so much wanted to believe in whilst slowly reading my immigration book is fast becoming a mere memory, and sadly that may be all that Carlos is left with in the end. Memories!

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