By Boston Woodard
During a six-week extradition beginning in California on March 20, 2017, and ending May 4, 2017, in Massachusetts, I witnessed a small part of President Donald Trump’s war on immigrants. Many of the immigrants I saw in prisons across the country were migrant workers who had been hunted down and detained by ICE (Immigration Customs Enforcement), ultimately to be extradited out of the country.
I’m no expert on immigration, and I am not intimately familiar with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. I don’t know all the numbers or anywhere close to all the Trump administration’s actions taken against immigrants. Like many others, for a long time I was jaded from watching countless television news blips and reading articles about undocumented immigrants. Like all of us, I’d seen the televised images of men and women being handcuffed and shoved into law enforcement vans or buses; we’ve all watched as the door slams. Scene changes, and most of us don’t think about what becomes of those men and women.
Until I saw firsthand how immigrant workers are treated after they are detained, I had become inured by the surfeit of media reports about arrests and deportations of these men and women. That all changed last spring.
My own extradition was for a decades-old state parole violation in Massachusetts, and in response, federally funded, private transportation and detention facilities were contracted to hopscotch me across the United States. Through this process, I learned how immigrant detainees are actually treated. Most detainees I came into contact with had committed no crimes at all, yet I saw that they are treated like criminals.
One day in March 2017, days before I was to be released on parole in California, I was crammed into a heavily fortified, privately owned “TransCorp” transportation bus with a dozen other prisoners. We were tightly secured with leg irons, waist chains and handcuffs locked together by a tortuous device dubbed the “black box,” which twists and bends the wrists and distorts arms into painful, unnatural positions.
After a several-hour ride, several of us were led into a filthy “holding tank” inside the Sacramento County Jail. The smell of urine was overwhelming. A pair of feces-encrusted underwear lay on the floor beside a clogged toilet, probably discarded by a previous drunken occupant. The atmosphere was foul.
A few men in that holding tank were Spanish speaking, of Mexican nationality. Decades behind bars has given me an ability to spot “newbies” or “first-termers,” those who have never been exposed to the criminal justice process. There is a conspicuous appearance about them; standing close to the entrance of the holding tank, backs to the wall, arms crossed, they nervously smile upon eye contact. Men new to the prison system usually follow the lead of those more familiar with it.
Experienced prisoners hurry to find one of the limited seats on a bench or a relatively clean spot on the floor; there they stretch out, awaiting the next step of being processed deeper into the bowels of the system.
In that holding tank, two “collect calls only” telephones made of thin steel plates with a series of small drilled holes hung on adjacent walls; these are designed so drunks or pissed off prisoners cannot rip off the cords. The phone plates were dirty, smeared with God knows what. When I held the phone to speak to a friend to let him know where I was, I tucked pieces of toilet paper between my ear and chin.
I noticed one Mexican man about 40 years old who seemed more distressed than did many of the others. According to a bilingual man, this guy, Raphael, had been working as a dog groomer to support his family in the Sacramento area. Earlier that day, several ICE agents surrounded him and rushed him into a waiting van outside of his work site. The look on Raphael’s face said it all, but it was only later when I read FreedomForImmigrants.org (5-3-18) that I learned that detainees like Raphael “don’t have access to a court appointed attorney, or a speedy trial. Many are subjected to medical neglect, sexual and physical assault, and other forms of human rights abuses.”
Five days after I arrived in Sacramento, some of us were restrained to be taken onto the next leg of our journey. At least three men in our group were being returned to Mexico. I never learned their stories. Unlike more experienced prisoners, these detainees were quiet, lost in their thoughts. Looking at their faces, Raphael came to mind, though he was not in this group, and I’d lost track of him.
Several hours south on California’s Highway 99, the TransCorp bus stopped at the Fresno County Jail where a new group of prisoners was loaded on and began filling unoccupied seats. Each man was chained to another at the waist by a 14” chain.
To use the toilet (a small hole in a flat metal plate) in the rear of the bus while cruising along the highway at high speeds, a chained partner must stand flush up against you while you attempt to urinate. To do this, male prisoners must literally rip a hole in paper/fiber jumpsuits near the crotch, this while in full restraints. It’s a tortuous maneuver that must be learned. To defecate, the only place to go is in your jumpsuit. Some men can wait, some cannot.
The Bakersfield County Jail was our next stop, and there the remaining seats were filled. I counted three African American men and four White men, but nine of the passengers were Mexican detainees gathered by ICE and other government agencies. Each had been taken from his job and from his family. Of these nine, not one had committed a crime.
According to an Oct. 26, 2017, report by National Public Radio’s Laurel Wamsley, “Arrests by ICE have spiked since the beginning of the Trump presidency. ICE reported that it arrested 41,000 people in just the first 100 days after he president signed his executive order on border security and immigration enforcement.”
As I was on this journey, I didn’t know that, but I can report from the frontlines: Many of these federal mass transportation buses and airplanes travel under cover of darkness, throughout the night, every night. Our bus took us from Bakersfield through southern California. It was pitch black outside. In the distance, I saw several twinkling lights that I believe were high-flying commercial airliners. An occasional set of headlights from a car or tractor trailer sped by us on the ink-black highway. All of us were fatigued, hungry and thirsty. And some of us had never committed a crime.
Eventually, we were given a pre-made bag lunch consisting of a dry cold-cut sandwich, a small hard apple and a 6 oz. plastic bottle of warm water. Because getting the food out of the bags while in full restraints was nearly impossible, many of us opted to toss it aside. Indeed, any movement while in that torturous black box was painful. Within hours, both my wrists were raw and bleeding.
As the sun slowly rose, I could see a mountain range in the far distance. Thousands of tumbleweeds, big and small, rested where the wind had left them. A big sign ahead read “Entering the Mojave Desert.”
I’m not sure how many hours later we pulled into one of the most fiercely fortified fence lines I’ve ever seen surrounding a prison. There were so many coils of barbed razor wire up and down the fence, the building was indescribable.
The Nevada Southern Detention Center (NSDC) in Pahrump, Nev., is about 90 minutes outside Las Vegas. Inside the NSDC, multiple holding tanks teemed with far more bodies than their design capacity. At least two tanks held female detainees. Government agents with large white letters spelling “ICE” on the back of their jackets carried plastic milk crates filled with shackling gear and those infamous black boxes.
As dozens of people were chained, others were unchained. After we gave fingerprints, photos and personal information, we were strip-searched, showered, issued prison clothing and finally assigned housing. Some men were put in protective custody, ICE detainees were placed in deportation units and the rest of us were put in general population dormitories pending our transfer date—anywhere from a week to 10 days. It took 12 hours to process 40 of us.
And here’s what happened to me at the NSDC: I saw hundreds of detainees on their way back to Mexico. When I looked into their faces, I wondered what sort of work they had in the United States, how many family members had now been left behind without a dad or provider. I knew every one of them had a story. I could no longer be numb.
Two weeks after arriving in Pahrump, we were loaded on another TransCorp bus for the hour and a half drive to McCarron International Airport in Las Vegas, across from the Mandolin Bay Casino and Hotel. There, dozens of heavily armed federal agents, some dressed in black with their faces covered and wielding automatic weapons greeted us. These goons, and that’s the only name that makes sense, surrounded the “Con Air” (propeller) airplane on which we were to continue our journey. Sixty of us boarded the plane; our destination: Oklahoma City.
The Oklahoma City Airport is home of the Federal Transfer Center (FTC), the hub for transferring thousands of prisoners to all points west and east in the United States. Many Mexican detainees who had traveled with me were corralled into the FTC holding facility built inside a huge airplane hangar. The remaining prisoners in our aggregate were taken by bus an hour away to the Grady County Jail in Chickasha, Okla.
Four days later, I was boarded with a hundred others on a larger 737 Con Air plane headed for Harrisburg, Penn., where men and women prisoners waited in lines on the tarmac. As dozens of prisoners exited the plane through a tail-section door, dozens more were being loaded onboard near the cockpit. Someone told me that this manic process of moving people around the country never ends, and the chaos confuses the actual numbers of people in custody at any given time.
From Harrisburg, TransCorp brought us to Philadelphia to the Federal Detention Center in the heart of downtown. Here is where I noticed a shift in the ethnicity of immigrant detainees. In Philadelphia, I met men from Africa, Europe, South America, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and other Asian countries. These detainees again were mixed with those who had in fact committed crimes.
The Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, N.Y., was next on the transportation itinerary. The MDC was one of the more disorganized facilities. It mishandled paperwork and was confused as to where we were being transferred next. Twice guards brought me to the processing area only to bring me back to my cell because I wasn’t the guy they wanted.
Next up: The Federal Correctional Center (FCC) in Fort Dix, N.J., was what we called a “quick stop.” There, we sat on the bus inside a prison sally-port, chained up for a couple hours while TransCorp guards dropped several prisoners at that penitentiary.
The last stop on my federal extradition to Massachusetts was the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility (DWWDF) in Central Falls, R.I. There I was picked up almost immediately by two Commonwealth of Massachusetts state officers who transported me by car to Cedar Junction State Prison in Walpole, Mass.
All of this happened because the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the federal government decided to spend tens of thousands of dollars to extradite me for a parole violation they claim happened 44 years ago. I have committed no new crimes; there are no warrants or any new cases against me. A plane ticket for a couple hundred bucks would have transported me back to Massachusetts in a few hours, but my extradition took more than six weeks. Multiply that by hundreds of thousands of people per year. Those are your tax dollars being spent.
And millions of those tax dollars are being spent to detain thousands and thousands of immigrants who have committed no crimes.
I’ll never be able to watch another news report about immigration without remembering all those sad, startled, lost faces.
These days, I pray that Raphael in Sacramento who was taken from his family has found his way back to them.
Boston Woodard is a prisoner/journalist who has been contributing to the Community Alliance since 2005. He is the author of Inside the Broken California Prison System (www.amazon.com). To learn more about Boston, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.