Behind Bars

On a cool November evening in 2012, Mark Reid finished his final supper as Inmate Number 141754. After three years at the Brooklyn Correctional Institution in Connecticut, Reid was scheduled for release the following morning. The past three years had been some of the most trying of his life, but as he leafed through the small trove of letters and photographs beside his bed, the 48-year-old Reid was reminded of all that he had to look forward to.

Before his most recent conviction, for the sale of narcotics and burglary in the third degree, Reid led the comfortable life of a real estate broker, with a modest salary and a sense of stability. His crime and prison sentence took that away. Still, he was the father of two children, a son who planned to enlist in the Navy, and a daughter, who was in high school. Thanksgiving was about a week away, and Reid felt especially grateful for the chance to sit down to dinner with his family.

The holiday held particular meaning for Reid, a Jamaican immigrant who came to the United States at fourteen to reunite with his mother after more than a decade apart. And even though he had faced legal battles and struggled with drug addiction, Reid considered himself blessed to live in the United States. He even spent six years as an Army Reservist, eager to show his gratitude. Although Reid was already a legal permanent resident, an Army recruiter promised Reid that time spent in the reserves would grant him citizenship. He did not know he had to apply. Nor did he know that if he broke the law, his green card could be revoked.

Reid’s release from prison should have been a fresh start, a classic American story of new beginnings. During his three-year incarceration, Reid’s attitude toward life changed. He sought out spiritual and psychological counseling. He woke up at four o’clock each morning to study for a paralegal certification. He imagined a better future for himself and his family.

But as Reid was packing, a prison official approached with disturbing news. He would not be heading home the next morning, the official told him. Instead, he would be taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a division of the Department of Homeland Security, and held in a detention facility. Just as he was about to leave the criminal justice system, Reid was forced into another of the nation’s most controversial institutions: immigration detention.

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At the Franklin County Jail in Greenfield, Massachusetts, Reid found that he was one of nearly one hundred noncitizens who had been detained after some interaction with a government agency. Many, like Reid, had been charged with violating the terms of their visas or green cards by breaking the law.

Every year, more than 400,000 non-citizen detainees are locked up in one of the 250 immigration detention centers in the United States. In 2012, ICE detained a record 478,000 people, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The vast majority of those held were from Latin American countries, with nearly seventy percent coming from Mexico alone. Only 0.4 percent of those held were from Jamaica, Reid’s country of birth.

Franklin, where Reid was confined, is contracted to house detainees for ICE. Homeland Security’s so-called “bed mandate” requires ICE to fill an average of 34,000 beds in detention centers each day. The imprisoned include victims of torture, asylum seekers, families with young children, veterans, mentally and physically disabled people, and lawful permanent residents, like Reid, who face deportation because of criminal convictions. The system comes at a hefty price, costing taxpayers $122 to $164 to hold a detainee each day, adding up to $2 billion a year.

Immigration lawyers estimate that dozens of the detainees are men and women who believed that they were made U.S. citizens simply by serving in the U.S. military. Like Reid, they failed to grasp that citizenship was not automatically conferred. Their numbers may be small, but their situations are particularly distressing since these men and women risked their lives for a country now pressing to expel them.

Mark Reid was not given a chance to tell a judge or hearing officer that he had served in the military for six years and that the recruiter promised he would receive his citizenship in return. He didn’t have a chance to talk about how he had worked to improve himself during his recent time in jail. He never had the chance to tell an official that he had a place to live and a family ready to help him back in New Haven because, like many noncitizen detainees, Reid was denied an individual bond hearing. Such a hearing would have allowed him to plead for the opportunity to live in the community while his deportation case was adjudicated.

Noncitizen detainees are first brought before a judge, at which time an official declares that the government has reason to deport them. They are then incarcerated until their cases are heard and their immigration status finalized. At that point, they are either deported or allowed to return to their homes in the U.S. Often they are locked up for months, even years, until they get any such resolution. This practice defies previous judicial decisions, which found that such lengthy pre-trial confinements violate both the Immigration and Naturalization Act and the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, both of which protect defendants’ right to challenge their detention and prohibit the government from arbitrarily incarcerating them. Prior court cases have set the limit for a “reasonable” length of detention without a bond hearing at six months.

Immigration officials have little to say on the matter. Daniel Modricker, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, released this statement: “While we cannot comment on ongoing litigation, ICE is committed to smart, effective immigration enforcement that focuses first on convicted criminal aliens, and those apprehended at the border while attempting to unlawfully enter the United States.”

But detaining people so excessively is disproportionate to the offense, insisted Nicole Hallett, a clinical teaching fellow at the Yale Law School who specializes in immigration law. She expressed outrage at the current state of detention.

“You can’t just detain people indefinitely,” Hallett told me. “It’s not punishment like in prison—it’s immigration detention. These people have already served their time, so this is civil detention—not unlike Guantanamo.” Of course, Guantanamo has garnered a decade of media attention. Immigration detention issues, though, remain in the shadows.

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Long before he ever saw the inside of a jail cell, Mark Reid was an aimless 20-year-old embarking upon his future in America. It was 1984, and he had escaped a troubled childhood in Kingston several years earlier. Once he reached the United States, Reid moved from town to town, before settling in New Haven to work for his uncle’s construction business.

One day, while he was accompanying his cousin to a meeting about formalizing his cousin’s citizenship papers, Reid met an Army recruiter who told him about the benefits of military service: honor, discipline, and, most importantly, the guarantee of United States citizenship. A few months later, Reid signed up for the Army Reserves. Just before leaving for boot camp, Reid said that he called his recruiter to ensure that everything was in order with his citizenship.

“You’ll be taken care of,” he recalls the recruiter telling him.

Upon returning from boot camp in Springfield, Massachusetts, later that year, he began to stray. He started hanging out with a few new friends from outside of his church circle.

“They had the new cars, the new sneakers. They were the most popular people in the street and I wanted to be a part of that,” Reid explained. He was brought up in a family of devout Seventh Day Adventists, and the world of drugs was entirely new to him.

Reid quickly discovered that drugs could fund the life he envied. Soon enough, he was passing his time on the streets, selling and eventually using a variety of narcotics. He still spent some weekends in Springfield, training with the reserves. But by the time he was honorably discharged in 1990, he had already had several confrontations with the police.

Graphic by Madeleine Witt.
Graphic by Madeleine Witt.

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Reid’s first encounter with the law came in 1986. Still a fresh face on the corner, he wanted to establish his street credentials, and that meant accumulating an arrest record. One day, his pockets filled with drugs, Reid intentionally circled a police cruiser until he was stopped and searched. After discovering that Reid had no prior arrests, the officer confiscated the drugs and released Reid with a warning. But Reid was determined to get arrested, and before long, he landed in jail. His sixty-day sentence would be the first of several over the course of the next two decades, mostly for various minor drug offenses. Reid’s life was in turmoil, but he barely noticed, he told me. In his world, it seemed normal.

“During that time, being incarcerated was just another part of being in the streets,” he said. “You’d know the majority of people locked up. There was nothing telling you that things needed to change. I went in and out with the same mentality.”

By the time he was due to be released from his most recent sentence, in November 2012, immigration officials had determined that it was too late to change. ICE had decided that Reid, a veteran and legal permanent resident with no history of terrorist activity, was a “dangerous criminal actor,” and that he should be deported.

Reid is among the growing number of detainees who have been caught up under a program called “Secure Communities.” Established in 2008, Secure Communities requires the FBI to share its database of prisoner fingerprints with immigration authorities. If ICE officials find a match with someone who is in the country illegally, they can ask local prisons to detain them. According to ICE, the program prioritizes the deportation proceedings of the most “dangerous criminal aliens,” those who pose public safety risks. This program was created by ICE, rather than Congress; as a result, ICE has complete discretion over who is detained. Communities, politicians, and academics have objected to the program’s premise and scope, but they have little power to make changes.

One of the most vocal local critics of Secure Communities is Michael Wishnie, a professor at the Yale Law School. “ICE has not backed down on Secure Communities,” Wishnie told me. “They’ve managed to force it on the entire country over the objections of mayors and local leaders. They promised that they’d only go after violent offenders, but all of the data suggest the opposite. The program is sweeping up exactly the people [ICE says] are not high-level targets.”

Wishnie also warned that Secure Communities leads to ineffective policing: fear of deportation erodes trust between local police and New Haven’s immigrant community.

Detainees face more than just the erosion of their constitutional rights. Several newspapers and community organizations have released reports describing human rights abuses in immigration detention centers, from inadequate medical attention to meager meals to sexual abuse. For Reid, the physical conditions in the detention center were humane, but he said that the experience was emotionally grueling. Each day, he found himself surrounded by throngs of people enduring extraordinary psychological stress as they faced possible deportation at any time. They were also coping with separation from their families, as well as financial ruin. Reid knew several people who attempted suicide. He even contemplated taking his own life as he struggled to handle the prospect of returning to Jamaica.

“Families were separated, children constantly crying, people yelling, screaming, worrying,” Reid said. “It was a devastating environment.”

Reid’s future looked bleak, but a few New Haven organizations heard about his case and saw in him symbolic power as a plaintiff. For decades, savvy lawyers have gone to great lengths to find complainants who could serve as effective figureheads for their causes, from Rosa Parks to Edie Windsor. In this case, Reid fit the bill. He was a veteran, a property owner, and a father with strong community ties. He had made bad choices, but he had changed for the better. Students from Yale Law School’s Veterans’ Legal Services Clinic were among the first to take note, and they provided Reid with initial support and advising. They were then joined by fellow Yale law students from the Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic (WIRAC). Both groups are part of the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization, which allows law students to represent local clients and gain courtroom experience under the guidance of professors.

On July 1, 2013, after Reid had been held in detention for nearly eight months without the opportunity to argue for his release on bond, the Yale law students helped Reid file a writ of habeas corpus, which required that he be brought to court. Guards shackled his hands, waist, and feet when he appeared at hearings—another violation of his constitutional rights, according to his lawyers.

Reid also filed a class action lawsuit in federal court. The lawsuit argued that the government unlawfully trapped not only him but other noncitizens in the ICE system for too long without allowing the bond hearing they were legally entitled to. Six months later, in January of 2014, Judge Michael Ponsor first ruled in Reid’s favor. Ponsor found that the government had attempted to defend its detention practice based on a “dubious interpretation” of immigration law and had offered “irrelevant” and “flawed” arguments. A month later, Judge Ponsor ruled that Reid was not alone, but that he was indeed one in a “class” of people suffering similar injustice, who were all entitled to file a class action lawsuit. Judge Ponsor’s ruling relates only to detainees in Massachusetts, where ICE confines most noncitizens from Connecticut slated for deportation, but immigration activists around the country are looking to this case as a bellwether for similar situations in other jurisdictions.

“Every story is unique, but people don’t realize just how common this is and how disruptive it can be for people in the community,” said Conchita Cruz, a Yale law student who is part of the WIRAC team. Deportation may be a civil offense, but it feels like criminal punishment for all parties involved.

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After Judge Ponsor’s ruling, ICE was forced to grant Reid a bond hearing. On February 3, 2014, a full sixteen months after Reid had been taken into custody by ICE, students from WIRAC represented him at the hearing. He was granted release on $25,000 bond until his case is resolved. He told his story in an op-ed in The Hartford Courant, and the publicity helped him raise the money he needed for the bond and his return home. On February 25, he was let free from Franklin. His lawyers from Yale drove to the jail to embrace him as he walked out of the prison gates. Then, they brought him home.

As he waits for resolution of his case, Mark Reid recognizes that he is fortunate compared to most noncitizens facing potential deportation. Eighty-four percent of people in immigration detention lack legal representation—a particular problem for noncitizens, who often speak little English, and cannot understand the charges and proceedings against them. Reid, again at home in New Haven, spends his days visiting with friends and family and working with his lawyers. Since his release, he has spoken on behalf of other detainees in immigration court. He is currently working to receive proper certification to represent detainees in an official capacity.

Thousands of other noncitizens are still held in detention centers around the country. Some detainees now look to Reid as the face of a class action suit that they hope might soon bring them some relief. But the legal battle will have to intensify for long-term results. “In the vacuum of federal action,” Wishnie said, “local leaders have had to do it, but eventually it’s going to have to happen on a federal level.”