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Exile in Oakdale 

By the time Carol and Natasha MacDonald heard their husband and father had been transferred to Oakdale, he was already gone.

When 7-year old Natasha MacDonald first saw the postmark, she asked her mother, "Where's Louisiana?" At that point, Carol MacDonald says, she realized it was time to stop the months-long lie. Linden Corrica, her husband and Natasha's father, wasn't off working a new job. He was in prison very far from home.

Two weeks later, in late May, Natasha sits with her mother in a press conference in New Orleans, fidgeting as a series of speakers denounce the Oakdale Federal Detention Center, the prison where Corrica is being held. Local American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) executive director Joe Cook calls Oakdale "a training ground for the future torturers of places like Abu Ghraib."

"The detention system is getting bigger and nastier, and tearing families apart at a faster pace than ever before," says Subdash Kateel, an organizer from the New York-based activist group Families for Freedom (FFF). "Immigrant New Yorkers -- mostly black and Latino -- are being transferred to Louisiana without due process. Once here, they're beaten and abused."

Gambit Weekly made repeated calls to both Oakdale prison officials and the local Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (BICE) office, seeking comment. The calls were not returned.

Of the roughly 20,000 people held in immigration prisons, nearly 1,000 are being held in Oakdale, with several hundred more transferred to parish prisons -- including Orleans Parish Prison -- across the state. In all, nearly 8 percent of the nation's immigrant detainees are held in Louisiana, a state with an immigrant population of less than 1 percent.

The press conference is part of a four-day tour of Louisiana sponsored by FFF. Included in the group are friends and relatives of five immigrants currently being detained in Oakdale. Others are here to help provide legal assistance and moral support. The press conference isn't well attended, but FFF hopes it will help get their message out.

At this moment, Natasha isn't cooperating. When it's her family's turn at the table, Natasha hides behind her mother. "Come now, Natasha," Carol pleads, and the young girl obeys. Dressed in a white T-shirt and blue jeans highlighted by a belt buckle that sparkles with TASHA written across it, Natasha squirms as her mother speaks about her husband's plight.

AN HOUR LATER, AT LUCH, Natasha doesn't touch her food, and shyly walks over to her mom. But when asked if she's excited to go see her father, her eyes light up. "Daddy! Daddy!" she shouts, jumping up and down with her arms around her mother's neck.

The group piles into two mini-vans rented by FFF, which held fundraisers to finance a trip that MacDonald and most others admit they could not otherwise afford. One group rides in a van accommodating media. Others -- some of whom can't or won't talk to the media, either because of cases pending in immigration courts or general distrust -- ride in another.

There's another barrier, as well. "I want to listen to good music, not the old-folks stuff," says a teenage boy, who's here with his mother to visit her brother. The "younger" van will play some hip-hop, but most in this group are originally from Caribbean nations such as Jamaica and St. Tropez. They prefer reggae, especially Bob Marley. "We're still fighting his revolutions," FFF activist Agatha Joseph says of Marley's music and message.

Joseph's daughter is here, too. Joseph became involved in FFF when her daughter spent three years in immigration prisons for a misdemeanor marijuana charge -- the teenager was caught smoking a joint in a New York City park with friends.

Marley's "Freedom Song" plays as the van rolls along I-10 west toward Oakdale, located four hours from New Orleans in rural Allen Parish. Passing through Cancer Alley, Baton Rouge and entering the Atchafalaya Basin, MacDonald surveys the strange, foreign terrain, where land yields to water.

MacDonald liked the look of New Orleans better. "New Orleans has all the houses that go like this," she says, moving her hands in slanted directions, resembling the familiar sinking stance of local homes. "In Brooklyn all the houses are --." With a look of slight disgust, she makes a stern flat line. "Plus, all the lush green of New Orleans, it reminds me of home," MacDonald says.

Home for MacDonald and Corrica is the Caribbean coast of Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America. They grew up together there, but 20 years ago, MacDonald, now 42, followed her family to the United States. "In Guyana, we had no choice, no hope for a better life," she says. "We came to America for opportunity."

After settling in New York City, MacDonald soon called for Corrica to follow. She found work as a home health aide; he did odd jobs. They've been married for 15 years.

MacDonald looks out the van window, seeing nothing there that recalls home, or anything she has seen before. "What is this?" she asks later. "It's like a wasteland. In New York, we are just so crowded, people living on top of people. All the noise. Why can't they move people to this? Look at this! It's wasteland."

"Spoken like a true New Yorker," says FFF organizer Benita Jain.

CONTROVERSY HAS SURROUNDED OAKDALE since 1985, when then-Mayor George Mowad, who governed a town struggling with 31 percent unemployment and an average annual income of $7,000, turned to immigrant prisoners as "a recession-proof industry," according to news accounts at the time. He argued that as the world's economy worsened, more people would flee to the United States, thus creating more prisoners and, ultimately, more jobs in Oakdale.

That same year, the Louisiana ACLU filed a lawsuit to stop the construction of Oakdale. Bill Quigley, now director of the Loyola Law Clinic, filed the suit in federal court, where it eventually lost. "What has happened is exactly what we feared," Quigley says. "The lawsuit was an attempt to prevent the prison from being built there because of its serious geographical isolation from courts and attorneys experienced in immigration law."

The Oakdale prison first entered the national spotlight two years after opening, when Mariel Cuban detainees staged a relatively peaceful riot in response to negotiations between the United States and Cuba over their status.

The prison population in Oakdale grew as President Ronald Reagan's administration increasingly enforced immigration laws. The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) and the 9/11 terrorist attacks further heightened immigration issues. In 2003, Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) merged into the Department of Homeland Security, under the new name of Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (BICE).

Hiroko Kusuda, a detention attorney with the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, regularly travels to Oakdale to give "rights presentations" to groups of prisoners (federal law prohibits her from one-on-one consultation). The immigration court and detention system makes it difficult to help detainees, she says.

"Nobody could be thinking of a family when they drafted this document," says Kusuda, thumbing through BICE's first published strategic plan, "Endgame: Detention and Removal Strategy for a Secure Homeland."

Why are New Yorkers sent to Louisiana? "The official position is lack of bed space," Kusuda says. Cost is another factor. It's an estimated $200 per day to house a prisoner in New York, while in Louisiana it's closer to $45 to $50, Kusuda says. She also charges that the move to house federal prisoners in Louisiana is a deliberate ploy to weaken their chances of winning their cases. Detainees are geographically isolated from their family and other supporters, and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans has a record of denying immigrant detainees' cases, she says.

Oakdale houses three judges on its sprawling complex, all appointees of the Department of Justice. The judges process cases against the prisoners, who are prosecuted by BICE-employed attorneys with no guaranteed right to counsel for themselves. The detainees may have visa or asylum issues, Kusuda says, though she estimates 80 percent of the 1,000 inmates in Oakdale are there for a criminal offense. Those who enter the criminal justice system with an "A" next to their case file -- essentially, all non-U.S. citizens -- are marked for deportation if their offense is deemed an "aggravated felony."

Yet the terms "aggravated" and "felony" are misleading, Kusuda and other activists argue. Most of those crimes are offenses that carry a jail sentence of one year or more, but they're not necessarily felonies or violent in nature. Also, any crime involving a controlled substance -- save simple possession of marijuana, set at less than 30 grams (one ounce) -- is grounds for deportation.

The feeling among MacDonald and others on the FFF-sponsored trip is that their loved ones were sent to Louisiana to lose. Quigley agrees. "People from all over the U.S. are sent to a remote part of Louisiana and effectively cut off from legal representation," he says. "People of many different languages, cultures, histories and countries are warehoused in effective legal isolation in Oakdale. This is a violation of basic human rights and basic human decency."

FROM HER POST AT THE FRONT DESK of the Oakdale Inn, Janet Jones can see across Hwy. 165 to rows of pine trees concealing the prison complex. "Pretty much everyone here's going to the jail or passing through to Texas," Jones says.

The Oakdale Inn is the town's only lodging. After paying for the group's three rooms, FFF organizers Jain, Kateel and Aarti Shahani -- all in their 20s, all New York City residents of Indian descent -- drive the family members across the highway in time for the three-hour evening visitation period. Jain and Kateel are also on an approved visitation list for detainees they're working to assist.

In the prison's processing area, Carol MacDonald fills out an extensive list of forms required for visitation. Nearly an hour into the three-hour period, mother and daughter grow a little impatient as a guard searches them. He escorts them into a visiting area, where Corrica is waiting.

They return at 8 p.m., just as the sun begins to set on the well-manicured Oakdale grounds. Natasha looks sullen as she walks slowly toward the parking lot, holding her mother's hand. It's the first time she's seen her father in seven months. The entire group leaving the prison is silent.

Back in one of the hotel rooms, Kateel, a Michigan State graduate with a masters degree in social work from Columbia University, speaks to the families. "I know everybody is working to process some pretty heavy shit right now," he says. "I don't think anybody wants to talk about what they saw right now. I know I don't want to even think about it. But we have to keep in mind why we're here. We're working for their freedom."

The room stays silent for a few moments, and then supper plans are discussed. A few venture into town to buy pizzas and chicken. While sitting in the Popeye's parking lot, Kateel describes what Oakdale's like on the inside. "It's not scary, like some old-school jail," he says. "It's more like they try to office-space them to death."

Eating together in one room, the group's spirits seem to lift a little; some even laugh. Natasha is eager to swim in the pool. Sporting a pink bathing suit, she splashes about the shallow end. Nearby, a group of Texans sip wine poolside and tell jokes. MacDonald sits poolside, too, shouting sternly, "Natasha! No!" whenever the child ventures into deeper waters. While her daughter plays, MacDonald takes the opportunity to tell the story of her husband's arrest.

"I'm a Christian woman," she explains. "My husband, he's Rasta. He likes to smoke." MacDonald refers to marijuana, which Rastafarians consider a tool for meditation.

Driving his family around in Brooklyn last November, Linden Corrica was pulled over by the police. "The cop started asking Linden questions right at the start," MacDonald remembers. "You know they look for the Rasta man. The dreadlocks."

In 1985, the same year Oakdale opened, INS investigators prepared an internal report titled "The Newest Criminals: The Emergence of Non-Traditional Organized Ethnic Crime Groups and INS' Role in Combatting Them." The report contained the wry observation that "Rastafarians are not just noted for Reggae." Though MacDonald knew nothing of that report, she recognized the profiling of her husband.

"The cop started asking all these questions," she says. "Linden would say nothing, and the cop got angry and then more angry."

A search of Corrica's car revealed marijuana, though MacDonald says she doesn't know how much, and Gambit Weekly wasn't able to access his case files. Corrica's court-appointed attorney advised his client to plead guilty without trial to reduce his sentence. But the attorney didn't advise his client on what consequence his plea would bring in the separate immigrant system, according to MacDonald and FFF activists. Corrica took the guilty plea and was two weeks into his sentence in Riker's Island jail in New York when BICE officials transferred him to Oakdale. He was already in Louisiana by the time his family heard of his fate.

"We knew nothing," MacDonald says. "Nobody told us anything. Linden called and told me where he was and what happened, and I prayed, 'Oh God, please help us.'"

She keeps her eye on Natasha, who continues to splash in the pool. A child with the Texas group grabs on the metal fence surrounding the Oakdale Inn's pool area. "I'm in jail! I'm in jail!" the boy shouts, shaking the fence.

FOR THE PAST FEW YEARS, writer Mark Dow has been traveling to Oakdale and similar facilities across the country. In June, he published his research in American Gulag: Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons (Univ. of California Press).

"The immigration detention system is widespread, yet somehow invisible, because the people held in that system bear the double burden of being inmates and aliens," Dow says. "I was really trying to document the ways this prison system is utterly unaccountable for what it does. Unaccountable in the justification for the reasons for holding people, and unaccountable for the treatment of the prisoners it holds."

Dow says his research was hindered by intense government secrecy surrounding immigration prisons. Dow was denied an interview and tour when he visited Oakdale, as was Gambit Weekly.

"There's such a culture of racism and brutality in these prisons, and put that together with the historical refusal by Congress to hold the agency responsible for what goes on in these detention centers, and this is what happens," Dow says.

A primary source for American Gulag is a free-talking ex-warden named Richard Franklin, who details a group of jailers dubbed the "ass-kickers" who seemingly took pride in vicious and arbitrary handling of prisoners at Oakdale. From Franklin and from Oakdale detainees, Dow heard that immigrants faced proceedings with unscheduled court dates and were "deported as a matter of practice, no matter their legal standing."

Dow says that an immigrant's chance for due process and humane treatment is worsened when Oakdale farms out its prisoners to parish jails across Louisiana. A group of federal prisoners has filed a civil suit against Concordia Parish prison, citing racism, cruelty and lack of access to a law library, a protected right even for immigrants. Concordia Parish officials did not return a call to Gambit Weekly for comment.

"It's important to understand, that although the government talks about Oakdale in terms of expediting the removal of aliens, in their sanitized lingo, from the beginning Oakdale was a staging ground for denying due process," Dow says.

Dow points out that immigration detainees have no right to counsel. Their judges are not the Article III judges familiar to civil and criminal proceedings. Rather, they are federal employees of the Department of Justice. "It's still not enough for (Attorney General John) Ashcroft that these guys face such a contentious system," Dow says. "He's now made it possible for BICE to detain someone even when bond is set, when they're actually getting some sort of due process. It's a shame."

Dow raises other issues with Justice policies. If immigrant detainees object to treatment or request medical assistance, it can be held against them during their proceedings before the judge.

Dow argues that the first step toward reform would be independent monitoring of immigration courts and prisons. "The key element of this problem is no oversight from the outside," Dow says. "It's appropriate to call the whole system sub-Constitutional, as it's designed to fly under the radar of the U.S. Constitution."

"OBODY CAN UNDERSTAND the suffering in my house right now," MacDonald says in late July, back home in Brooklyn. The bills are piling up in the now single-parent home, and she can't buy the school clothes Natasha needs for third grade. In Oakdale, Corrica can earn a maximum of $1 a day.

"She's OK," MacDonald says when asked about Natasha. Corrica calls every week. Natasha asks about him all the time. "'When is Daddy coming home?' 'Soon,' I say. 'Soon.'"

The truth is, MacDonald admits, she knows nothing about her husband's legal status. His case is on appeal to stop the deportation order, but the proceedings are being held far away from his family's eye. MacDonald had to testify over the phone to an immigration judge in Louisiana about how much she and Natasha love their father and husband, and how much they need him back home. "It was the most humiliating experience of my life," MacDonald says.

If Corrica is sent back to Guyana, his troubles will continue. Nobody will hire an American deportee, MacDonald says. She and Natasha will stay in New York, where Natasha, an American citizen, is getting the education she couldn't receive in Guyana. "You come to America for an opportunity. You come to have a family," she says. "We have a home. We have a family."

Throughout the conversation, MacDonald's voice often wavers. But she gains steam as she discusses her opinions about why her husband is in jail. "What is going on in this country right now?" she asks. "After September 11, everything becomes a terrorist act. Smoking marijuana is a terrorist act." But then the new reality of her home -- her family -- hits MacDonald. It's then that she feels that nobody can help her. "Sometimes I feel strong, but then I feel just so weak," she says.

click to enlarge By the time Carol and Natasha MacDonald heard their husband and father had been transferred to Oakdale, he was already gone. - AMY DICKERSON
  • Amy Dickerson
  • By the time Carol and Natasha MacDonald heard their husband and father had been transferred to Oakdale, he was already gone.
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