Somali ex-detainee wins damages from NJ prison farm

On Nov. 13, in its second day of deliberations, a federal jury in Newark, NJ, awarded former asylum seeker Hawa Abdi Jama of Somalia $100,000 in damages after finding the private company that ran an immigration detention facility in Elizabeth negligent in its hiring and training. The jury rejected a claim that Jama’s international human rights were violated during her 11-month detention at Elizabeth in 1994-95.

Jama, now a US citizen living in Ohio, was one of nine immigrants who had sued Correctional Services Corp. (CSC)—known as Esmor when it ran the Elizabeth center—over abuses at the facility. During a six-week trial in Newark, the company reached settlements with the other eight defendants. In 2005, a separate group of 1,600 former detainees at the Elizabeth facility got a $2.5 million settlement from CSC, with most getting less than $1,000 each after legal fees.

The federal government closed the Elizabeth detention center and canceled the contract with Esmor after hundreds of detainees rioted over poor conditions at the facility in June 1995. The detention center reopened in January 1997 under contract with the Corrections Corp. of America, based in Nashville, Tennessee, which continues to operate it.

Jama’s suit, filed in June 1997 as Jama v. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), was based on the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, which is generally applied in cases involving atrocities committed outside the US. In November 2004, US District Judge Dickinson R. Debevoise dismissed charges against the federal immigration agency and its officials, saying the government could not be sued. He also dismissed some charges against the company’s guards, finding that individual actions did not rise to the level of international human rights abuses. But he allowed the suit to move forward with charges against the company and its officials, ruling that the defendants had the right to use the statute to seek monetary damages for violations on US soil. It was the first time the 1789 law has been used against a private company.

During the trial, Jama said she and others held at the Elizabeth facility were beaten, fed rotten food, denied basic supplies such as toothbrushes and sanitary napkins, and forced to use toilets and sinks overflowing with feces and vomit. “I felt like I wasn’t human,” she said.

Penny Venetis, co-director of the constitutional litigation clinic at Rutgers School of Law-Newark, who represented Jama and her co-plaintiffs, contended that the company cut corners for profits. Venetis urged the jury to award punitive damages to her client to “send a message” to the company and prevent it from abusing others. The defense argued the allegations were exaggerated and that Jama was traumatized by her experience in Somalia, not by abuses at the detention center. “She came here as a damaged person and we have empathy for her, but that does not mean we are responsible under our judicial system,”said CSC attorney Larry Reich.

Although the jury rejected Jama’s claim that her international human rights had been violated, it found the company and four of its officers were negligent in hiring, training, supervising and retaining guards. The jury awarded her $100,000 in compensatory damages. Jama, who is Muslim, also alleged she was prevented from practicing her religion. The jury found Esmor and one of its officers liable under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and awarded Jama an additional $1 in damages on that claim.

Venetis said she was disappointed the jury rejected the human rights claim, but added that “the $100,000 is not peanuts.” She also said the eight other defendants would not agree to a gag order on their settlements, so details eventually will be disclosed. “I think it’s critical for the public to know that when corporations violate human rights they will be called to task, and we have called them to task,” said Venetis. (Newark Star-Ledger, AP, Nov. 14)

CSC was purchased in July 2005 by the Geo Group Inc., a multinational prison and security company based in Boca Raton, Florida, which operated under the name Wackenhut Corrections Corporation until late 2003. Geo reported 2006 profits of $30 million, or $1.68 per share, compared with $7 million, or 47 cents per share, a year earlier. It had revenue of $860.9 million in 2006, compared with $612.9 million in 2005. (AP, Nov. 14)

From Immigration News Briefs, Nov. 26

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