Another Storm Brewing in Jena, LA

By Terry Keleher Sep 04, 2008

Courtesy of Jeff Haller/New York Times Just as news about the shameful saga of the Jena 6 has been waning, there’s a new reason to keep the spotlight on Jena, Louisiana. When the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently rounded up 600 people at Howard Industries in Laurel Mississippi—in the largest single workplace raid in U.S. history—they sent most of the arrested workers two hours away to a federal detention center in, none other than, Jena. Now we have the Jena 600. Some of the workers who are parents of small children were released for “humanitarian concerns” with an electronic monitoring device and ordered to report back to an ICE office. And nine 17-year-olds were transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. But hundreds remain locked up at Jena where humanitarianism has never been a strong point. "We are deeply concerned by reports that workers at the factory where the raid occurred were segregated by race or ethnicity and interrogated, the factory was locked down for several hours, workers were denied access to counsel, and ICE failed to inform family members and lawyers following the raid where the workers were being jailed," said Mónica Ramírez, a staff attorney with the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, after the raid in Laurel. The Jena detention facility was formerly a juvenile prison. It was designed to be a model corrections center, but ended up being shut down after conditions got so bad that the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit in 2000 against the management—GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut)—for abuse and violence. The investigation found that the mostly white guards used "cruel and humiliating punishments" and "routinely used excessive force" on the mostly Black youth inmates. A judge in the case said, "The way this facility operates or has operated in the recent past is that young people are treated as if they walk on all fours. These young people deserve to be treated like human beings, not animals.” But deeply entrenched institutions of state power and racism have a way of surviving. In 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Jena Correctional Facility was reopened temporarily to house some 450 inmates evacuated from Jefferson Parish Prison. According to reports by Human Rights Watch, numerous inmates claimed that correction officers had beaten, kicked and hit them while they were shackled, sometimes forcing inmates to stay kneeling for hours at a stretch. Barred from outside communication, their families had no idea of their whereabouts. This pattern of abuse sure has a familiar ring. In this prison’s latest incarnation, the legacy of subhuman treatment of people of color is sure to live on. It’s been rehabbed and resurrected as the LaSalle Detention Facility, which opened last November, just two months after the mass protests in Jena last year. The new facility was retrofitted by—I’m not making this up—the White Construction company, and transformed into what’s being touted as a state-of-the-art immigration detention facility that can house up to 1,162 people, with hopes for future expansion. It now operates as a partnership between the ICE Office of Detention and Removal and, believe it or not, the GEO Group as administrator of operations. Despite its atrocious history of abuse, the company describes itself as a “world leader in privatized correctional and detention management.” The GEO Group’s earnings are directly tied to keeping prison beds filled, so they have a vested interested in government raids like the one at Howard Industries in Laurel, Mississippi. The reopened facility has been welcomed by the Jena community, which is 85% white. To many people there, the detention center is seen simply as a major source of badly needed jobs and economic stimulus. Who can blame them? But now, the low and middle income whites and Blacks of Jena, who once worked as guards over a predominantly Black prison population, find themselves guarding mostly Brown people. You have to wonder what effect this has on the collective psyche of the local residents when the major employer is a prison that routinely houses and abuses mostly people of color. It doesn’t bode well for the future of race relations in Jena, or for that matter, in so many other prison-oriented company towns across the U.S. The criminal justice system has a long track record of reinforcing racial divisions and preventing the emergence of multi-racial alliances that just might threaten the predominantly white power establishment. Just look at what happened at Howard Industries where the current Jena inmates worked, prior to the raid. Howard Industries is a politically well-connected and notoriously anti-union company, with a long list of safety violations. ICE conducted the raid during contract negotiations, amidst a union drive that was aimed at bringing immigrants into a union that was largely non-immigrant. It’s a well-known pattern of crack-downs on immigrants, just when they start organizing and demanding rights and respect. New American Media reported that state representative Jim Evans of Mississippi said he believed "this raid is an effort to drive immigrants out of Mississippi. It is also an attempt to drive a wedge between immigrants, African Americans, white people and unions–all those who want political change here." The prison in Jena, with its deplorable history and network of connections to state and corporate power from the local on up to the national level, is just a small cog in the broader wheel of systemic racial injustice in this country. The convergence of issues, institutions and injustices in Jena may seem coincidental, but actually, it’s not unlike the way things work in small towns and big cities across this country. That’s what structural racism is all about–the compounding and cumulative impacts of multiple institutions that protect the interests of the wealthy white power establishment while keeping people of color down. Sadly, they’re housing the wrong people at the detention center in Jena. If justice were truly served, the line-up of inmates there would look a whole lot different. It would include the corporate executives of the GEO Group who are responsible for the unconscionable abuse of prisoners in their vast network of privatization scams. And let’s save a place for the Howard Industries profiteers who took millions of dollars in state subsidies and used it to exploit immigrants. A full wing of prison beds ought to be reserved for ICE and the top brass at Homeland Security who continue ripping apart immigrant families to score cheap conservative political points. And hopefully, there’d still be some room for the white school board members in Jena who don’t know the difference between an “adolescent prank” and a hate crime—and then have the nerve to blame the students for the racism there. And, let’s not forget the local prosecutors who cleverly charged six African American youth with 2nd-degree murder by claiming their gym shoes were weapons of murder. Housing this kind of prison population might actually change the collective local psyche. And justice of that sort sure might put a tidy dent in the overall system and ongoing legacy of white superiority in the U.S. With more immigrant raids on the horizon, continuing racism directed against the local Black population, and a new hurricane season to remind us of past injustices and current vulnerabilities, there’s no telling what’s in store for the town of Jena and its prison. Instead of waiting for a convergence of even more racial injustices at Jena, perhaps we need another convergence of even more racial justice activists in Jena—activists who are willing to stand up for the rights and humanity of everyone. And everyone includes Black, Brown and white, regardless of union membership, citizenship or immigrant status. Everyone means everyone and enough is enough.