Thursday, September 20, 2018
CoreCivic's private prison in the Mississippi Delta may now be housing hundreds of asylum seekers who've committed no crime
(The Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Mississippi)
OXFORD, Miss. – Father Walter J. Ciszek’s only crime was to minister to laborers in a remote Ural Mountains village, but it was 1941 and the American-born priest soon found himself swept into the Soviet Gulag, where he would spend the next two decades.
“I could not overcome the shock occasioned by the total loss of freedom and the sense of complete control held by someone else over my every action, my every liberty, my every need,” Ciszek would later write. “People could disappear into those prisons and never be heard of again.”
The world’s largest gulag today is in the United States, where a quarter of the world’s prison population is behind bars, and Mississippi is at the heart of that gulag with the nation’s fifth highest incarceration rate.
Although the state has reduced its prison population in recent years, new arrivals from as far away as India and Nepal may reverse that trend, and what’s more, many of these new arrivals have committed no crime.
The epicenter of this new trend appears to be the for-profit, CoreCivic-owned Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in the Delta town of Tutwiler. The U.S. Marshals Service this summer contracted to send 1,350 federal inmates to the 2,672-bed prison, and sources say hundreds of asylum seekers are also being housed there.
Like Father Ciszek, asylum seekers have committed no crime. They came to the United States believing the words on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty and seeking refuge from either gut-wrenching poverty or the violence and corruption of drug cartels and dictatorships in their homeland.
“These are people who spent their last dime to get here, probably being picked up God knows where,” says Lisa Graybill of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. “Asylum seekers don’t know what rights they have.”
I contacted the prison, CoreCivic, and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and none of them is willing to break down the numbers or provide specifics on what is going on inside the prison walls. Many of the detainees or inmates may be undocumented migrants. At least some have come from prisons in other states like South Carolina.
President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy on undocumented migrants has been a boon to the private prison industry, in this writer’s mind an abomination that turns the judicial system into a profit-seeking enterprise.
The month that the U.S. Marshals Service announced its plans for the Tutwiler facility, CoreCivic’s stock rose 3.5 percent. One of the nation’s largest private prison companies, CoreCivic, like the industry as a whole, benefits not only from government largesse but also from the financial backing of major banks like JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo.
CoreCivic, by the way, was a financial contributor to Trump’s inauguration.
Asylum seekers are supposed to be given a court hearing and vetted in a process that shouldn’t take longer than a month. However, CoreCivic and ICE won’t confirm or deny their presence, much less their length of stay, their access to family and legal counsel, the scheduling of hearings.
If the past is prelude to the future, the situation must be scary for anyone behind the walls of the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility.
“The Tutwiler facility has a sordid record,” says Bill Chandler, executive director of the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance.
Indeed, it was the scene of a violent riot in 2004 in which inmates set fire to a portable toilet, clothing and mattresses. Another CoreCivic facility, the Adams County Correctional Center, was the scene of an inmate riot in 2012 with inmates taking guards hostage. One correctional officer died in the incident.
So, you tired, poor, “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” and who’ve just arrived at Tutwiler, welcome to Mississippi.
This column appears in the current edition of the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Mississippi.
Tuesday, September 11, 2018
Labor South Review: "City of Devils", a book about Old Shanghai and its underworld rulers before the Japanese took over in World War II
You can access the magazine at https://neworleansreviewofbooks.com.
It was 1972, and I was drinking beer with my sergeant in our little base north of Saigon, quietly listening to his war stories when he caught my attention with one word: “Shanghai”. “You were in Shanghai?” I asked. “Yep,” he said, beaming. “1949.”
I pumped him with questions. After all, Shanghai is one of those cities that evoke mystery, intrigue, the exotic. It’s even a verb, something other exotic cities like Marseilles, Casablanca, Kathmandu, and, yes, New Orleans can’t even claim.
He talked about arriving in the port city just before the Communists took over, the crazy scramble before one world ended and another began.
I thought about my old sergeant as I read Paul French’s latest book, City of Devils: The Two Men Who Ruled the Underworld of Old Shanghai (Picador, 2018). It’s a fascinating look at a city that in the 1930s was a freewheeling, expatriate-filled island of gambling, whoring, and partying while the rest of China, and the world for that matter, teetered toward destruction.
A list of the descriptive names people gave Shanghai gives you an idea—the “Paris of the Orient”, the “the insanity of Sodom incarnate”, “the rim of a volcano”, “the city of fear”, and finally “the city of the dead”.
“The neon-bright city feeds off its host of four hundred million peasants barely surviving in China’s fetid hinterlands and laughs at their degradation,” French writes.
The city wouldn’t laugh for long, however, as the Japanese tightened their net around it, and finally after Pearl Harbor in 1941 marched in and took control. Chiang Kai-shek’s “Free China” forces offered little protection against the Japanese hordes as the city’s denizens were “bombed, shot, strafed, burnt, diseased, frozen, and starved,” an attack that included “the worst aerial bombing of a civilian city in history.”
Still, the core story of City of Devils takes place just before the Japanese arrive, and it centers on two men who ruled the gambling dens and show palaces with their Russian dancing girls, imported Chicago jazz bands, and countless slots and roulette wheels.
“Dapper Joe” Farren, a showman who wowed audiences with his Astaire-like moves on the dance floor, had escaped the Nazi takeover of his native Vienna and the concentration camps that awaited Jews like him. “Lucky Jack” Riley was the volatile, tough-as-nails Navy vet and escaped con from the USA Midwest who had his fingertips acid-burned to erase his former identity.
Farren controlled the nightclubs, including the one that bore his name, while Riley was Shanghai’s “Slots King”, and they ruled from the western part of Shanghai known as the “Badlands”. The two eventually work together, but what two kings ever worked together very long? They will meet separate fates as the flag of the Land of the Rising Sun unfurls over Shanghai.
With this book and his earlier book Midnight in Peking, French does for the wartime Far East what novelist Alan Furst has done for wartime Europe. He recreates a danger-ridden, intrigue-filled world endlessly fascinating at this safe distance, if less so for those who suffered through it. City of Devils joins a worthy literature about Old Shanghai that includes, of course, André Malraux’s Man’s Fate and more recently Tom Bradby’s The Master of Rain.
French’s writing is a hardboiled staccato that races along at breakneck speed like a book-length Walter Winchell column. You want him to slow down sometimes, but you’re along for the ride, and you’re damned sure not going to let go.