Sep. 23, 2006
Krome's population swells
An increase in detentions of foreign nationals by immigration officers in
Florida has led to a surge in the detainee population at the already crowded
Krome facility in West Miami-Dade.
BY ALFONSO CHARDY
Stepped up enforcement by immigration officers has resulted in a sharp
increase in the number of detainees at the Krome detention center in West
Miami-Dade where the population may now exceed 1,000 -- almost double its
publicly stated capacity.
Detainees who complained to The Miami Herald said the crowding was leading
to fights, unsanitary dormitories and showers and clogged toilets.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement acknowledged a ''surge'' in Krome
detainees, but did not provide specific figures. However, an agency
spokeswoman did not dispute estimates by some Krome detainees and workers
that more than 1,000 people were being held.
The number would be the highest at Krome since the 1980 Mariel boatlift when
-- according to a 1996 Justice Department report -- the former missile base
was ''used to detain up to 2,000'' people.
One detainee interviewed by phone Thursday and Friday said the normal bunk
bed arrangement in dormitories was no longer enough and that many detainees
were now sleeping in cots and mattresses known as boat beds -- strewn all
over crammed dormitories.
''It's very crowded,'' said the detainee who only wanted to be identified by
his nickname, Wecky. ``People are stressed. There's tension. Sometimes
fighting among detainees breaks out because some cut in longer lines in the
cafeteria or to get a haircut.''
Wecky recently got dozens of detainees to sign a letter to The Miami Herald
with a list of complaints, including overcrowding, clogged toilets and
flies. The letter said the Krome population was now ``an average of 1,100
Ira Kurzban, a Miami immigration attorney, said a client at Krome mentioned
the same figure to him on Wednesday. It would also be almost double Krome's
publicly stated capacity of about 580 detainees -- which at other times had
Immigration officials have insisted recently that Krome's capacity is
flexible and can be expanded as warranted.
The Justice Department report said Krome is ``capable of detaining a
population of up to 1,000 when necessary, through the use of nonpermanent
shelters such as tents.''
Barbara Gonzalez, a Miami spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs
Enforcement, said in an e-mail that a recent increase in enforcement
operations was largely responsible for the detainee ''surge'' at the site.
``This is the result of local immigration enforcement activity within the
Miami Field Office.''
It was her agency's most definite acknowledgement about Krome conditions
since June when detainees began complaining about overcrowding. On Aug. 15,
Gonzalez placed the number at 715.
Between late August and mid-September the immigration agency disclosed the
detention of at least 210 foreign nationals wanted as immigration violators,
criminals or fugitives across Florida.
Gonzalez insisted that arrangements were proper and that some detainees had
been sent to facilities elsewhere. Krome detainees, she said, ``are safe,
secure and in appropriate conditions of confinement.''
The detainees' letter painted a different picture, with ''58-plus average
extra army cots or boat beds'' in each dormitory, which houses, on average,
between 60 and 90, according to some detainees.
It noted the crowding caused ``lots of tension that leads to confrontation
unsanitary dormitories, showers, clogged toilets (5 toilets per 120
with low water pressure, flies, shortage of hygiene items, and recreational
activities taken away.''
The letter cited a July 6 incident in which a detainee, since deported to
the Dominican Republic, was forced down by officers who proceeded to ''punch
him in the face, kicking his ribs on his left side, and jumped and kneed him
in the back.'' The letter claimed officers stopped only when other detainees
threatened to intervene.
Gonzalez had no comment, but workers at the site had no record of any abuse
allegation being reported.
When he first arrived in May, Wecky said, conditions at Krome seemed
relatively comfortable with a population of almost 700.
''Gradually things got worse,'' he said. ``They began bringing in more and
more detainees each day, buses full of them.''
By August, he said, the number of detainees exceeded 1,000.