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.


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 detainees.''

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 been exceeded.

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 detainees)
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.