November 17, 2010
In BETWEEN THE FENCES, Tony Hefner tells a harrowing tale of corruption and human rights abuses, committed by both the United States government as well as contractors tasked with fulfilling governmental responsibilities (in this case, caring for detained, undocumented immigrants). Employed as a prison guard at the Port Isabel Service Processing Center - an immigrant detention center in the South Texas's Rio Grande Valley - from 1983 to 1986 and again from 1988 to 1990, Hefner either witnessed personally or was privy to first-hand accounts of various crimes that took place at Port Isabel, including the sexual, physical and emotional abuse of detainees, both male and female (and sometimes, children); the sexual harassment, assault and rape of female guards; the physical and emotional abuse of male employees; drug trafficking; blackmail; nepotism and racism in hiring and firing decisions; and countless other illegal and immoral activities, including repeated cover-ups of these incidents, and the protection of those involved.
Hefner's account of these human rights abuses is both engaging and enraging, but his constant digression into his own life history detracts from the story. For example, as a child Hefner himself endured physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his stepfather, who thought him worthless because of his Mexican parentage. Although I sympathize with his plight - no child should be bullied, hit, or made to feel worthless, and certainly not by adults - Hefner repeatedly points to this abuse as one reason ("excuse," you might say) for his relative inaction on behalf of abused inmates. While Hefner's power to intervene directly was no doubt limited, he also didn't do much behind the scenes; for example, he might have clandestinely collected hard evidence in order to build a case against his superiors, and/or anonymously leaked this information to the media, thus remaining an inside whistleblower at Port Isabel - but he didn't. While Hefner did record those abuses that took place out in the open (in a notebook, after the fact - not exactly irrefutable proof), he also didn't go out of his way to uncover the hidden, more egregious cruelties that were kept from him and others. Too often, he seemed content to go about his own work, nose down, ears closed - see no evil, hear no evil.
Many guards and employees tolerated the abuse of both prisoners and, not uncommonly, their own persons because of financial hardship. In the 1980s, at least, Port Isabel was one of the largest employers in an economically strapped area. Far removed from the situation, it's easy to sit in judgment of guards who refused to speak up in the interest of self-preservation. But this unfair at best; no one can really know how he or she would react in a similar situation without actually living it. Here, though, Hefner makes frustrating excuses as well; if he had simply chalked his lack of action up to poverty, I might be able to understand. But he claims to have stayed on at Port Isabel in order to keep his ministry, the Bearing Precious Seed Ranch, viable. In other words, he was content to proselytize to vulnerable children on the one hand, while utterly and spectacularly failing to live the actual tenets of his religious teachings on the other. "Do as I say, not as I do." In the name of "caring for" some people's children, he ignored the abuse of other people's children (some of them, it's worth noting, actual children - minor boys raped by fellow inmates while indifferent guards looked on, or underage girls forced to dance naked for the possibility of clemency).
The many, many pages Hefner devoted to writing his own autobiography would have been better spent, I think, placing the abuse at Port Isabel in context. According to the book's promotional materials, 400,000 immigrants are detained by the U.S. government every year; these individuals are held in a number of jails across the country. How do the conditions at Port Isabel compare to those at other centers? What steps, if any, are the INS and the U.S. government taking to ensure that the individuals detained in these facilities - and the guards employed therein - are treated humanely and respectfully? How does the government justify its lack of action on the complaints lodged against Port Isabel officials? What steps do Hefner and his allies plan to take next? And how does our broken immigration policy, too often marred by racism, sexism and xenophobia, contribute to these horrific conditions?