When 22-year-old Elimene Revange decided to gamble on her future by leaving her tropical island home of Haiti for Miami on a fake passport, she couldn't have foreseen that her journey would end in this rustic, mountainous corner of West Virginia.
For the past six months Revange and 56 other Haitian women have been detained here at Alderson Federal Correctional Institution, the country's only all-female penitentiary. Though no court has convicted them of a crime, they live under the rigors of prison regulations in a fenced-off, corner brick dormitory apart from the prison's 500 inmates.
The women are among more than 2,000 illegal immigrants from Haiti now in custody in l4 centers in the U.S. and Puerto Rico while awaiting deportation hearings as a result of the Reagan Administration's decision last May to begin clamping down on illegal immigration. Although the detention policy applies to all nationalities, a combination of bureaucratic and legal moves has resulted in an extended detention for Haitians--up to a year for some of them--leading church and civil rights groups to denounce it as racist and discriminatory.
For Revange, a husky woman from the coastal Haitian town of Gonaives who hopes to study home economics, it is a source of mystery and bitterness.
"We came in (to the U.S.) with plans to go to school and work and some of us don't know where we are at," she said, speaking through an interpreter. "We feel crazy. This place is too much for us."
As their stay at Alderson has stretched from weeks into months, the Haitians have become increasingly depressed, frustrated and impatient. "Here in West Virginia we now face a very black life. They treat us like animals for no reason at all. They give more importance to a garbage can than they do to us," the women recently wrote in an open letter to some Washington supporters.
Prison authorities express sympathy for the women's plight but nerves have frayed on both sides and in recent weeks there have been a number of incidents, including a ten-day boycott of the cafeteria, a night-time scuffle with guards that ended with nine of the women taken away handcuffed, and at least one suicide attempt.
Last May the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Florida began detaining Haitians caught illegally entering the U.S. at a converted missile site outside Miami, ending its standard practice of releasing them to sponsors in the community pending deportation hearings. This was four months before President Reagan ordered the Coast Guard to begin intercepting boats in the Caribbean suspected of transporting illegal Haitians to this country.
Both moves were meant to stanch the flow of illegal migrants seeking to leave Haiti's chronic poverty and the repressive dictatorship of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. To escape these twin woes, almost 1500 Haitians a month were coming to U.S. shores in the last half of l980.
INS began holding quick deportation hearings for the detained Haitians, sending most of them home, until a federal judge in Miami ruled last September that no Haitian could be deported unless represented by legal counsel at his hearing. This put a brake on the hearings, but it also prolonged the Haitians' detention.
Citing overcrowding, the government then moved some of the Haitians out of the missile site and into detention centers such as Alderson. Lawyers for the Haitians have filed suit in Miami asking for their immediate release, arguing that the detentions are discriminatory and charging that they violate the United Nations Protocol on Refugees.
INS spokesman Verne Jervis said it is "wholly inaccurate" that the detention policy is aimed solely at Haitians. On a typical day two weeks ago, he said, there were 2,100 Mexicans, 1,400 Cubans and 304 Salvadorans being held in addition to Haitians. However, most of them are quickly released either because they voluntarily return to their country or are deported at hearings at which they are not represented by legal counsel.
"It's a Catch-22 situation for the Haitians: if they don't have legal counsel, they cannot be removed from the U.S. and if they cannot be removed, they have to be detained," Jervis said.
Jervis said hearings for the detainees in Miami will soon resume on a normal schedule, because lawyers have finally been found to represent the Haitians on a pro bono basis. The hearings will serve as a forum for the debate over whether the Haitians are entitled to asylum because they are fleeing persecution or whether, as the government claims, they are simply fleeing poverty and must return home.
From the government's standpoint, the interdiction and detention policies have achieved their main goal. In the last six months of l98l an average of 620 Haitians a month were caught illegally in the U.S.; only 72 were apprehended between January and April of this year, according to Immigration figures.
But the special policy toward Haitians has caused a furor among civil and human rights groups and prompted the formation of the National Emergency Coalition for Haitian Refugees, which has condemned the Haitians' detentions as discriminatory and racist, and demanded their immediate release.
"What have these people done to be put into jail?" asked civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. "Why, we must ask, is it only the Haitians who have been put into jail?"
Meanwhile at Alderson, a 54-year-old institution tucked in the lea of West Virginia's rolling hills, the novel sound of French Creole patter rolls through "Unit 26", the double-story, college-type dormitory where the Haitian women sleep several to a room in bunk beds and fight off the boredom of enforced confinement.
Prison authorities have attempted to fill the women's time with sewing, hygiene and English lessons. On the wall of one of the basement classrooms is a map of the United States. "We put this up because they did not know where they where," explained David Helman, a prison spokesman.
If they want, the women can work cleaning the dormitory or cafeteria for which INS pays them
a day. Some of them receive small amounts of money from relatives. They also are visited by a Seventh Day Adventist minister who holds services at the prison.
Most of the Haitians came to the U.S. on small boats. Others like Revange, came by air. She said her mother paid $2,200 to "an agency" that promised to get her past U.S. immigration officials, only to discover on the plane to Miami that the picture on the passport she had been given was not hers.
Like other women interviewedat Alderson, Revange had planned to go to school and to work if she had made it into the U.S. undetected and fears returning to Haiti because of persecution by the government's paramilitary secret police. Holding on to the hope of remaining in the United States, she and all the women at Alderson have so far refused to take up the the federal. government's offer of a free ticket home to Haiti.
"I came to live a real life, a happy, peaceful life, without persecution," said 26-year-old Erzulia Frederec through a translator.
Language has been one of the major problems at Alderson. None of the women speaks English and they are culturally isolated from their American warders. In addition, "there is no alternative to dealing with a nonprisoner population (at Alderson)," said Fritz Longchamp, a Haitian member of the Washington-based Haitian Refugee Project which has tried to keep in contact with the women.
These factors came together in an incident which touched off what the women call their "hunger strike" and what the prison authorities call "a disturbance." Because they have to eat apart from other inmates, the women had to have their last meal of the day at 3 p.m. They began taking food from the cafeteria to tide them through the night, and one day early this month guards frisked the women and threw the food they were carrying into the garbage.
Humiliated and insulted, the women refused to go to the cafeteria for ten days, eating snacks they bought in the prison canteen instead, prison officials said.
One night during the protest, one of them had a nightmare and ran out of the dormitory screaming. When guards tried to take her to the hospital, the other women stopped them. Forty-five minutes later, 48 guards came to the dorm, handcuffed nine of the women and took them to the administrative detention center, according to an account given by the women.
There have also been complaints about medical care. However, Gwynne H. Sizer, the prison warden, said the women are getting full medical attention and that "any and all" medical expenses were being paid for by the government. "They are in better physical shape than when they came. It took us three days just to get the worms from them so we could feed them on plates in the cafeteria," she said.
Sizer acknowledged there has been one suicide attempt and said the woman was receiving psychiatric help. She also said that some of the women are depressed, which she believes is the source of many of their ailments. "They have had x-rays, but many of them don't have a physical problem. I'm sure they are emotionally upset being away from their whole lifestyle, being here and not knowing what's going to happen to them next. That would upset me," she said.
The refusal to go to the dining room was intended "to make a point about being here, they feel they are being held illegally," Sizer said. As for the incident which sparked their protest, Sizer understands their motivation but feels she has to maintain prison discipline.
"Coming from where they come from and the conditions they lived under, they felt it was an insult for us to throw the food away. Food is so important to them. . . but this would be done to anyone carrying food out of the dining room," which is against regulations for hygienic reasons, Sizer said. "I've got 550 other people, I've got to be fair."
Both the women and prison authorities feel the atmosphere has soured. "When we came in the beginning, things were better, we were happier," said Rosie-Claire Eugene, "but now we are full of fears, we don't know what is going on and under the conditions we have now, it is better that we die."
"They are fine, decent people," said prison spokesman David Helman. "They don't have an assaultive bone in their bodies like some of our other residents. For the first three months their attitude was very pleasant, very cooperative. But it has shifted lately. In the last month or two the frustration is beginning to get to them, they are more outspoken, critical and demanding, like our other inmates. Maybe they are becoming Americanized."