The men and women at the Immigration and Naturalization Service detention center in Brooklyn are in bed asleep at 3 in the afternoon, a common symptom of depression. They lie unmoving when a stranger passes through the dormitory room.
On the average, these detainees -- Haitians -- have been outside four times in the last 13 months. The lucky ones with relatives in the area stand talking at the pay telephones. Others sit as close to the windows as a person can, and stare.
Removed arbitrarily from a refugee camp outside Miami because of overcrowding, 50 Haitians have been held for 13 months in this facility, designed not for long-term incarceration but for stays of five or six days.
A nationwide class-action suit has been won on behalf of more than 1,900 Haitians held in detention camps elsewhere. But in New York, civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, decided on a legal course of their own.
They filed suit in March, charging that the Haitians in Brooklyn were illegally denied their freedom because of racial discrimination. The case was heard, and they lost.
The government has begun to release the 1,900 Haitians held in camps in the Everglades, West Virginia and Puerto Rico. In New York, the lawyers are stymied. The Haitians, hearing of others going free, are in despair.
"When we heard of the others, we felt very bad, not because they had been released, but because we are not," said a young man in the Brooklyn Center. Though he has seen Manhattan only through the bars of the window, he still wears proudly the gift of a relative, a bright yellow shirt with the word "Manhattan" superimposed over the skyline he knows so well.
"All of us came for the same problems, the same reasons . . . . We don't understand how they can release some, and they won't release us . . . . "
"It's a real Catch-22," said Mike Hooper, at attorney with the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights, which with the local ACLU chapter instituted the New York suit.
"These individuals were certainly in an identical position [to those in Miami], and then . . . they brought a suit . . . and because of the ongoing nature of that suit, they were excluded from the release that was provided to everyone else . . . . It appears to be purely vindictive on the part of the government . . . . "
The government, not surprisingly, demurs. Justice Department spokesman Art Brill reiterated the Reagan administration's get-tough policy of the past year:
"The rules say that if illegal aliens come to this country without proper documentation they will be detained. All we're doing is enforcing the law, while the other administrations looked the other way . . . . "
The government, Brill said, has released many Haitians for humanitarian reasons, such as illness or pregnancy. The 50 Haitians detained in Brooklyn have "been ruled not to have a well-founded fear of persecution -- that's the key sentence, [when] someone claims asylum -- that they will go back and will be persecuted," he said.
"All we're trying to do is regain control of our borders. Haiti is a poor country, and there comes a time when you have to realize that the nation in '82 is a lot different than the nation in 1900, when there were abundant resources and more jobs than people . . . . We cannot take in all the world's poor . . . . We have a system designed for . . . 2,000 who claim asylum. We now have 200,000."
One of the Haitians, Jean Baptiste, who recently tried to hang himself, told an interpreter he was not thinking of any country in particular when he set off in a small boat, leaving his wife and child behind.
He was thinking of the prison, the small room with the bucket, where he had been thrown after the Tontons Macoutes, the Haitian president's personal army, had beaten him and said he was an enemy of the government, and that he was thinking of a country, any country, where he could escape to. He said he thought it was a great fortune when, three days out to sea, a large sailboat picked him up, for who knows how long he might have survived otherwise. It was greater fortune still -- so Jean Baptiste believed -- when he heard the sailboat, filled with other refugees, was making for the United States.
"It's a free country," Jean Baptiste said he thought. "Maybe they will receive me well."
This was more than 14 months ago, before Jean Baptiste (who asked that his real name not be used) was to find himself, through no fault of his own, in a legal position so bizarre as to resemble a bad joke.
A construction worker in Haiti, he said his day now consists of "get up in the morning, eat the food, go back to bed. I spend most of the day in bed. There is nothing else to do."
Jean Baptiste said this with two other men in a room that is usually used by judges and lawyers. At 41, he is the oldest and the only one of the three who is married.
The others are a 22-year-old tailor and a 32-year-old electrician.
Jean Baptiste is also the most depressed, perhaps because of having left a family behind, or having left in such frightening circumstances. The electrician, who began union activities and was threatened by the government, flew directly to New York. He used a false passport purchased by his mother for $2,500. The tailor, imprisoned after criticizing the government on the street, came by boat.
Jean Baptiste, who escaped from a work detail, came to this country, he said sadly, without any belongings. While other immigrants have pictures of their families for consolation, his only mementos of Haiti are the scars on his back.
He has tried to contact his wife, he said, but has received no reply. He said he believes the letters are destroyed by the government. The Haitian government, as he tells it, has destroyed his life.
"I was walking on the road one day," he said through a translator. "Men called me over and said to me, 'Where is your I.D. card?' I said I didn't have an I.D. card, that you needed the card only if you worked for someone else, and I had no work at the time.
"They said to me, 'The president has said you must have an I.D. card.' I said I didn't know.
"They said to me this was criticizing the president and they kicked me and beat me up and I was bleeding . . . . When I woke up, I was in the prison . . . . "
He remembers the date he was taken to prison precisely, as one will an important date in life. He remembers also the time when he escaped from the work detail seven months later. He said he had to go to the bathroom and when he was in the woods he ran.
He was hidden by a friend, and heard, in hiding, of five others who were planning an escape. They stole a small boat, perhaps 10 feet long, and fled, he said.
He arrived in Miami and -- he doesn't know why -- someone called his name and shipped him to New York.
In Brooklyn he recently tried to kill himself. He tried, he said, because one of the guards told a translator to tell him he smell bad. He tried to hang himself by throwing a sheet across a pipe, and was stopped by friends.
He tried, he said, because the guard had hurt him so much. "If I were not in prison, he could not talk to me like that."
He calculates, he said, that, between Haiti and America, he has been in prison two years. If he had committeed a crime, he would understand being in prison, he said, but he has not committed a crime.
He said he cannot go home, because he believes he would be killed, but he also cannot stay here, with never a breath of fresh air, never being outside. He is weary of the visitors who accomplish nothing.
"One day the journalists will come and take my picture." he said, "and I will be dead."