- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 21, 2003

Guards at Piedmont Regional Jail have engaged in a pattern of abuse toward foreign-born detainees, including a sexual assault on a woman, according to a federal lawsuit.

Jail officials have asked a judge to dismiss the claim. A hearing on their motion is scheduled for Oct. 17 in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.

The suit was filed by asylum seeker Malik Jarno, a mentally disabled 18-year-old Guinea native who has been jailed since his arrival in the United States in January 2001. His case has attracted the attention of human-rights groups such as Amnesty International and members of Congress who have lobbied on Mr. Jarno’s behalf.

Mr. Jarno says Piedmont jail guards beat him and slammed him against a freezer and sprayed his face at point-blank range with so much pepper spray that it dripped off his face. The guards then delayed sending him to the infirmary, and one told Mr. Jarno that “it’s because of you foreigners that we have such a mess here.”

The lawsuit targets not only guards and administrators at Piedmont, but also administrators and agents at the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), now a part of the Department of Homeland Security.

The lawsuit accuses the INS of losing Mr. Jarno in the system, preventing him from seeing an immigration judge for nearly eight months after his arrest at Washington Dulles International Airport in January 2001. The suit also claims that INS either knew or should have known about the excessive force used by Piedmont guards.

Mr. Jarno also faults the INS for placing him in an adult jail. The bureau did not believe Mr. Jarno was 16 when he first arrived, believing that his birth certificate was a forgery. Officials concluded he was an adult based in part on the fact that his wisdom teeth had come in, prompting Mr. Jarno’s attorneys to argue that the agency was engaging in pseudo-science to justify its position.

The beating inflicted on Mr. Jarno in November 2001 is part of a pattern of abuse of INS detainees at Piedmont, according to the lawsuit. The claim says that between January 2001 and the spring of 2002, a female detainee was sexually assaulted and guards broke the thumb and arm of a mentally ill detainee.

A detainee also was shot in the groin with a Pepperball, a plastic projectile similar to a paintball that releases pepper spray on impact, then he was shot 15 times with Pepperballs in the back as he lay prone on the floor, according to the lawsuit.

The Piedmont jail, in Farmville, Va., has a contract with the federal government to accept immigration detainees. According to the lawsuit, it holds more than 250 inmates and INS detainees, although its capacity is only 130.

Jail superintendent Lewis Barlow declined to be interviewed, citing the pending lawsuit. The jail’s lawyer, Margaret Hardy, also declined comment.

In court papers, she argued that even if Mr. Jarno was sprayed, his injuries were not severe enough to merit a lawsuit. Mr. Jarno’s lawyers “fail to allege actions taken by [the guard] that shock the conscience or that resulted in more than mere [minimal] injuries,” Miss Hardy wrote.

Furthermore, she wrote, “the administrators of correctional institutions are accorded ‘wide-ranging deference’ to use their judgment in designing and implementing policies and practices necessary to maintain order and security.”

Susan Benesch, an advocate with Amnesty International, said Piedmont has gained a reputation as a jail where detainees are treated poorly. Still, she said the abuse suffered by Mr. Jarno is unusually cruel.

“His mental retardation increases our sense of outrage in this case,” Miss Benesch said, noting that his father was an opposition activist in Guinea who was killed by government operatives, and that Mr. Jarno fears harm if he is returned to the country. “When you add up everything that he has suffered, it makes your heart sick.”

Mr. Jarno is now being held at a Pennsylvania prison. Last month, 10 congressmen wrote a letter urging Mr. Jarno’s release to a nonprofit home for refugees in York, Pa.

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