ICE profiteers should not use JA incarceration to justify their work


There is a growing movement in the Japanese American community to stop the Trump administration from incarcerating children and families, led by survivors of the World War II camps who grew up as child prisoners. Many of their descendants — including myself — are working to support them.

But not everyone in the JA community is standing on the side of families and children being locked up in these camps. In fact, one of us actually profits from the Trump administration’s mass incarceration of immigrants: Jennifer Nakamoto, the CEO of the Nakamoto Group. Her Maryland-based company conducts detention facility inspections nationwide for ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO). These inspections determine whether ICE will maintain or cancel each of its contracts with private prison companies and jails that it relies on to detain immigrants — a sprawling system that now imprisons more than 55,000 people across the country on a daily basis. This includes the family detention camp in Dilley, Texas where Tsuru for Solidarity protested in March, and scores of other incarceration sites across the country. New regulations issued on August 21 also use the Nakamoto inspections to permit ICE to self-certify its prisons as safe for children.

I have been familiar with the Nakamoto Group for years, through my work at the ACLU’s National Prison Project during the Obama administration and the early Trump administration.

In 2016, I was a co-author of Fatal Neglect: How ICE Ignores Deaths in Detention, which examined multiple in-custody deaths where ICE’s own death reviews concluded that substandard medical care was a contributing factor in the patient’s death. The Nakamoto Group’s routine inspections for ICE ERO both before and after these deaths failed to acknowledge or even dismissed the violations of ICE medical standards that had been identified in the death reviews. Instead of doing what they could to pressure detention facilities to address these violations, the Nakamoto Group helped ICE and the facilities sweep the agency’s own death review findings under the rug.

Indeed, two years before our report, the Government Accountability Office published a report criticizing the Nakamoto Group’s inspections for ICE ERO and highlighting inconsistencies between their findings and those made by the ICE Office of Detention Oversight, a separate inspection body.

To be fair, the ICE officials who hired her share the blame: they tasked her company with implementing a superficial, checklist-style inspection process that encourages rubber-stamping rather than in-depth investigation. However, even within the constraints of this process, Nakamoto has been derelict by signing off on clearly dangerous conditions.

For example, in 2012, Nakamoto inspectors observed that the suicide watch cell at the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona contained “objects that could be used in a suicide attempt.” But they nevertheless gave Eloy a satisfactory rating on suicide prevention, based on their assumption that staff would provide “constant” observation of suicidal detainees. Three years later, Eloy had not even adopted a written suicide prevention plan, and a 31-year-old man named Jose de Jesus Deniz-Sahagun committed suicide in his cell after Eloy’s staff decided he was not an acute suicide risk.

Nakamoto’s slipshod inspections appear to have gotten even worse under the Trump administration. According to a 2018 report from the DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG), Nakamoto inspectors conducted interviews with detainees only in English, and actually selected whom to interview by asking who could speak English — a serious problem given that the people most vulnerable to abuse are those who can’t speak English. OIG also noted that in some cases, “the information in the [Nakamoto] reports was inconsistent with what we observed during inspections” — a polite way of saying that Nakamoto’s inspectors lied about what they saw. For example, at one inspection, Nakamoto inspectors wrote that they successfully tested the telephone hotline to DHS OIG — on a day when OIG staff knew the hotline was unreachable. A subsequent review of Nakamoto Group inspections by the Los Angeles Times found similar patterns of cursory inspections that dismissed complaints by detainees.

But instead of admitting fault, the company attacked OIG, claiming that its findings were “erroneous and inflammatory.” When this attracted congressional scrutiny, Jennifer Nakamoto wrote a letter whose opening paragraphs sought to shield herself from criticism by touting her status as “a hard-working minority woman” whose family was “forced into internment camps” and whose mother “was born in a Japanese internment camp.” She closed by claiming that her inspectors are “staunch advocates of detainee rights,” and that “the truth” would “clear the good name of Nakamoto.”

This cynical deployment of her family history — and our shared history as Japanese Americans — is beyond the pale. Had Nakamoto conducted more diligent inspections, they might well have saved the lives of people who have already died in these camps. But instead, Jennifer Nakamoto and her company have chosen to use our collective trauma to rinse the blood from their hands.

I’ve consulted with national Japanese American leaders, including Tom Ikeda, Satsuki Ina, and the JACL’s David Inoue, and we agree it is time for the community to call out Jennifer Nakamoto. We call on her to meet in person with Japanese American community leaders and leaders in impacted communities to hear the harm she has caused, donate the profits from her detention facility inspections to one of the organizations that is working to shut down these places of abuse, write a public apology for her twisted use of our community’s history to defend her complicity, and withdraw her company’s pending bid to continue its ICE inspection contract, which is up for renewal in September. We are here to let the broader public know that it is offensive to use our community’s story of incarceration to justify her work, and that as members of the Japanese American community, we do not want any part of her profiteering and blame-shifting.

Carl Takei is a steering committee member of Tsuru for Solidarity, a board member of the New York Day of Remembrance Committee, and a senior staff attorney at the ACLU. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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