Listen: Detainee Tased (Aslanian)-7252

MPR’s Sasha Aslanian reports on Sherburne County Sheriff's deputy use of a stun gun on a detained immigrant and the federal Immigration & Customs Enforcement agency’s relaxation of policy against the use of stun guns on detainees. 


2010 NBNA Eric Sevareid Award, award of merit in Investigative - Large Market Radio category

2010 IRE Award Certificate, finalist in Radio category


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SASHA ASLANIAN: Salaad Mahamed is a Somali immigrant who sought political asylum when he arrived in the United States in 1997. In 2007, he was picked up on an apparent immigration violation. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement doesn't have its own detention center in Minnesota, so Mahamed was sent to the Sherburne County Jail. It's one of five County jails in Minnesota where ice rents bed space for its detainees.

Mahamed describes the seven months he spent in jail as nothing short of a nightmare. One incident is now the subject of a federal lawsuit. It began when Mahamed argued with a guard who refused to change the television channel. Mahamed was sent back to lockdown where he had been spending 23 hours a day for a previous punishment. He was ordered to lie down on the floor of his locked cell.

The on duty supervisor, Sergeant Steve Peterson, was called to the scene and wanted to handcuff Mahamed and move him to another part of the jail to quell the disturbance. Peterson entered Mahamed's cell and shot him with a stun gun. One of the probes landed in Mahamed's hand and the other in his right testicle, delivering 50,000 of current. Mahamed said, he thought the jail staff were trying to kill him.

SALAAD MAHAMED: I felt like all my five organs-- the brain, heart, kidney, and liver, all of them were shaking. And while I was being shaking, he was over 300 pounds come jumping on me. With three other people when they see me, I was defenseless and just shaking.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Mahamed says because of the incident, he suffers from incontinence, impotence, mental trauma, and blackouts. A district court judge agreed that Sergeant Peterson's actions showed an excessive use of force. Sergeant Peterson is appealing the ruling. Greg Wiley, general counsel for the Sherburne County Sheriff's office, says where Mahamed was hit was unintentional, but the County defends Peterson's use of force in the situation.

GREG WILEY: In a view of the County and our investigation of the incident, he acted appropriately.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Wiley says the Sherburne County Jail has a good record in the treatment of its inmates and detainees.

GREG WILEY: I know we are inspected by the federal government pursuant to contracts. We're inspected by the Department of Corrections pursuant to contracts. Our policies and procedures have passed muster every time.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Not every time. Minnesota Public Radio filed a Freedom of Information request to see copies of ICE's evaluations of the five county jails where it rents bed space in Minnesota. These evaluations typically run about 70 pages, detailing everything from kitchen sanitation to ICE's expectations for use of force. In 2009, Sherburne County received a deficient rating from ICE, quote, "due to the use of electro-muscular disruption devices, or tasers."

The Freeborn County Jail also received a deficient rating because of tasers. ICE didn't want stun guns used on its detainees. A spokeswoman said the agency banned use of the devices in 2003 due to safety concerns. But there's no indication of any consequences for a jail that used them. In fact, the year the deficient rating came out, Sherburne County got more detainees from ICE than any other jail in Minnesota.

Sherburne County made almost $4 million from the federal government. The memos outlining the jail deficiencies went to ICE field office director Scott [? Banicki ?] in Bloomington. Banicki was supposed to work with the jails and within 30 days submit a plan of action for correcting the problems. Banicki declined to do an interview or provide written answers to NPR for this story.

When NPR asked jail administrators if they took any action to improve their failing grades, the answer in both cases was no. Freeborn County Jail administrator Marcelino Pena said he's willing to take the deficiency. And he said, quote, "It's a safety issue for our staff." He added, "Freeborn has never had to use a stun gun on a detainee."

Sherburne County Sheriff Joel Brott, who runs the jail where Salaad Mohammad was stunned, explained via email that ice changed its policy regarding tasers and jails last October. All previous ratings of deficient due to the use of stun guns were, quote, "retroactively changed" to acceptable. When asked about the change in policy for using stun guns on detainees, ICE spokeswoman Gillian Brigham gave NPR the following statement.

GILLIAN BRIGHAM: It is agency practice to discourage the use of electro-muscular disruption devices, commonly known as tasers, at local facilities that house ICE detainees. However, a facilities relationship with ICE is not adversely affected if tasers are part of their official use of force policy and their officers have been properly trained to handle the equipment.

SASHA ASLANIAN: The shift from not allowing stun guns to be used on detainees to discouraging them may have been influenced by law enforcement running the jails. Jim Franklin of the Minnesota Sheriffs Association says law enforcement had been critical of ICE rules that appeared to give preferential treatment to civil detainees living under the same roof as inmates in the criminal system.

JIM FRANKLIN: The original policy of ICE not to use any tasers on any of their prisoners proved obviously TO be very problematic. There has been a number of discussions with the ICE people, and they've since changed their policy where it's not allowed to be used to-- its discouraged or it's used as a last resort, which is pretty much consistent with the policy that we have.

SASHA ASLANIAN: ICE's change in policy was communicated directly to the jails with no public notice. When NPR contacted human rights groups for reaction, they were unaware of the change. Helen Harnett is with the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago, which monitors detainee treatment.

HELEN HARNETT: It's a radical shift. And, I mean, I think the reason why it's so surprising is because Secretary Napolitano and ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton announced a series of changes. They called it an overhaul to the immigration system to make it truly civil. And there's a lot of staff at ICE National working on this change right now. And as part of that reform effort, they've said, there needs to be a culture change just at the ground level in these facilities. And this shift in policy on tasers completely contradicts all that work that they've been doing.

SASHA ASLANIAN: Harnett says she hopes the tasing Salaad Muhammad experienced in Minnesota might be an isolated event. A recent survey her group did of detention conditions nationwide didn't find other complaints about stun guns. On the other hand, she worries, with most detainee grievances handled by the jails themselves, no one would know. Sasha Aslanian, Minnesota Public Radio news.


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