WASHINGTON HEIGHTS, Manhattan (PIX11) — From delivering a baby alone in a cell to being gagged and shackled, former detainees detailed their harrowing ordeals in the criminal justice system to a United Nations panel probing police abuse in New York City.
“If you’re not hungry for justice, then you’re filled with privileges,” said Uchechokwu Onwa, 31, a Nigerian immigrant who said he almost died in custody.
Onwa and several others shared their experiences of being arrested, beaten, and detained during a hearing Wednesday at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center in Washington Heights. The experts from the United Nations team, called Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in Law Enforcement (EMLER), are investigating excessive force used against Black people since George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minnesota in 2020.
Onwa, who is gay, said he fled Nigeria because gay men in his country are often raped, tortured, and even killed. But he said his experiences in the United States weren’t much different. Onwa recalled being chained and his nose and mouth covered because the officer who brought him to a detention center was afraid he had Ebola.
Onwa was put in solitary confinement and went days without food and water, he said.
“The U.S. was a country I thought I could be free to live my truth,” he testified. “I am constantly in fear when I leave my house that I will be killed by a police officer or a white supremacist.”
For Aquirah Stanley, the trauma of incarceration is both past and present. Stanley was arrested as a young mother and the father of her children is still locked up, serving a sentence that includes life in prison, she said.
Stanley, a deputy director at Alliance for Families For Justice, had just learned she was pregnant when she was arrested back in 2003. She spent eight months of her pregnancy in solitary confinement before she was transferred to a maximum correctional facility in New York, where she delivered her son.
“I had the baby by myself in my cell because I didn’t want to be shackled during labor,” she said of the prison protocol for transporting pregnant women to the hospital. “As I lay in my cot with my son, I realized I walked through this fire for a reason. I knew one day I would fight the system.”
Fighting the system is not new, acknowledged Dr. Tracie Keesee, the U.S. expert on the EMLER panel. Keesee and her colleagues have listened to similar stories in Chicago, Atlanta, and Minnesota, and will make recommendations about changes in the criminal justice system.
The report will be submitted to the United Nations and the State Department will have an opportunity to respond before the full report becomes public in a few months.
Law enforcement officials did not testify at the hearing.
“The stories are not new. We will make recommendations, none of those will be new either,” Keesee said.