York, Pa., rallies to cause of 11 who sought freedom

June 18, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

YORK, Pa. -- They sit hunched over desks in a steamy room inside a county jail, 11 Chinese men experiencing the rhythm and beauty of a new language.

Line by tortuous line, they recite from a poem called "Success."

It's loyalty when duty calls,

It's courage when disaster falls.

The teacher, a patient woman with a soft voice, asks, "What does disaster mean?"

The men look hard at the paper in front of them. But there is only silence, until an American minister named Bob Brenneman roars: "Disaster. It's like landing in New York Harbor on a sandbar. That's disaster."

Suddenly, the room is filled with the sweet sound of laughter.

This is life inside the York County Jail, a year after the tramp steamer Golden Venture ran aground off New York, dumping into a dark, cold sea its human cargo of scared, broken people from China.

Of the 300 who took the plunge into the murky water June 6, 1993, and swam the last miles of a four-month journey to America, nearly half are now being held as detainees in York. They are learning English. They are finding bits of humor. And they are struggling, 144 men caught in the web of an immigration system they do not understand.

But the men are no longer strangers in a strange land. In a conserva tive central Pennsylvania community, a support group has rallied around them. Attorneys have represented them. And many of those who are paid to guard them now call these men their friends.

"They came over here for freedom and to get jobs," said D. W. Billet, a corrections officer who has served at York 16 years. "They didn't come here for a handout or a free ride. They should stay in this country."

The detainees still have no clear view of America. Their only glimpse of the country comes out of tiny windows, behind razor wire, across the street from a tire plant.

They are housed in the east block of the county jail, living two to a cell, separated from the rest of the general inmate population.

"We always have hope," said one of the detainees, who wishes now only to be identified by an American name he has chosen.

Call him Charlie. He is a 27-year-old construction worker from Fujian province, who, like most of the others, sought to come to America to make a better living and to flee what he considers an oppressive regime.

He survived the harrowing journey from China, his family promising to pay smugglers $30,000. He is now unable to forget those months in the hold of the ship, subsisting on rations of rice and peanuts, terrorized by a crew of enforcers, and nearly traumatized by the hours spent navigating the Cape of Good Hope, buffeted by raging seas that nearly capsized the ship.

"I have dreams of that," he said. "And I wake up in a sweat. But we are in God's hands, now."

A by-the-book warden

The man in York to whom the detainees must answer is a by-the-book warden named Thomas H. Hogan. A 27-year veteran of the county jail, he took over operation of the prison when his predecessor suffered a heart attack -- on the very day the Chinese landed in New York.

With almost no notice and only a handful of local volunteers who knew how to speak Mandarin Chinese, Mr. Hogan arranged for 110 of the detainees to be transferred to the jail. The rest of the York detainees have arrived in spurts as the asylum hearings drag on.

"If you're wearing a blue prison uniform, you're an inmate," he said. "I don't care if you're guilty or innocent. It's business. You can't start treating people differently."

Don't be fooled by the tough talk. By all accounts, Mr. Hogan has treated the detainees with respect and compassion. He said he understands the psychological burden weighing on the men, whose mood can change quickly with just the hint of a rumor.

"The Chinese are in a box," he said. "They know something will happen, but they don't know what it is. They have no time frame."

But the longer the immigration process takes, the more money there is to be made by York County. According to Mr. Hogan, it costs about $28 a day to house each detainee, but the jail has a contract with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to collect $45 a day per detainee.

"This year alone, the county will make $2 million," he said.

But the money does not come trouble-free. There have been problems both great and small.

Such as the time guards noticed some of the detainees picking at the grass. It turned out that the Chinese were eating dandelions. So the warden, who wanted no greenery inside the cells, had to issue a "no grazing policy."

Officials also had to teach the detainees to use American tea bags.

"They kept tearing the bags open," said Ron Bupp, the prison chaplain. "They would get the (tea grounds) out and smoke them. They had never seen tea bags before."

There was also one escape attempt when a detainee attempted to flee from a local hospital. But the man, dressed in long underwear and with no command of English and no sense of direction, didn't get very far on the streets of downtown York.

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