A look inside Krome: from Cold War base to immigrant detention facility

Tour inside Krome Detention Center. Detainees on their way to chow hall.
Tour inside Krome Detention Center. Detainees on their way to chow hall.

The only visible remnants from that tense time are three diamond-shaped pads where Nike missiles once stood, ready to thwart an attack from Cuba.

Today, a half century later, those empty pads lie in a corner of the Krome detention center in west Miami-Dade — between the law library and a dormitory where some of the facility’s 600 foreign detainees are held.

Many new structures have since been built around the old missile pads as Krome morphed from a Cold War era air defense base to an immigrant detention center on the west side of Krome Avenue near Tamiami Trail. As immigration grew, Krome grew — especially after 2007 when a fully renovated detention center emerged at the site.

A recent tour of Krome revealed even more new structures including a transitional unit where detainees with behavioral problems are monitored and treated before they can join or rejoin the general detainee population. It was the first time a media outlet has been inside the transitional unit, the first such facility in an immigrant detention center in the nation. Krome officials regularly receive detainees from other parts of the country at the transitional unit.

A reporter and a photographer from el Nuevo Herald toured the expanded facility after recent news reports emerged, alleging problems at Krome and separate hunger strikes by Pakistani and Indian Sikh detainees. Detainees’ faces could not be photographed because of privacy concerns.

“In recent media stories, there was outdated information, some of it more than a decade old,” said Marc Moore, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field office director for Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO). “We have taken huge strides to enhance our operations and the services we provide detainees, recognizing our clear responsibility for the safety and care of those in our custody.”

Krome is neither a jail, like critics claim, nor a luxury motel — as some anti-immigrant groups argue to make the point that the federal government treats foreign detainees better than U.S. citizens.

Instead, Krome is more like a military barracks where detainees live in dormitory pods, not cells, and where they watch television, talk to each other, make phone calls to relatives, friends or lawyers, and eat three times a day in a cafeteria with a menu that changes daily. On the day of the tour, lunch included hamburgers, rice, buttered corn and sautéed onions.

Detainees can also buy snacks and sodas in a commissary where the cost is deducted from an electronic account assigned to each person, and which can be replenished by relatives or friends on the outside.

Krome has had a long history of abuse and rough treatment of detainees, but since the facility was heavily upgraded in the mid-2000s, complaints of beatings or rape — almost routine in the 1980s and 1990s — largely subsided. Some complaints still occasionally surface — but Krome officials say they are investigated quickly. Complaint boxes and complaint forms were visible throughout the facility during the tour, as were lists with the phone numbers of various national consulates. Another key change that took place was that Krome became an all-male facility in 2000, when female detainees were moved out.

Built at the edge of the Everglades in 1965, three years after the Cuban missile crisis, the Krome missile base included launch pads — where the detention center is now located — and a nearby radar and communications facility that tracked enemy planes and determined whether missiles needed to be fired. As the Cold War cooled, Krome closed as a military base.

But when Cuba unleashed the Mariel boatlift in 1980, sending tens of thousands of Cuban migrants to South Florida, Krome reopened as a detention and refugee processing facility.

When the Cuban migrants arrived, the roadways and fields in Krome were covered in mud. In 1982, the original immigrant detention center opened. By 1985, the federal government had built dormitories, a cafeteria and a clinic, and the now-defunct U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) used the facility as a processing and detention center, hence its official name Krome Service Processing Center.

But instead of just housing Cubans, Krome expanded to include immigrants from all over the world who needed to be detained.

In 1998, the center underwent its first major overhaul at a cost of $4.8 million. One of the additions at the time was a six-pod dormitory, each pod large enough to accommodate 50 detainees.

By 2005, workers were adding a new administrative office and immigration court complex to replace the grimy and old entrance lobby and tiny courts of the past.

With the overhaul completed, a brand new Krome Service Processing Center was shown publicly in December 2007.

The centerpiece then was the spacious new lobby-reception area, a new medical clinic, large holding and visiting rooms painted turquoise and gray, and new courtrooms.

The building housing the lobby is still there and it still looks new, as do the medical clinic and visiting rooms. But the medical clinic seems to have expanded and it also features new equipment and the new transitional unit for detainees with behavioral issues. Everything looks new and clean. The air smells faintly of some sort of disinfectant.

Detainees spotted in the various structures within Krome wore color-coded uniforms: red for serious criminals, orange for mid-level criminals and blue for people with minor crime records or for those who have no papers or who are seeking asylum.

The process begins when a busload of detainees arrives at Krome. The men are brought into initial holding cells where their personal belongings are inventoried.

The detainee’s cash, for example, goes into a locked black box and is returned to him when he leaves — freed or deported. If he needs to buy something at the commissary, the cost will be deducted from the wristband issued to him at intake that contains a barcode linked to his facility account.

The next step is for an immigration officer to check the detainee’s background record. Then the newly-processed detainees are shown an orientation video and finally booked into Krome. That’s when a detainee’s name appears on the online locator on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) website.

Health screening is next at the Krome clinic, run by the Immigration Health Services Corps, a division of the U.S. Public Health Service. The goal is to check whether a detainee is ill, especially if his illness is contagious. Krome screening has not detected any exotic diseases, but has found several detainees to have chickenpox or tuberculosis; they are kept in isolation rooms.

Detainees who feel sick can drop a sick call note in boxes spread throughout the facility, and they generally are seen by a doctor or nurse the next day, or for more-urgent cases they can seek medical attention the same day by speaking with staff in each dormitory. If a detainee has an emergency inside the facility, a medical response team of nurses, a physician’s assistant or doctors rush to the patient who is then brought to an urgent care room where he’s stabilized. If more specialized treatment is required, the detainee is transferred to a hospital, Krome officials said.

While some detainees in the past have complained about inadequate medical treatment, Krome’s medical facilities have two doctors, 23 nurses, a psychiatrist, three psychologists, one dentist and one dental assistant. The most common dental procedure is tooth extractions. Officials say many detainees have never seen a dentist before. One of the newest pieces of equipment in the clinic’s dental unit is a panoramic X-ray machine that spins around a patient’s head to capture a full picture of his teeth.

Near the medical clinic is one of the newest additions, the Krome transitional unit. Built two years ago, it has never before been shown to the media.

It is a mental health treatment center with 30 beds where detainees deemed to have behavior problems are monitored and treated before they can join or rejoin the general detainee population. As part of the treatment, detainees are given group therapy sessions.

In one of the day rooms in the transitional unit, a small group of detainees watched Pope Francis’ address to a joint session of Congress last Thursday in which he urged lawmakers to help immigrants.

Alfonso Chardy: 305-376-3435, @Alfonso Chardy