Death of Detained Immigrant Inspires Online Game With Goal of Educating Players

Published: October 4, 2008

The death last year of Boubacar Bah, a Guinean tailor held in a New Jersey jail for overstaying his visa, showed immigration detention to be one of the most secretive corners of American life. But now Mr. Bah’s story is being retold in an unusually public way: in an online video game.

The game — created by Breakthrough, an international human rights organization in New York that is trying to get the public behind efforts to strengthen oversight, due process and medical help in immigration detention — uses Mr. Bah’s story to walk players through a simulated detention center, and into the documented ordeals of other detainees. They include a pregnant woman kept in shackles during labor and an Army veteran held for three years while he fought deportation.

The video game (which can be found at casts the player as a reporter seeking clues in the death of Mr. Bah, 52, who suffered a skull fracture and brain hemorrhages in the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey. A cartoon guide leads the way to actual video testimonials of former detainees and information that unlocks the mystery of Mr. Bah’s fate.

The fictional framework plays fast and loose with traditional rules of journalism — the reporter takes an undercover job as a detention guard and writes a first-person appeal for change rather than an article — but the content encountered along the way is backed by links to real newspaper articles, court documents and other factual material.

Mallika Dutt, executive director of Breakthrough, said the video game, part of a Web-based campaign called “End Homeland Gitmos,” was inspired by a New York Times report in May 2008 on Mr. Bah’s death.

The article cited internal records of the Corrections Corporation of America, which runs the Elizabeth Detention Center for the federal government, saying that after Mr. Bah was injured, he was left in an isolation cell without treatment for more than 13 hours. For five days, no official notified the family of the detainee, who had been taken to a hospital. After four months in a coma, Mr. Bah died in May 2007, despite emergency brain surgery.

Federal immigration officials said a review of the death was under way.

Kelly A. Nantel, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said on Thursday that the video game was “a work of fiction that dehumanizes the individuals depicted and grossly distorts conditions in detention facilities.” She added, “I believe that most informed people know that they leave reality at the door when they enter the world of video games.”

Mixing fact and fantasy is familiar territory for Breakthrough, which seeks to galvanize young people by using the new tools of popular culture to put them in the shoes of legal and illegal immigrants. In February, it introduced “ICED — I Can End Deportation,” a game in which players assume the role of one of five characters with uncertain immigration status, trying to avoid deportation and to secure citizenship.

Ms. Dutt said that game, which drew widespread media attention, had been downloaded 110,000 times. Some supporters of stricter enforcement called the game propaganda for illegal immigration. But many educational, religious and immigrant advocacy groups embraced it as an antidote to “Border Patrol,” an Internet game in which the player shoots at caricatured Latinos running across the United States-Mexico border.

“The Department of Homeland Security’s enforcement measures have become increasingly draconian and are leading to severe consequences, including death, for many,” Ms. Dutt said in an e-mail message last week.

“We hope this will encourage support for the new bill, Protect Citizens and Residents from Unlawful Raids and Detention Act,” she said, referring to legislation introduced by two Senate Democrats, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. The bill would create due process protections during immigration enforcement actions, establish an ombudsman to investigate complaints and promote alternatives to detention, among other measures. It is not expected to be taken up by committee this session, but there are plans to reintroduce it early next year.

Meanwhile, another bill, introduced Friday by Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard, a Democrat from California, seeks to create legally enforceable minimum humane standards at detention facilities.

Another relevant piece of legislation, the Death in Custody Reporting Act, had been expected to quickly win passage in Congress, but Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, put a hold on it last week.

On Sept. 25, the Senate Judiciary Committee had not only reauthorized the act, which was expiring, but also expanded it by adding immigration detention centers to the state and local jails that had to report deaths in custody to the attorney general in order to receive federal anticrime money. Senator Coburn has said the federal government should not impose a reporting requirement on states and localities.

Joanne Lin, legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, was among the supporters of the act who expressed frustration. “Without the reauthorization, there are no reporting requirements in place,” she said. “Now we’re going to have to rely on word of mouth to learn about deaths of U.S. citizen prisoners as well as immigration detainees.”

In the new video game, word of mouth eventually leads to a “memorial wall” that lists the names of 87 detainees who have died since 2003, including Mr. Bah.

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