A refugee from Sudan, Hamida Ali has a mental disability and a history of suicide attempts. Despite this, Ms. Ali was left in a dorm by herself with no other detained individuals or guards for nine months, exacerbating her symptoms.
Edilberto Garcia Guerrero experiences chronic headaches and pain in his neck, shoulder, ear, and eye. He also has diminished vision and hearing. These all stem from an assault he suffered in ICE custody and have not been addressed by medical staff. Mr. Guerrero previously had reconstructive ankle surgery after falling off a roof. He fell in ICE custody while in ankle cuffs, causing the breakage or dislocation of screws from his previous surgery. Mr. Guerrero is still waiting for surgery.
These are just two people among the 15 individual plaintiffs and two organizational plaintiffs, Al Otro Lado and Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice, named in a nationwide federal class action lawsuit filed on August 19, 2019 by CREEC, Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and Orrick, Herrington, & Sutcliffe, LLP.
And our plaintiffs are not alone in suffering at the hands of ICE and their contractors. On any given day, about 55,000 people are being held in ICE custody. Last year, ICE detained a total of almost 400,000 immigrants. The Trump administration has funneled record numbers of immigrants into ICE prisons across America, subjecting thousands of men and women to in horrific, inhumane conditions in repurposed prisons and jails. These men and women are asylum seekers, longtime American residents, military veterans, teenagers, and refugees, among others.
“In two years of investigating conditions for people in ICE custody, it became clear to us at CREEC that this is essentially a massive prison system – people report shockingly similar poor conditions across the country. As a result, we decided to take on the system as a whole,” said Liz Jordan, director of CREEC’s Immigrant Detention Accountability Program.
Many of these facilities are operated by private, for-profit prison companies that charge an average of $208 per day for each person in their custody – more than double the $99 per day that the Federal Bureau of Prisons spends to incarcerate people convicted of federal crimes, according to that agency’s latest published statistics. At least 26 people have died while being held in ICE custody since Trump took office.
This suit – filed on August 19, 2019 in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California –charges that ICE’s systemic failures violate the Fifth Amendment and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The complaint (found in full on CREEC’s case page) details how individuals in ICE custody are being denied health care, are facing discrimination due to their disabilities and being refused accommodations, and are being subjected to harmful isolation that amounts to punishment.
In this lawsuit, CREEC and our co-counsel seek an order requiring the federal government to comply with constitutional and statutory requirements for the treatment of detained immigrants. Government officials have long known about these inhumane conditions and the neglect of those in ICE custody, a situation that has worsened under President Trump’s policies. The mistreatment of sick and detained immigrants with disabilities was detailed in a report released in June by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General. It revealed that ICE has continued to violate its own standards for facilities housing detained individuals. The suits seeks class action status so that any court rulings will apply to all facilities where ICE chooses to incarcerate people.
The named plaintiffs in this suit are detained at eight different facilities in six states: Adelanto Detention Center and Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in California; Florence Correctional Center in Arizona; Teller County Jail and Aurora Contract Detention Facility in Colorado; LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Louisiana; Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama; and Stewart Detention Center in Georgia.
The organizational plaintiffs in this suit have had to divert resources away from their missions to instead support immigrants struggling to survive in detention. For example, Al Otro Lado is a non-profit organization that provides pro bono legal services to immigrants, but has had to help them fight for medical and mental health care instead of fighting their cases. The Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice is dedicated to advocating for immigrant communities, but has had to hire staff and set up emergency protocols to help detained immigrants access adequate care.
ICE oversees a network of approximately 158 detention facilities across the country, where immigrants who are facing civil charges encounter cruel and abusive conditions that mirror – or are worse than – those found in criminal prisons.
And they are met with indifference when seeking medical and mental health care. Their complaints are frequently ignored or mocked by guards and staff.
“Guards told me it was better to be alone. It made me feel like no one cares about me. It was not better for me to be alone. I was living with my thoughts. I thought I was going to die,” said Hamida Ali, a plaintiff in Colorado. “Being in solitary can cause you so much distress. Especially people with disabilities. And that’s not okay.”
At least half of ICE’s detention bed capacity is at facilities operated by for-profit prison companies including CoreCivic or GEO Group. Both companies have a long history of refusing to provide adequate medical care to prisoners in their facilities. “However, despite knowing the inherent risks of contracting with private prison corporations, ICE continues to entrust them with the care of an ever-growing number of detained individuals,” the lawsuit states.
“ICE cannot simply contract with third parties to operate its detention centers and then wash its hands of the deplorable, unlawful conditions in those detention centers,” said CREEC’s Tim Fox, co-executive director and a lead attorney on this case.
According to the lawsuit, some detained immigrants have been forced into segregation after expressing suicidal thoughts – a tactic that only exacerbates their symptoms as they remain in total isolation for days, weeks or even months.
Others suffer from extreme mental illness but are thrown into segregation to languish alone when they need treatment to address their mental health concerns. Some are even confined simply for “clowning around,” a 2018 Human Rights Watch reported.
One plaintiff is diagnosed with schizophrenia but was placed alone in a dorm for nearly nine months, 24 hours a day. Despite a history of suicidal ideations and thoughts of self-harm, she was isolated with no opportunity for interaction with others. When she expressed that she was actively suicidal, a guard simply told her, “Don’t say that,” and did nothing further.
Consequences of Inadequate Care
Another plaintiff, Marco Montoya Amaya has experienced severe memory loss and other cognitive symptoms after he did not receive treatment for a brain parasite. And Ruben Mencias Soto, who has extreme difficulty walking, had his wheelchair taken away for over a month, making it impossible for him to make the long walk to the cafeteria. He went without food on the several days officers refused to let other detained individuals bring his meals to his cell.
The plaintiffs in this case also include people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) whose conditions have deteriorated since being in detention.
In the four facilities inspected by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General and described in their June report, investigators found that problems went beyond overly restrictive segregation and inadequate medical care. Nooses were found in cells, bathrooms were dilapidated, moldy and sometimes not working, security incidents went unreported, and there were significant food safety issues, including spoiled food, that put detainees at risk. OIG’s inspection included Adelanto, Aurora, and LaSalle— all facilities where our plaintiffs are currently detained.
A 2019 Disability Rights California (DRC) investigation found that immigration enforcement policies implemented in recent years created a huge spike in detained individuals with disabilities.
“Most notable is the January 2017 Presidential order that terminated the exercise of ‘prosecutorial discretion’ for people with disabilities and other special populations,” the report said. “There has also been a dramatic rise in the detention of asylum seekers, who often carry with them experiences of trauma and have significant mental health needs,”
DRC found that ICE’s Adelanto facility uses counter-therapeutic practices, underreports data on the number of suicide attempts, and fails to comply with anti-discrimination laws or ICE standards when dealing with people with disabilities.
One plaintiff, Luis Rodriguez Delgadillo, is currently being held at Adelanto suffers from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. But his diagnoses are not being treated properly. His mental health has severely worsened while in ICE custody—he does not receive therapy and his medications changed, causing his mental health to deteriorate without needed support. He has expressed suicidal thoughts and harmful ideation.
“It is time for ICE to do what it should have been doing for years – to oversee and monitor its immigration detention centers, and to take effective measures to stop long-standing patterns of unlawful and unconstitutional conditions of confinement that place detainees at significant risk of harm,” Fox said.