Immigrants Say They Suffered Abuse And Neglect At This California Detention Center

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Immigration detainees sit in their cells at the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange, Calif., Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2010. Hundreds of detained immigrants are being transferred to Orange County jails, and more are on the way, under a deal with the federal government that would bring the cash-strapped Orange County Sheriff's Department up to $30 million a year, a newspaper reported Sunday. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Ten men filed a complaint against an immigration detention center in California this week, alleging physical abuse, medical neglect, and retaliatory transfers while they were detainees.

The complaint, filed on behalf of the ten former and current immigrant detainees by the immigrant advocacy group Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), alleges multiple incidents of physical assault by Orange County Sherrif’s Department (OCSD) deputies, retaliatory transfers of at least 20 people who went on a hunger strike, and inadequate medical care at the Theo Lacy facility.

According to the CIVIC complaint, the Theo Lacy facility — a maximum security facility with 472 beds to house immigrant men inside a county jail — became the site of several retaliatory transfers of asylum-seekers who went on hunger strikes to protest conditions from various detention centers around the country recently. The conditions that the transferred immigrants faced at the Theo Lacy facility were reportedly far worse, such as being placed in “modular housing units” that were used as “a form of solitary confinement because the individual is placed in physical and social isolation for 23 hours a day with little or no human contact.”

One complainant, Luis A. Chavez, a 37-year-old Salvadoran national, was detained for 18 months at the Theo Lacy facility. He told ThinkProgress that he had fled to the United States in 1997 after his brother was killed by gang members and he received death threats.

Chavez joined the complaint because he said that there weren’t enough safety measures in place to protect him from other detainees at the facility, some of whom were gang members.

Chavez explained that, after three men beat him up, he was moved to another barrack. But he was eventually moved back. “I was working in the detention center and in charge of the laundry so I was always in contact with the gang members. They would see me,” he said. When he was harassed again, the sheriff’s department moved Chavez to a “modular housing unit” where he was isolated “23 to 24 hours a day for nearly a year.”

A 2013 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) directive curtailed the use of solitary confinement in immigration detention centers to 14 days, beyond which ICE must review cases at each 30-day interval. The CIVIC complaint claimed that there weren’t adequate reviews. Prolonged solitary confinement beyond 15 days has been equated to torture and can lead to irreversible psychological damage, according to the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council.

In the end, Chavez was deported back to El Salvador.

“I was deported with a passport that I never signed,” he said.

Another complainant, Felix Alvarado, a 53-year-old Honduran national, says he was also put in the modular housing unit for prolonged periods of time. And according to Alvarado, he was denied medical treatment for lupus despite repeated requests to see a medical specialist.

“I made this complaint against ICE because I was held in a cell for 23 hours a day, only coming out to be able to shower,” Alvarado told ThinKProgress in a phone interview. He claimed that he was treated like a criminal, despite the fact that he was kept in immigration detention on civil violations.

Although he had a court date for September 28, Alavarado was deported to Honduras on September 1. “I was deported without my lawyer, my family, knowing and I’m opposed to how the U.S. government has handled this,” he said.

He recounted one instance in which Orange County Sheriff’s Department deputies physically assaulted him and shoved him against a wall. He was then taken to a cell where “one grabbed him by the hands, despite his still being handcuffed, and another by the neck and began to slam his head against the wall,” the CIVIC complaint indicated. The deputies told him that they wouldn’t stop until he told them whom the pencil belonged and “continued to grab his hands and hit his head against the wall.”

Issues of abuse and inadequate medical treatment among immigrant detainees have long persisted at the Theo Lacy facility. As far back as 2008, a grand jury found that deputies slept or watched television while prisoners beat a computer technician to death for 50 minutes. In 2013, the immigrant advocacy group Detention Watch Network stated that the facility was one of the top ten worst immigration detention facilities in the country, with immigrant detainees reporting being subject to verbal, physical, and psychological abuse by deputies.

And visitors say that that environment is prevalent for them as well. As Maria Elena Young, a volunteer with CIVIC who’s been in regular contact with some of the complainants, told ThinkProgress, “There’s an atmosphere of control and surveillance and when you begin to speak to people, you realize that those who are in immigration detention are being held in conditions that are, in a way, trying to treat them like they are not human beings.”