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Immigrants Face ‘Mental Torture’ At Detention Center That Was Supposed To Be Shut Down

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

One detained immigrant said that he was cuffed by his hands and feet, then assaulted by immigration agents who left him with facial lacerations near his eye. Another detainee said that he was brought to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office where three agents beat him. He was forced to sign papers that he was never allowed to read. Still more detainees recounted the horrific treatment and “mental torture” they received at the hands of ICE officers at an Alabama immigrant detention center.

These are just some of the allegations from a civil rights complaint filed by the immigrant advocacy group Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) on behalf of 20 current and former detainees at the Etowah County Detention Center (ECDC) in Gadsen, Alabama to the Office for Civil Rights & Civil Liberties. Detainees are accusing ICE officers and at least one Etowah County Sheriff’s deputy of an on-going “pattern of routine assaults,” intimidation, and inadequate medical care. The allegations come from complaints that have been lodged against the ECDC officials since at least November 2013.

Two detainees, Sylvester Owino and Miguel Williamson, were recently released and are telling their stories. The others have chosen to remain anonymous because many fear reprisal.

Christina Mansfield, co-founder and co-executive director at CIVIC, explained to ThinkProgress that many detainees have “unique, legal cases,” that might make it “dangerous for them to be named.” Mansfield was concerned that the complainants could be transferred to other immigration detention centers so “ICE can try to isolate them further so that people don’t know they’ve been in detention for a long time. We’re concerned that ICE will try to make removal attempts on some of these individuals. As outlined in the report, they’ve been physically abusive and coercive.”

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But the detainees wanted to be a part of the complaint because they didn’t want “further poor treatment by either the staff or ICE officers, and disciplinary measures like solitary confinement.”

When ThinkProgress spoke with Owino in March days after his release, Owino recalled begging ICE agents to let him secure bond so that he could be let go.

As part of the complaint, CIVIC is calling on ICE to end its federal contract with Etowah, which detains about 300 men on a daily basis in exchange for $45 per person. “Both the jail staff and ICE officers at the facility have demonstrated they are incapable of ensuring the safety of people detained,” Mansfield said in part in a statement, “I believe the men detained at ECDC experience a blatant disregard for human life every day that is achieved by the jail and ICE staff labeling them as other, as immigrant and criminal, and thus as less deserving of dignity and respect.”

Mansfield told ThinkProgress that alternatives to detention could also cost far less than detention. “CIVIC’s vision is around community alternatives to detention, specifically alternatives that do not involve ankle-monitoring bracelets or the kind of technology involved as an alternatives to detention currently,” she said.

She added, “ICE has run a pilot program with these alternatives and those programs were successful. In our experience, we have this amazing network of volunteers who are ready to respond and help. That energy can be utilized.”

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The complaint comes at a time when ICE detention facilities around the country are under intense scrutiny. Earlier this week, Department of Homeland Security officials began releasing hundreds of migrant mothers and children from family detention centers, sharply curtailing the practice of long-term detention of migrant families seeking asylum in the United States.

And members of Congress recently sent a letter to top DHS officials asking to halt the expansion of a California immigration detention facility after two immigrants died and a “pattern and practice” of inadequate medical care, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Etowah was almost shut down in 2010 when ICE wanted to move immigrants away from the remote location and closer to the courts. Alabama lawmakers intervened, since revenues from the ICE facility for Etowah County netted about $5.2 million annually. Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin stated at the time that shutting down the facility would also mean “49 individuals losing their jobs only days before Christmas with no notice whatsoever,” NBC News reported.

Today, Etowah continues to hold upwards of 350 ICE detainees.