In a possibly unprecedented move, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) watchdog has urged the “immediate removal” of all immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Torrance County Detention Facility in New Mexico, citing inhumane conditions meriting moving people jailed at the privately operated prison.
“During our inspection, we found such egregious conditions in the facility that we are issuing this management alert to notify ICE,” the inspector general said on March 16. “We have determined that ICE must take immediate steps to address the critical facility staffing shortages and unsanitary living conditions that have led to health and safety risks for detainees at Torrance.”
But ICE's reaction wasn’t to immediately move detainees from the CoreCivic facility. Oh no. It was to attack the integrity of the report, including accusing the inspector general’s office of staging photos.
First, the urgent matter at hand: The findings merit emptying Torrance, which already has a history of abusing immigrants and their rights. The report said that investigators found “excessive and avoidable unsanitary conditions” risking both detained immigrants and staff, including clogged toilets, mold, broken sinks, sporadic hot water, and immigrants forced to use a mop sink for their drinking water.
The report also noted critical staffing shortages, noting more than 100 vacancies. “Torrance staff acknowledged the understaffing problem, and one staff member indicated that a reason for understaffing could be the facility’s remote location,” located an hour from Albuquerque. But this also acknowledges what immigrant advocates have been saying for years, that ICE intentionally detains people in remote locations, making it harder for them to access legal assistance, and harder to see loved ones.
The inspector general’s report said Performance-Based National Detention Standards require “detention facilities to meet high standards of cleanliness and sanitation and facility staff to complete preventive maintenance and regular inspections.” The office carried out its unannounced inspection in-person, after inspecting other sites virtually due to the pandemic (facilities have failed those, too).
ICE’s inhumane record is fact, but the mass detention agency’s response was to instead turn the tables on the inspector general’s office, including outright accusing inspectors of having “falsified or mischaracterized evidence,” a letter obtained by BuzzFeed News said. Both ICE and CoreCivic accused inspectors of having staged a photo of a man getting drinking water from the mop sink. But the inspector general’s office said they had observed the man drinking from there, then asked him to return “to demonstrate how he filled the cup to allow for a photo to document the issue,” BuzzFeed News reported.
ICE’s claims won’t waste any more of my breath here today, because ICE is accusing others of making shit up when in the past it has made shit up against immigrants. But what is fact is that Torrance is harmful and outright cruel, facing a lawsuit early last year for pepper-spraying detained immigrants who were peacefully protesting inhumane conditions. Later that same year, Torrance faced civil rights complaints about “severe violations” against Haitian asylum-seekers.
“For the last 42 days I have been begging ICE to provide us with information and access to the Haitian men detained at Torrance so we can provide them with critical pro-bono legal assistance and meeting resistance each step of the way,” an attorney said in November. “ICE is doing everything it can to deport these Haitian men without any semblance of due process. It's racist, it's wrong, and I am fed up with it.” Torrance is abusive and should be shut down, period.
“Following this new report on the Torrance County Detention Facility in NM, I call on @ICEgov to immediately terminate the contract & close the center,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren tweeted. “I'm alarmed conditions became this unsafe, unsanitary, & unfit for humans. This cannot be overlooked.”
Legal advocates also noted that rather than just sending immigrants currently detained at Torrance to another harmful or remote facility, they should be released, which ICE has every ability to do today. “ICE must take immediate action and release individuals who have been subjected to detention in this environment that is detrimental to their health rather than transfer them to another facility,” American Immigration Lawyers Association president Allen Orr said.
“We are shocked but not surprised by the findings in the OIG report describing dangerous, unsanitary, and inhumane conditions at the Torrance County Detention Facility. We call upon ICE to immediately release, not transfer, all the people detained there, allowing them to reunite with their loved ones and receive the community-based resources and care they urgently need,” ACLU of New Mexico Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Sheff said. “CoreCivic has an egregious track record of neglect and abuse at Torrance and these disturbing conditions are sadly common at ICE detention facilities in New Mexico.”
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