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ICE detention: California finds poor conditions in immigrant holding centers

Many immigrants held in federally overseen detention centers in California are confined in their cells for up to 22 hours a day, have trouble accessing medical and mental health care and face significant barriers in obtaining translators and lawyers, the state attorney general’s office said Tuesday.

“Transparency is essential as we make sure immigrants are afforded the treatment that any of us would expect under the law. Today we get to shine light on these conditions,” said Attorney General Xavier Becerra, whose office was tasked under a 2017 state law with assessing conditions and care at 10 centers in California where the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency detains people who have pending immigration cases.

Becerra’s investigators spent several days at three public detention centers, inspecting conditions and talking to staff and inmates. They made one-day visits to the seven other facilities, ultimately interviewing more than 100 immigrants to evaluate all aspects of their detention, from food and hygiene to discipline and access to legal materials.

An estimated 396,500 people were booked into ICE custody nationwide in fiscal 2018, up from 323,600 the year before, according to the report. Detention facilities in California have housed an estimated 74,000 immigrants in the past three years.

ICE said it is committed to “providing for the welfare of all those entrusted to its custody” and “ensuring all detainees are treated in a humane and professional manner.”

“All facilities that house ICE detainees must meet rigorous performance standards, which specify detailed requirements for virtually every facet of the detention environment,” the agency said in a statement. “The safety, rights and health of detainees in ICE’s care are of paramount concern and all ICE detention facilities are subject to stringent, regular inspections.”

The state report said many detainees experienced:

• Prolonged periods of confinement without breaks. Some detainees were held in their cells for up to 22 hours a day, being let out only to do such things as call family members, take part in recreational activities or use the restroom.

• Significant language barriers and inadequate access to translators or interpreters, which often compromised inmates’ medical and legal confidentiality.

• Inability to receive medical and mental health services. Some detention centers had nurses practicing outside their legal scope of practice, as well as inadequate medical examinations and a shortage of mental health staff.

• Obstacles contacting relatives and support services outside the centers.

• Barriers to accessing legal representation, often leaving detainees to navigate the immigration system on their own.

In some cases, ICE arranges with local jurisdictions for immigrant detainees to be housed in county jails. Other detention facilities are privately run by corporations that have contracts with ICE. Officials at privately run facilities were less cooperative and in some cases limited investigators’ access to staff and detainees, the state report said.

One of the centers that investigators assessed was the West County Detention Facility in Richmond, run by the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office. Over several days in August, Becerra’s report said, investigators found evidence “at least partially supporting” Chronicle reports starting in November 2017 in which female detainees said they were mistreated, including being subjected to excessive lockdowns that forced some women to defecate and urinate in biohazard bags inside their cells.

The county ended its contract with ICE last year.

“On some level the abuses are nothing new,” said Grisel Ruiz, an attorney with the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco. “But the documentation — having the state do oversight — that is certainly new.

“Now that our eyes are open to these abuses, it really is incumbent upon elected officials and policymakers to enact change.”

California is the first state to conduct an in-depth inspection of the detention centers, Becerra said. The centers have been the focal point of heated debate in recent years, particularly as the Trump administration has cracked down on illegal immigration and the number of detained immigrants across the United States has soared.

“We hope that other states are watching,” Becerra said at a news conference in San Francisco. “Because everyone in this country has constitutional rights, and everyone at the end of the day — child and adult — deserves to be treated in a humane way.”

Becerra blamed federal immigration authorities in part for not monitoring the detention centers, though he said several of the facilities have already implemented changes based on his office’s review.

For example, the Yolo County Detention Center in Woodland, run by the county juvenile probation department, hired more mental health staffers and beefed up staff training, Becerra said. It is also working with its medical contractor to improve health care, the attorney general said.

Another report, released Tuesday by the state auditor, blamed local jurisdictions for not properly managing their contracts with corporations to ensure they comply with ICE detention standards.

The 2017 state law that led to the attorney general’s investigation requires the state Justice Department to monitor detention centers for 10 years. Last year, the Trump administration asked a federal judge to block state investigators from entering the centers, saying California was interfering with immigration law enforcement.

U.S. District Judge John Mendez in Sacramento rejected the administration’s request for a temporary injunction in July, allowing Becerra’s staff to continue its work.

Tatiana Sanchez
San Francisco Chronicle

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