Lawsuit: 1,000 undocumented immigrants face ‘inhumane’ conditions at federal prison

Lawsuit: 1,000 undocumented immigrants face ‘inhumane’ conditions at federal prison

By Gary Gately   
Federal Correctional Institution Victorville in the Mojave Desert in California. (Photo courtesy of Bureau of Prisons)

WASHINGTON — More than 1,000 undocumented immigrants detained at a federal prison in California — many of them seeking asylum — endure “punitive and inhumane” conditions, denied adequate nutrition and basic health care and confined to cells much of the time, according to a lawsuit demanding the detainees’ release. 

In the 37-page lawsuit against the Trump administration, the Prison Law Office, the American Civil Liberties Union and Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center argue the conditions for the male detainees at Federal Correctional Institution Victorville, in the Mojave Desert, flagrantly deny them legal due process rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment. 

“These are outrageous, inhumane and unconstitutional conditions of confinement for people who have been convicted of crimes, and they are unthinkable conditions for people who have committed no crimes, who are here in many cases exercising their legal right to seek asylum,” Margot Mendelson, a staff attorney at the Berkeley, Calif.-based Prison Law Office, told TMN. “Everything we describe in the complaint would be unconscionable for convicted criminals. It makes it so much more outrageous that civil detainees are subject to these inhumane conditions.”

Courts have consistently ruled that undocumented immigrants in the U.S. must be granted Fifth Amendment due process rights.

In the rights groups’ suit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Riverside, Calif., Mendelson — whose nonprofit public-interest law firm provides free legal help to prisoners — wrote of the harrowing ordeal for the detainees. Many are refugees fleeing violence in countries including El Salvador, Honduras, India and Cameroon, often risking their lives and those of their families to seek asylum in America.

“Inside the prison, they are confused, despondent, and hungry,” Mendelson wrote in the lawsuit. “They are locked in prison cells for much of the day and all night. No health care provider has assessed them, asked if they are suicidal, or attempted to help them cope with the underlying trauma that drove many of them to seek asylum in this country. In the chow hall, they are offered inadequate and, at times, inedible food, such as spoiled milk and sandwiches that consist of just two slices of bread.”

Prison staff, Mendelson wrote, also denied the detainees their right to practice their religion — violating the First Amendment and federal law by banning congregant services, access to clergy and religious texts, forbidding religious clothing and denying food that complies with dietary requirements of different faiths.

Health care proved nearly non-existent, according to the suit, which alleges:  

  • Requests for treatment about ailments including excruciating back pain and depression brought no medical treatment and, in some cases, led to detainees being locked in cells for extended periods or denied food in retaliation for requesting medical care.
  • A detainee suffering agonizing pain from a kidney stone hit an emergency call button in his cell, only to be told by a corrections officer to put a towel with hot water on his stomach and wait until the next day. After he was finally taken to a hospital, shackled, prison staff repeatedly refused to refill pain medications on time, leaving him writhing.
  • Another officer told a detainee he “should not touch the call button in [his] cell unless [he is] dying.”

Many of the detainees awaiting immigration proceedings have abandoned their dream of settling in America — typically to escape war and other violence, persecution, abject poverty. “They would rather face the dangers back home than be imprisoned in these abysmal conditions,” Mendelson wrote.

The three rights groups filed the suit on behalf of six named plaintiffs, all awaiting hearings on their requests for asylum, as part of a class action representing all immigrants now detained, or who will be detained later, at the Victorville federal prison.

Mendelson said the immigration detainees now await proceedings in a notorious, woefully understaffed federal prison built to incarcerate convicted felons as a direct result of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ contentious “zero-tolerance” policy of detaining all undocumented immigrants caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.

That policy, the rights groups say, led to a crisis: where to detain the influx of undocumented immigrants awaiting civil proceedings under the directive?

Ronald Vitiello, acting deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, visits a border wall prototype near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry last October. (Photo courtesy of Yesica Uvina)

In early June, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security responded by giving the federal Bureau of Prisons almost no notice before transferring the undocumented immigrants to Victorville. The Victorville detainees are among about 1,600 undocumented immigrants nationwide being held in federal prisons, Mendelson said.

“We call this a manufactured crisis that is a function of a choice to detain so many people rather than seeking alternatives,” she said, pointing to cash bond, parole or GPS ankle monitoring as ways to ensure undocumented immigrants show up for proceedings.

“Our view is that there is no set of circumstances in which these civil detainees could be humanely or constitutionally housed at Victorville,” Mendelson said. “More broadly, we are making the argument that civil detainees may not be subject to punishment, and the fact that federal prisons are designed to punish means they are not appropriate places for civil detainees.”

In emails Friday morning, spokespersons for the Justice Department and the Bureau of Prisons declined comment on the pending litigation. The White House, the Homeland Security Department and ICE did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Trump’s border policy — in particular, separating children from parents caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally — has ignited international outrage and outcry and brought multiple challenges in U.S. courts

But the attention has focused almost entirely on undocumented mothers forcibly separated from children. The suit on behalf of the male detainees at Victorville marks the first class action on behalf of detainees whom the Trump administration abruptly moved to federal prisons in early June. But some suits on behalf of individual undocumented men detained at other federal prisons have challenged their detentions as unconstitutional violations of the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. 

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