In depths of the United States penal system, there are about 32,000 immigration detainees so isolated that some beg for contact with the outside world.
These people, including as many as 1,000 held in three Orange County jails, have no legal right to a visit from family or friends, although the government does allow limited visits. Few have legal representation.
In recent months, a group of Orange County volunteers have begun visits to detainees held in local jails. This effort -- along with work being done by other immigrant rights groups -- highlight the myriad issues facing both detainees and the agencies that hold them.
“The visits have been quite moving for all of us involved, including the detainees,” said Jan Meslin, the coordinator of the Lake Forest group Friends of Orange County Detainees, who initiated visits in September.
Inquiries by other immigrant rights groups have produced allegations of deplorable treatment for some of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees held in the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange. Theo Lacy and the James A. Musick Facility in Irvine are operated by the Orange County Sheriff's Department. ICE also contracts with the city of Santa Ana to hold immigration detainees.
'Not Acceptable for Human Beings'
In November, Theo Lacy was cited as one of the 10 worst ICE detention facilities in the nation by the National Detention Watch Network based in Washington, D.C.
After a visit in September, the network wrote in its “Expose & Close” report that complaints against Theo Lacy included medical care inordinately delayed; spoiled food; required legal services restricted; and physical and verbal abuse, including racist and homophobic slurs.
The range of allegations also included economic gouging of detainees, including: high costs for telephone cards (at least $20 per card); charges to detainees of $8 for a pillow; and ibuprofen costing 35 cents for two tablets.
“Theo Lacy is not an acceptable environment for human beings,” the report declared. “No set of reforms will be sufficient to make it habitable.”
The Detention Watch Network went so far as to call on President Obama to close the facility. Nonetheless, federal and Orange County officials defend the facility, saying the report distorted its record.
The Orange County ICE contracts are part of a program for immigration detainees held at dozens of contact facilities across the country. Since July 2010, Orange County's ICE contract has brought in about $25.7 million annually to help the Sheriff’s Department defray overall costs for the county’s inmate population that fluctuates around 5,700.
The Orange County facilities house a mix of detainees, including those whose immigration status is undecided; those who have completed prison or jail time after various convictions and are challenging deportation; and those who may be seeking asylum because of social or political issues in their native lands.
Theo Lacy is for high-security individuals, the Musick Facility for minimum-security people. Women detained by the ICE in Orange County are held at the Musick Facility.
Characterization 'Not Factually Based'
Cmdr. Steven Kea, the Orange County sheriff’s official overseeing jails, said his agency operates safe and healthful facilities, where federal guidelines at times are exceeded.
“Their [the National Detention Watch Network's] overall characterization of us is not factually based,” Kea said.
In a statement, ICE officials wrote: “ICE stands behind the significant work we’ve done reforming the detention system by increasing federal oversight, improving conditions of confinement and prioritizing the health and safety of individuals in custody.” They also have sought to meet with the immigrant advocates to resolve issues.
Yet other groups have documented similar conditions to those described by the National Detention Watch Network.
In a case purported to exemplify the issue of problematic medical care, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California wrote that a detainee moved from Texas to Theo Lacy last year waited five months for surgical care for kidney stones.
The ACLU’s Oct. 10 letter states the detainee had a drainage tube, intended for only five days of use, inserted into his kidney May 15 by medical staff in Harlingen, Tex., prior to scheduled surgery.
But the man’s surgery was cancelled for unknown reasons, he was transferred June 17 to Theo Lacy and the drainage tube became blocked on Aug. 21.
“An officer pulled on the drainage tube, despite [the man’s] pleas to stop, causing him great pain,” the letter alleges, adding the man “was sent to his cell despite the fact the drainage wound was bleeding.”
The issue with the detainee with kidney disease came more than a year after an April 2011 ACLU letter had taken direct aim at Theo Lacy.
“We are extremely concerned about the conditions of confinement at the Theo Lacy Facility, and urge you to take immediate action,” wrote Ahilan Arulanantham, the ACLU’s deputy legal director. ACLU attorneys noted ICE was very responsive after the letter.
Also in April 2011, the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center filed a civil rights complaint with federal authorities alleging that two detainees at Theo Lacy were among 14 lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender [LGBT] people nationwide who allegedly experienced abuse at ICE contract facilities.
As part of that probe, civil rights investigators visited Theo Lacy in July 2011, records show. A decision on the allegations remains under review by top officials at ICE’s parent agency, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C.
After a cursory inquiry with limited information, Kea said his agency was unable to confirm the list of allegations but did confirm one incident.
Speaking generally, Kea said: “We are not above reproach, we have human begins working there, so we recognized there may be events. But we have a robust system to track grievances. If there is an issue, we deal with it.”
Positive Changes in Orange County
An ICE spokeswoman said the agency has a zero-tolerance policy for rights violations and works diligently to ensure complaints at contract facilities are properly addressed.
Immigrant advocates say that in the aftermath of the civil rights complaint, ICE has made positive changes in Orange County.
In February, for instance, ICE contracted with the Santa Ana jail to establish a new protective wing specifically for LGBT detainees. The only other such ICE facility is in Texas. The Santa Ana wing houses everyone from this group except lesbians, who are integrated into women’s facilities, ICE officials say.
This 64-bed module for LGBT detainees at the Santa Ana jail runs about 90 percent full, with an overwhelming majority from Latin American countries, said Ann Matulin, the Santa Ana jail administrator. Designating a wing just for these detainees allows them to have nearly continuous use of the module rather than be locked in two-bed cells most of the time, she added.
Keren Zwick, a Chicago attorney who supervises the justice center’s LGBT Immigrant Rights Initiative, said: “ICE is moving, doing something about conditions. But they are not doing enough.”
In September, Friends of Orange County Detainees, which includes volunteers from the Tapestry Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Mission Viejo, began visiting ICE detainees at the Musick Facility and the Santa Ana jail, Meslin said.
So far, about 35 detainees have been visited, including those from the Middle East, Vietnam and El Salvador. Another 70 have asked for visits by the volunteers.
Meslin is working with CIVIC, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, launched last year in the San Francisco area. CIVIC works with the National Detention Watch Network.
Christina M. Fialho, now a Los Angeles attorney who is executive director and a co-founder of CIVIC, was part of the September 2012 survey of Theo Lacy that produced the Detention Watch Network’s report.
Fialho said visitor groups are crucial because "they hold the government accountable and help maintain family and community ties for detainees. … [They] are a cost-effective and low-risk solution to expanding services to persons in immigration detention.”
In September 2011, ICE issued what it called a national "visitation directive" to facilitate outside contacts for detainees.
While ICE detainees don’t have a legal right to a family visit, attorneys saaid there is no limit on attorney visits. Immigrant rights groups like Meslin’s arrange visits to follow ICE’s national directive.
Cmdr. Kea said the Lacy and Musick facilities exceed the national recommended standard for family visits for detainees, permitting three, 30-minute visits a week.
But detainee advocates note this doesn’t always work out, citing the case of a pregnant wife of a detainee traveled and waited hours only to have the visit cut to 15 minutes. Kea said security and staffing can affect visit time.
Meslin and Fialho want to expand their visitation program to Theo Lacy to address just such issues.
“We are hoping ICE and the Sheriff’s Department are amenable,” said Fialho.
Rex Dalton is a San Diego-based journalist who has worked for the San Diego Union-Tribune and the journal Nature. You can reach him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.