Capitol Alert

22-hour confinement, no bathrooms: Immigrants face harsh conditions in California ICE facilities, study says

Thousands of detainees in the state’s 10 immigration facilities are facing harsh conditions that include 22-hour stints of cell confinement, obstacles to legal representation, severe disciplinary practices and lack of access to communication with family members, a study released by the California’s Department of Justice revealed on Tuesday.

The Legislature passed a bill in 2017 that mandates a 10-year DOJ review of county, local and private Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities housing individuals in civil immigration proceedings.

During the pilot yearlong investigation, DOJ officials visited centers in efforts to capture a comprehensive picture of life during the average 51-day detainment. They documented everything ICE officials allowed them access to, including food quality, medical care and confidentiality, sexual abuse and prevention protocol and maintenance concerns.

At a Tuesday press conference, Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the 134-page analysis “shines light” on the harsh conditions, which will hopefully prod the federal government to improve treatment in the facilities.

“We respect the federal government’s rights when it comes to immigration and immigration laws,” Becerra said. “But we hope the federal government will help us make sure that everyone is respecting the rights of all human beings regardless of their immigration status when it comes to detention in the United States, and certainly in California.”

Beginning in 2017, DOJ officials conducted one-day visits to the six public and four private facilities that have housed more than 74,000 civil immigration detainees, including minors, in the last three years. The report’s authors completed a comprehensive review of Theo Lacy and West County centers and the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility.

Although center officials often denied DOJ workers the ability to speak directly with workers and detainees, the report details how ICE staffers sometimes fail to accurately record detainee medical information, that nurses are practicing outside their scope of expertise and centers are employing unsafe suicide watch and solitary confinement practices.

In some cases, immigrants endured severe restrictions on their freedom of movement, and the report found that language barriers between officials and detainees led to “discipline or treatment by staff that appears arbitrary and abusive, and prevents facilities from meeting detainees’ legitimate needs.”

In some cases of detained minors at Yolo, Deputy Attorney General Marisol León, who assisted with the oversight, said she heard “soul-crushing” stories of children who fled violence in their home country and traveled across several borders to arrive in the U.S., only to be “re-traumatized in many ways in the center.”

León also said women were not getting proper medication, and recounted speaking with a father whose baby was “torn from his arms.” Another team member spoke of women defecating in bio-hazard bags because they were locked in their cells for much of the day without reprieve.

“What’s happening to detained individuals in California mirrors our immigration detention system as a whole,” said Christina Fialho, co-founder and executive director of Freedom for Immigrants. “The report confirms and reinforces what we have documented — that California immigrant jails and prisons are rife with abuse and have led to a toxic culture of impunity fueled by taxpayer money at the expense of thousands of lives.”

In a statement to The Sacramento Bee, ICE spokeswoman Lori K. Haley said that the agency is committed to providing for the welfare of detainees.

“Accordingly, all facilities that house ICE detainees must meet rigorous performance standards, which specify detailed requirements for virtually every facet of the detention environment,” Haley said. “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.”

During the conference on Tuesday, Becerra said that the concerning conditions in the facilities have increased under President Donald Trump’s administration, and that there’s a great need to ensure treatment of immigrants in federal care is “civil and humanitarian in its course.”

“A lot of this is due to the fact that the federal government is not doing its job of overseeing these detention centers and enforcing its own standards for detention bye these detention centers, especially the private detention facilities,” Becerra said. “If there was a better sense that there was oversight and enforcement, I suspect that we would see a more prompt action on the part of some of these facilities to address some of the concerns and challenges that we found.”

Since his inauguration, Trump and California lawmakers have legally and rhetorically battled against each other over immigration laws and proceedings. Becerra filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration for its since-overturned policy of separating families at the border, and Gov. Gavin Newsom initiated legal action again last week over the president’s national emergency announcement.

ICE detains immigrants after they were either apprehended by Customs and Border Protection agents at the border, were caught having already spent time in the United States or following their release from local, state and federal criminal custody.

Becerra said that since the review began in 2017, several facilities have already implemented changes suggested in the report.

Yolo has reportedly hired more mental health staff, increased trainings and is working to increase health care standards. Theo Lacy improved its segregation policies and updated medical training.

But the attorney general said that the years’-long process to ensure ICE facilities are not operating in a “cloak of darkness” has only just begun, and added that the DOJ will hold immigration centers legally accountable should they choose not to consider the report’s recommendation.

“The first critical step was taken, and that is to provide oversight,” Becerra said. “Perhaps there will be occasions when we find the work requires more than just consultation and some cooperation on behalf of the centers to improve conditions. It may mean taking legal action.”

Hannah Wiley joined The Bee as a legislative reporter in 2019. She produces the morning newsletter for Capitol Alert and previously reported on immigration, education and criminal justice. She’s a Chicago-area native and a graduate of Saint Louis University and Northwestern.