De­ten­tion cen­ter roiled by at­tempts at sui­cide

Im­mi­grants de­scribe des­per­ate con­di­tions at Ade­lanto fa­cil­ity, lead­ing to mul­ti­ple hunger strikes.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Paloma Esquivel

ADE­LANTO, Calif. — Alexan­der Bur­gos Me­jia was in his bunk at the Ade­lanto De­ten­tion Fa­cil­ity on a Tues­day evening in July when he heard a guard scream.

Walk­ing into a com­mon room, Bur­gos Me­jia saw a man hang­ing from the sec­ond floor with a bed­sheet around his neck, he re­called in an in­ter­view. A guard was try­ing to lift the man, and Bur­gos Me­jia ran to help her be­fore other of­fi­cials ar­rived and cut the man down, he said.

The July 11 in­ci­dent was the fifth re­port of an at­tempted sui­cide at the im­mi­gra­tion de­ten­tion cen­ter since De­cem­ber, ac­cord­ing to San Bernardino County Sher­iff ’s Depart­ment 911 call logs ob­tained by The Times through a pub­lic records re­quest.

The in­ci­dent un­nerved Bur­gos Me­jia, 28, who came to the U.S. this year from Hon­duras, flee­ing gangs and seek­ing asy­lum, and has been de­tained since.

“I think doing some­thing like that is some­thing that has crossed the mind of all of us who are locked up here,” he said.

As soon as he ar­rived at Ade­lanto, Bur­gos Me­jia said, he felt like he was treated like a crim­i­nal, not a refugee.

“It’s the most hor­ri­ble” feel­ing, he said. “From the mo­ment that they chain you up from your feet and hands.”

Govern­ment of­fi­cials say the Ade­lanto De­ten­tion Fa­cil­ity is sub­ject to “rig­or­ous op­er­at­ing re­quire­ments” and is tightly mon­i­tored to en­sure those stan­dards are met. When prob­lems are iden­ti­fied, they are promptly ad­dressed, of­fi­cials say.

But com­plaints about the fa­cil­ity have grown par­tic­u­larly loud this year fol­low­ing the sui­cide at­tempts and three deaths since March, with mul­ti­ple hunger strikes by de­tainees.

Lo­cated in the high desert 85 miles north­east of Los An­ge­les, the Ade­lanto De­ten­tion Fa­cil­ity can house nearly 2,000 men and women. Of­fi­cials say more than 73,000 de­tainees have passed through since it opened in 2011.

Among those held there are asy­lum seek­ers, peo­ple caught in im­mi­gra­tion sweeps and those iden­ti­fied by au­thor­i­ties as po­ten­tially de­portable af­ter land­ing in jail. Some have lived in the U.S. for decades; oth­ers were sent to Ade­lanto soon af­ter cross­ing the bor­der.

The GEO Group, which op­er­ates dozens of pri­vate prisons and de­ten­tion cen­ters around the coun­try, owns and op­er­ates the fa­cil­ity.

The prison op­er­a­tor re­ceives a fee of up to about $112 a day per de­tainee from U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment, with the city of Ade­lanto serv­ing as a go-be­tween.

De­tainees and ad­vo­cates have long com­plained of med­i­cal neglect, poor treat­ment by guards, lack of re­sponse to com­plaints and other prob­lems. Govern­ment in­spec­tors have also noted sig­nif­i­cant de­fi­cien­cies at the fa­cil­ity — of­ten re­lated to med­i­cal care.

The Times in­ter­viewed de­tainees and their lawyers and ad­vo­cates, and ex­am­ined lo­cal law en­force­ment re­ports, city records and fed­eral re­views dat­ing to 2011, when the fa­cil­ity opened.

In Novem­ber 2011, an ICE con­trac­tor con­duct­ing an an­nual re­view faulted the fa­cil­ity be­cause “med­i­cal of­fi­cials were not con­duct­ing de­tainee health ap­praisals within 14 days of ar­rival, and reg­is­tered nurses were per­form­ing health as­sess­ments” with­out proper train­ing or cer­ti­fi­ca­tion.

Ten months later, a re­port by ICE’s Of­fice of De­ten­tion Over­sight found that many re­quests for med­i­cal care were de­layed and med­i­cal records were not promptly re­viewed.

That re­port also said that the death of de­tainee Fer­nando Dominguez Val­divia in March 2012 fol­lowed “egre­gious er­rors” by med­i­cal staff and could have been pre­vented.

In 2014, an­other re­port by the Of­fice of De­ten­tion Over­sight found Ade­lanto de­fi­cient in 26 ar­eas — in­clud­ing 16 re­lated to the fa­cil­ity’s ef­forts to pre­vent and in­ter­vene in sex­ual abuse cases.

Af­ter the 2015 death of Raul Ernesto Mo­ralesRamos, in­spec­tors again found fault with Ade­lanto.

In the months be­fore he died, Mo­rales-Ramos sub­mit­ted two com­plaints to Ade­lanto of­fi­cials.

“To who re­ceives this, I am let­ting you know that I am very sick and they don’t want to care for me,” he wrote in one. “The nurse only gave me ibupro­fen and that only al­le­vi­ates me for a few hours. Let me know if you can help me. I only need med­i­cal at­ten­tion.”

Mo­rales-Ramos had been de­tained since his 2010 ar­rest on a war­rant is­sued in El Sal­vador for con­spir­acy in­volv­ing ag­gra­vated homi­cide.

His case per­sisted for years, and he was trans­ferred to var­i­ous de­ten­tion cen­ters un­til land­ing at Ade­lanto in May 2014. He com­plained through­out his de­ten­tion of gas­troin­testi­nal and other prob­lems and was given pain re­liev­ers and medicine for con­sti­pa­tion and di­ar­rhea.

Even­tu­ally, a doc­tor who ex­am­ined him found an ab­dom­i­nal mass that was “the largest she has ever seen in her prac­tice,” ac­cord­ing to the re­view con­ducted af­ter his death. Based on its size, the tu­mor prob­a­bly had been present for months.

The re­port on his death, pre­pared by the Of­fice of De­ten­tion Over­sight, said Ade­lanto failed to pro­vide Mo­rales-Ramos with timely and com­pre­hen­sive med­i­cal care, among other lapses.

ICE of­fi­cials de­clined an in­ter­view re­quest.

In a writ­ten re­sponse to ques­tions, agency spokes­woman Vir­ginia Kice said de­ten­tion cen­ters have un­der­gone re­forms in re­cent years to en­sure “that those in ICE cus­tody re­ceive timely ac­cess to med­i­cal ser­vices and treat­ment.”

Those re­forms in­clude as­sign­ing med­i­cal co­or­di­na­tors to the agency’s field of­fices who can closely mon­i­tor com­plex cases, Kice said. Im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials have also sim­pli­fied the process for au­tho­riz­ing de­tainee health­care from out­side providers, she said.

Pablo Paez, a spokesman for the GEO Group, also de­clined an in­ter­view re­quest.

“The Ade­lanto De­ten­tion Fa­cil­ity has a long-stand­ing record pro­vid­ing high-qual­ity, cul­tur­ally re­spon­sive ser­vices, in­clud­ing com­pre­hen­sive around-the-clock med­i­cal care, in a safe, se­cure and hu­mane en­vi­ron­ment that meets the non-pe­nal, non-puni­tive needs” of im­mi­gra­tion de­tainees, he said in a state­ment.

“We take all re­views and au­dits with the ut­most se­ri­ous­ness and when nec­es­sary im­ple­ment prompt cor­rec­tive ac­tions,” Paez said.

He said that dur­ing its most re­cent an­nual au­dit the fa­cil­ity was found to be “in com­pli­ance with 100% of the man­dated ICE stan­dards.” He did not pro­vide a copy of that re­port.

The Times filed a Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act re­quest in early June for copies of all re­cent in­spec­tions of the Ade­lanto fa­cil­ity, but they have not yet been pro­vided.

At­tor­ney Mayra Gamez, who has rep­re­sented dozens of Ade­lanto de­tainees in their im­mi­gra­tion cases, said she of­ten finds her­self also act­ing as a med­i­cal ad­vo­cate — push­ing for their ac­cess to doc­tors and fol­lowup care.

“There’s times when they do fi­nally see some­one and it’s not a doc­tor, it’s an RN or some other nurse and they’re just given ibupro­fen or told it’s noth­ing,” she said.

“Some­times they agree to [de­por­ta­tion] be­cause they’re afraid of just dy­ing in a de­ten­tion fa­cil­ity af­ter mul­ti­ple at­tempts at seek­ing help or get­ting care,” Gamez said.

Since Mo­rales-Ramos’ death in 2015, four oth­ers have died at the fa­cil­ity.

Two days be­fore Christ­mas in 2015, Jose Manuel Azur­dia-Her­nan­dez, 54, of Gu­atemala, died of a heart at­tack, ac­cord­ing to ICE.

In March of this year, Os­mar Epi­fanio Gon­za­lezGadba, 32, of Nicaragua died six days af­ter he was found hang­ing in his cell.

In April, Ser­gio Alonso Lopez, 55, of Mex­ico died days af­ter he was taken to the hos­pi­tal for vom­it­ing blood. Im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials said he had a his­tory of se­ri­ous med­i­cal is­sues. The pre­lim­i­nary cause of death was in­ter­nal bleed­ing.

And in May, Vi­cente Cac­eres-Mara­di­aga, a 46-yearold Hon­duran, died in an am­bu­lance on the way to the hos­pi­tal. The pre­lim­i­nary cause of death was listed as acute coro­nary syn­drome, im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials said in a state­ment.

While any in-cus­tody death is a cause for con­cern, the num­bers should be con­sid­ered in con­text, Kice said.

“No­tably, Ade­lanto ex­pe­ri­enced no in-cus­tody deaths in fis­cal years 2011, 2013, 2014, and 2016,” Kice said. Only one de­tainee has died as a re­sult of a sui­cide at­tempt, she added, a ref­er­ence to Gon­za­lez-Gadba.

When it comes to sui­cide pre­ven­tion, Kice said, de­tainees are screened upon ad­mis­sion and “im­me­di­ate at­ten­tion is pro­vided to de­tainees who present a danger or an im­mi­nent risk to them­selves.”

In early July, in a white brick court­room be­hind three locked doors in­side the Ade­lanto fa­cil­ity, asy­lum seeker Omar Rivera Martinez faced im­mi­gra­tion judge Jose Peñalosa.

Peñalosa spent sev­eral min­utes ex­plain­ing the man’s rights. But Rivera Martinez wanted to tell Peñalosa what hap­pened this sum­mer, when he and eight other de­tainees an­nounced a hunger strike to protest con­di­tions in­side Ade­lanto.

“The GEO of­fi­cials beat us and sprayed us with gas, and I don’t think that’s right,” Rivera Martinez told the judge.

Rivera Martinez pointed to his mouth, where he had a gap in his teeth, and his nose, which crooked to the left, to show Peñalosa dam­age he said was caused by guards.

At­tor­ney Nicole Ramos told the judge she was strug­gling to com­mu­ni­cate with Rivera Martinez be­cause the fa­cil­ity had blocked her phone num­ber. (ICE of­fi­cials say they some­times block phone num­bers for se­cu­rity rea­sons.)

Peñalosa said he would take note of the com­plaints. But he also told Rivera Martinez that his court is charged with de­cid­ing im­mi­gra­tion cases, not re­solv­ing prob­lems within the fa­cil­ity.

Rivera Martinez came to the U.S. this spring in a car­a­van with dozens of asy­lum seek­ers from Cen­tral Amer­ica.

He said he fled El Sal­vador af­ter a gang killed his brother and kid­napped him, his wife and teenage daugh­ter when they wit­nessed the slay­ing.

Af­ter the fam­ily es­caped, Rivera Martinez said, he learned that the gang had oc­cu­pied his house.

“I can’t re­turn home any­more,” he said.

Nine asy­lum seek­ers from the car­a­van re­united af­ter find­ing them­selves de­tained at Ade­lanto and soon grew frus­trated about their treat­ment.

“I would never wish this place, Ade­lanto, on any­one,” said Jose Cortez Diaz of El Sal­vador. “The mis­treat­ment is just too much.”

The group be­gan a hunger strike and wrote a let­ter to of­fi­cials out­lin­ing their de­mands. They in­cluded re­duced bond, new uni­forms — par­tic­u­larly new un­der­wear — more time for re­li­gious ser­vices, pa­per­work in their na­tive lan­guages, clean water and bet­ter food.

Dur­ing breakfast on June 12, they tried to hand the let­ter to a guard and asked to speak with some­one who would hear their com­plaints. As more guards ar­rived, they linked arms and re­fused to leave.

Rivera Martinez and oth­ers say they were show­ered with pep­per spray and beaten, re­sult­ing in the in­juries Rivera Martinez showed the judge.

Ramos, the at­tor­ney, filed a com­plaint with the U.S. Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity’s Of­fice for Civil Rights and Civil Lib­er­ties, ask­ing it to in­ves­ti­gate “the bru­tal at­tack of these men.”

Kice, the ICE spokes­woman, said the sit­u­a­tion posed a danger to staff and other de­tainees.

“De­spite re­peated or­ders from se­cu­rity per­son­nel, sev­eral of the men con­tin­ued to phys­i­cally re­sist com­mands to sub­mit to me­chan­i­cal re­straints,” Kice said in an email. “The of­fi­cers ap­plied the nec­es­sary de­gree of force to re­move the re­sist­ing de­tainees from the res­i­dence unit and tem­po­rar­ily trans­fer them to a re­stricted hous­ing area.”

None of the men was in­jured, Kice said, adding that re­view found “proper poli­cies and pro­ce­dures were fol­lowed.”

Af­ter the pro­test­ers were al­lowed back into the gen­eral prison pop­u­la­tion, they be­gan an­other hunger strike, which lasted sev­eral days.

In early July, the group launched a third hunger strike, which lasted about 72 hours and in­cluded dozens of ad­di­tional par­tic­i­pants, de­tainees and their sup­port­ers said.

In a let­ter to of­fi­cials, they said they wanted their bond amounts to be re­duced so they could leave Ade­lanto while fight­ing their cases for asy­lum. Sev­eral asy­lum seek­ers said their bond was be­tween $15,000 and $35,000.

“We need for them to please let us out of here im­me­di­ately,” Rivera Martinez said. “We don’t feel OK here. We’re in danger here. We’re in the mid­dle of a hur­ri­cane here.”

Ir­fan Khan Los An­ge­les Times

OMAR RIVERA MARTINEZ, one of the de­tainees who staged a hunger strike to protest con­di­tions at Ade­lanto, says guards “beat us and sprayed us with gas.”

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