USA TODAY US Edition
DEATHS IN CUSTODY. SEXUAL VIOLENCE. HUNGER STRIKES.
What we uncovered inside ICE facilities across the USA
NEW ORLEANS – At 2:04 p.m. on Oct. 15, a guard at the Richwood Correctional Center noticed an odd smell coming from one of the isolation cells. He opened the door, stepped inside and found the lifeless body of Roylan Hernandez-Diaz hanging from a bedsheet.
The 43-year-old Cuban man had spent five months in immigration detention waiting for a judge to hear his asylum claim. As his time at Richwood dragged on, he barely answered questions from security or medical staff. He refused to eat for four days.
The next day, after word of his death spread, 20 detainees carried out what they say was a peaceful protest. They wrote “Justice for Roylan” on their white T-shirts, sat down in the cafeteria and refused to eat. Guards attacked, beating one of them so severely he was taken to a hospital, according to letters written by 10 detainees that were obtained by the USA TODAY Network and interviews with two detainees’ relatives.
Before that day, detainees at Richwood had complained of beatings, taunts from guards who called them “f---ing dogs,” and of landing in isolation cells for minor violations.
The USA TODAY Network uncovered
the Richwood episode during an investigation of the rapidly growing detention centers used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. The investigation revealed more than 400 allegations of sexual assault or abuse, inadequate medical care, regular hunger strikes, frequent use of solitary confinement, more than 800 instances of physical force against detainees, nearly 20,000 grievances filed by detainees and at least 29 fatalities, including seven suicides, since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017 and launched an overhaul of U.S. immigration policies.
Combined with an analysis by a government watchdog, the USA TODAY Network analyzed inspections reports since 2015 and identified 15,821 violations of detention standards. Yet more than 90% of those facilities received passing grades by government inspectors. In addition, reporters interviewed 35 current or former detainees, reviewed hundreds of documents from lawsuits, financial records and government contracts, and toured seven ICE facilities from Colorado to Texas to Florida. Such tours are extremely rare.
At least two detention centers passed inspections despite using a chemical restraint that is forbidden for use under ICE rules because it contains tear gas that produces “severe pain,” according to its manufacturer. Other centers received passing marks even after inspectors chronicled widespread use of physical force or solitary confinement.
Vicente Raul Orozco Serguera, one of the Richwood detainees who protested after Hernandez-Diaz died, told outsiders that the death and violent confrontation with guards punctuated a terrifying stay at Richwood that began with detention center officials forcing him to sign a document listing who would recover his body if he died in custody.
“We want our freedom to fight our cases freely and leave this hell, for Louisiana is a ‘Cemetery of living men,’ ” Orozco Serguera wrote in a letter from Richwood that was delivered to a lawyer in hopes of finding someone to help him.
Brian Cox, an ICE spokesman in Louisiana, said “there is no evidence to support the allegation” that guards abused or mistreated detainees who protested the death.
Detention or private prison?
This year, much of the nation’s attention to immigration has focused on how the Trump administration policies the southern border and how Border Patrol agents treat migrants. But away from that spotlight, there is a separate detention system overseen by ICE that has grown with far less scrutiny. It is now a $3 billion network of 222 facilities that detain more than 50,000 people who wait months or years for immigration court proceedings.
Two-thirds of detainees have no criminal records, records show. About 26% are detained solely because they are requesting asylum in the U.S. That is why ICE policy requires that immigration detention be civil in nature –an administrative hold on detainees as they await deportation or their next hearing, as opposed to a prison.
Henry Lucero, ICE’s second in command over detention, said ICE runs a top-notch detention system that strictly enforces federal standards, provides quality medical care, responds to every grievance filed by detainees and reviews every incident of use of force.
“Similar to a criminal justice system, while you’re in our facilities, there are still rules that you have to comply with,” Lucero said.
But Allegra Love, executive director of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, a nonprofit that provides free legal services to immigrants, said there is ample evidence that “we are torturing and killing people inside these detention centers.”
The U.S. immigration detention system has grown steadily over the past 40 years.
President George W. Bush, operating after 9/11, expanded the number of detention centers used by ICE to more than 350 nationwide. President Barack Obama cut nearly 150 facilities.
Under Trump, the number of detainees has increased by more than 6,500 each year. ICE also has signed contracts with 24 facilities since 2017. Private companies operate at least 60 facilities where 75% of all ICE detainees are held.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General analyzed inspection reports of all ICE facilities from October 2015 to June 2018 and identified 14,003 “deficiencies” – instances when staff violated standards that govern detainees’ treatment. Over that time, ICE issued two fines. One was levied against a private contractor for not adequately paying staff; the other was for substandard medical and mental health care.
The USA TODAY Network then analyzed all publicly available ICE inspection reports from July 2018 to November 2019. That review identified an additional 1,818 deficiencies at 98 facilities.
The problems documented by ICE inspectors ranged from moldy food and filthy bathrooms to high numbers of sexual assault allegations, attempted suicides and claims of guards using force against detainees.
Prisons are designed to be corrective or punitive in nature; immigration detention centers are not. ICE’s detention standards make that clear: “ICE detains people for no purpose other than to secure their presence both for immigration proceedings and their removal.”
Health care denied
When Suzanne Moore first arrived at the Baker County Detention Center outside Jacksonville, Florida, in July 2018, her breast cancer was in remission.
The disabled mother of two had spent 21 months in state prison after she pleaded guilty to selling some of the morphine and oxycodone left over from her cancer treatments. She was picked up by ICE when her state prison term was completed. Moore’s family moved from Jamaica to the U.S. when she was 2 and she became a legal permanent resident, but her felony convictions triggered deportation proceedings.
ICE officials sent her to Baker, a county jail that has a contract with ICE to hold detainees. Once ICE takes custody of a person, it assumes responsibility for medical care.
In Moore’s case, she said medical staff told her they had run out of the Tamoxifen medication she took daily to keep the cancer from returning. At one point, Moore said, she went 20 days without the medication.
Such complaints are common throughout ICE’s detention system.
Kenneth Thomas, a legal permanent resident from England, was picked up by immigration officers last year for an 18-year-old conviction of credit card fraud and is now being held in the Adams County Correctional Center in
Natchez, Mississippi. Thomas, a diabetic, said he has lost 20 pounds in ICE custody. He said he has gone up to two weeks without receiving his diabetes medication and was fed pasta, rice and mashed potatoes – a diet not suited for an unmedicated diabetic.
In New Jersey, Yuri Espada, 33, of New York City was held at the Hudson County Correctional Center in 2018 on ICE violations for nearly a year. Espada was born in Honduras and came to the United States in 1997 when she was 11.
She said she was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a chronic mental health condition, four years ago. She asked for her medication to no avail and had a breakdown. She was released from custody in October.
In Florida, Moore languished at Baker. After missing all those medications, Moore learned in April that her breast cancer had returned.
Lucero, the ICE official, said many detainee complaints about medical care in ICE facilities are “not accurate” and detainees often refuse medication. “We feel like we have a very, very good medical program with a lot of oversight.”
Right after Moore’s diagnosis, ICE released her from custody.
Two weeks of suffering
Kamyar Samimi’s final days were agonizing.
The father of three, who got legal residency shortly after arriving in the U.S. from his native Iran more than 40 years ago, had battled opioid use disorder ever since his grandfather gave him opium after a tooth extraction at 4 years old, his family says. For most of his life in the USA, Samimi had been prescribed methadone to manage his disorder.
Those treatments ended when he was arrested by ICE agents in 2017 based on a 12-year-old drug possession conviction and sent to a detention center in Aurora, Colorado. All immigrants – even those who have legal permanent residence or become U.S. citizens – can have their status revoked if they commit certain crimes.
Samimi’s condition worsened to the point where he died, vomiting, bleeding and crying out in pain over a two-week period, according to the ICE report.
“There’s not the proper attention, medical care or training in these detention facilities, and I would want everyone who is reading to know that this is happening,” said his daughter, Neda Samimi-Gomez.
The ACLU filed a lawsuit in November against the GEO Group over Samimi’s death.
In Arizona, Jose de Jesus Deniz-Sahagun tried to repeatedly kill himself inside the Eloy Detention Center. A doctor at Eloy declared him delusional and ordered he be kept on suicide watch on May 19, 2015. A day later, a doctor at Eloy took him off suicide watch, according to the ICE report. Within hours, Deniz-Sahagun was dead, an orange sock lodged in his throat and a 9-centimeter piece of a toothbrush handle in his stomach, according to the ICE report.
Every detainee interviewed by the USA TODAY Network alleged mistreatment by guards.
Jose Cuadras, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, spent seven weeks at the La Palma Correctional Center outside Eloy, Arizona, earlier this year. Cuadras said guards conducted strip searches after each visit with his family, stopped providing him soap and screamed at a detainee who couldn’t understand the English directions delivered during a fire drill.
The guards were so verbally abusive, Cuadras said, detainees were convinced they must have worked as prison guards before. They were right.
Amanda Gilchrist of CoreCivic, which runs La Palma, said the facility uses many of the same employees, including guards, from when La Palma was a medium-security prison. “We have a zero-tolerance policy for all forms of abuse and harassment,” she said. She added that every harassment allegation is reported and investigated.
‘Going to leave as cadavers’
Similar complaints about guards have emerged throughout the country.
At the Farmville Detention Center in Virginia, an ICE facility run by Immigration Centers of America, detainees became concerned over an outbreak of the mumps that infected at least 24 people this year. They were angered by the detention center’s decision to place the facility on quarantine and ban all visitors. They also refused to eat meals from the cafeteria, worried that improperly washed dishes would sicken them.
As tensions mounted, David de la Cruz Grajales, a detainee, said about 20 guards entered their dormitory in “riot gear,” ordering detainees to go to their beds for a second morning count. When some objected, the guards showered them with pepper spray, zip-tied their hands, and placed them in a “segregation unit,” he said.
Grajales said he suffered an asthma attack and was refused an inhaler for 15 minutes. When he asked for a change of clothes, the shift commander responded, “No, you’re going to be burning for at least two days,” Grajales said in an affidavit as part of a lawsuit he and other detainees filed against the facility.
In Florida, the guards at the Baker County Detention Center are so notorious that detainees in other ICE facilities are threatened with a transfer to Baker if they act up.
The facility holds ICE detainees and county inmates in two separate wings, but guards work in both sides of the facility. Sgt. Brad Harvey, who works for the county sheriff’s department, said none of the guards speak Spanish. And detainees there never go outside.
Back in Louisiana, questions remain about the death of Hernandez-Diaz, the Cuban man found hanging while in solitary confinement, and the response by guards to detainees who protested his death.
But relatives of those detained at Richwood said Hernandez-Diaz’s death is indicative of a culture of abuse.
Sulima Baigorria Valdez was released from ICE custody earlier this year, while her husband remains in Richwood. Her husband complains of rotten food and says the guards taunt him and the others, telling them they will soon be deported. Last time Valdez saw her husband in October, he had lost 50 pounds.
“I was thinking this isn’t him, this can’t be him,” she said. “They are going to leave as cadavers.”
2,469 days in detention
Fernando Aguirre says he saw it all in his time at the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma, Washington.
He recalled seeing rocks and pebbles sprinkled into the beans he was served from the cafeteria and remembered joining in hunger strikes, feeling overwhelming stomach pangs.
In all, Aguirre, an undocumented immigrant who was brought to the U.S. from Mexico when he was just 3, spent nearly seven years – 2,469 days – in ICE detention. He was released in June.
Government prosecutors justified his prolonged detention based on Aguirre’s criminal record: In 2012, he was convicted for methamphetamine and marijuana possession with intent to deliver. He entered into a plea agreement with prosecutors and served eight months of a one-year sentence in state prison, court records show, shifting over to ICE detention as soon as his state sentence was completed.
His defenders call his long detention a violation of his human rights and are still fighting ICE, which remains intent on deporting Aguirre.
Aguirre is now trying to reintegrate into society. He tries to avoid small, crowded spaces that remind him of his cell in Tacoma. His children are teaching him how to navigate social media. And he’s continuing to write poetry, which he used as a distraction as a detainee.
“Because if I am here today, then I ask for endless days,” he said, reciting a poem he wrote while locked away. “Just leave the happiness part and take the hopelessness away.” Contributing: Monsy Alvarado, Ashley Balcerzak, Stacey Barchenger, Jon Campbell, Rafael Carranza, Maria Clark, Daniel Gonzalez, Trevor Hughes, Rick Jervis, Dan Keemahill, Rebecca Plevin, Jeremy Schwartz, Sarah Taddeo, Lauren Villagran, Dennis Wagner, Elizabeth Weise and Alissa Zhu