Incarceration Nation

Week of Hell

Dozens of African detainees allege serial abuse and hate crimes at notorious private immigration jail

By Ryan Deveraux, José Olivares, Maryam Saleh

March 24, 2018—Late last month, roughly 80 immigrant men from Somalia, Kenya, and Sudan arrived at a remote, for-profit detention center in West Texas to await deportation. In the week that followed, the men were pepper-sprayed, beaten, threatened, taunted with racial slurs, and subjected to sexual abuse. The treatment they endured amounted to multiple violations of federal law and grave human rights abuses—and it all happened over the course of a single week. These are the findings of chilling new report by a collection of Texas-based legal advocacy groups.

The alleged abuse was so grave that advocates for the men have now filed a series of complaints with the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and local authorities calling for investigations into what happened behind the locked doors of the detention facility. According to the advocates, the U.S. attorney’s office has forwarded those complaints, which included alleged hate crimes perpetrated by detention center guards, to the FBI.

The detention center in question, known as the West Texas Detention Facility, is operated by LaSalle Corrections, a for-profit outfit that, according to its website, “manages 18 facilities with a total inmate capacity of over 13,000 and leases one facility to a law enforcement agency.” The report, published Thursday, March 22, 2018, provides a jarring glimpse inside the world of privatized immigrant detention, which the Trump administration is seeking to expand. The allegations bear disturbing similarities to other abuse claims made by detainees of African descent in recent weeks.

Compiled by the Texas A and M University School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic, the University of Texas School of Law Immigration Clinic, and RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services), a Texas-based legal organization, the report is based on interviews with 30 Somali men who described their experiences at the West Texas Detention Facility from February 23 to March 2 of this year. The report points to consistent accounts of detention center personnel, including the warden of the facility, all of whom are contractors under U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, engaging in deeply abusive practices.

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) takes very seriously any allegations of misconduct or unsafe conditions,” ICE spokesperson Leticia Zamarripa said in a statement to The Intercept. “ICE maintains a strict zero tolerance policy for any kind of abusive behavior and requires all staff working with the agency to adhere to this policy. All allegations are independently reviewed by ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility.  ICE has not been made aware of any allegations prior to this initial reporting from RAICES.”

The backgrounds of the men, who ranged in age from their 20s to their 50s, varied. “Some came to the U.S. as refugees when they were children. Others entered recently with visas or without status,” the report says. Some of the detainees are married to U.S. citizens and have U.S. citizen children. One of the interviewees in the report who fits that description, a man whose name was given only as Taifa, came to the U.S. at age 12. He was convicted of marijuana possession in 2002. Twelve years later, ICE came to his home and arrested him. He has been moving through immigration court and the detention system ever since.

What all of the men have in common, the report notes, is that they “were in ICE custody for the sole purpose of effectuating deportation after receiving final orders of removal.” All of the men interviewed reported having been pepper-sprayed at least once during their week in detention, while 14 others—nearly half of the interviewees—reported other types of physical abuse.

Diana Tafur, a supervising attorney with RAICES who took part in the investigation, told The Intercept that for reasons of confidentiality, the full complaints detailing what the men experienced have not been made public. Tafur said the network of groups that investigated the alleged abuse were initially tipped off by family members and attorneys for the men locked inside the West Texas facility. The interviews, which were conducted last week, culminated in complaints filed with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and its inspector general’s office, as well as local authorities.

“The assistant United States attorney for the Western District of Texas responded right away and they did say that they had forwarded the information to the El Paso division of the FBI,” Tafur said, adding that the “horrific abuse rose to violate various federal crimes, as well as civil violations.”

The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.

Physical abuse

One detainee, a man called Dalmar, told the legal advocates that the warden of the West Texas Detention Facility hit him in the face four times while he was in the nurse’s office. “Are you going to let this happen?” Dalmar recalled telling the medical staff, to which a staff member allegedly responded, “We didn’t see anything.” Dalmar claims he was then “placed in solitary confinement, where I was forced to lie face down on the floor with my hands handcuffed behind my back while I was kicked repeatedly in the ribs by the warden.”

“When I told him, ‘I‘ll get a lawyer to sue you,’ the warden responded, ‘We’ve got enough money,’” Dalmar claimed.

According to the LaSalle Corrections website, Mike Sheppard, a veteran corrections officer, has overseen the West Texas Detention Facility as warden since 2015.

The Intercept reached out to the West Texas Detention Facility looking to speak to an official who could comment on the report. A receptionist at the facility said, “Technically we’re not supposed to give out that information or we can’t give out that information.” When asked what specific categories of information the facility couldn’t give out, the receptionist replied, “Any information.” The receptionist then provided a number for LaSalle’s corporate office. The number connected to a voicemail box that had not been set up. The Intercept also called LaSalle’s Austin office. A receptionist there said an official with the company would or would not respond with comment later in the day. The company ultimately did not respond.

Under ICE’s 2000 National Detention Standards, as Thursday’s report notes, contractors working with the immigration enforcement agency are permitted to use force “only after all reasonable efforts to resolve a situation have failed. Staff must attempt to gain a detainee’s willing cooperation before using force, and under no circumstances should force be used to punish a detainee. Yet numerous detainees reported excessive use of force as punishment, without cause, and as the initial action taken in a situation.”

The complaints in the report shed light on the lack of enforcement options available under the standards and ICE’s unwillingness to ask private contractors “for strict adherence” to them, said Elissa Steglich, a professor at the University of Texas Law School’s immigration clinic. “These are contractual arrangements with private corporations, and we’ve seen ICE defer to their private interests,” she said.

The men interviewed for the report independently describe witnessing or being subjected to physical force that included multiple accounts of officers throwing detainees to the floor and, in one case, slamming a man’s head against the concrete “even though he did not resist.” The report adds: “One of the detainees, Sharmaarke, alleged that LaSalle corrections officers sexually assaulted him by fondling his penis and groin area over his clothes while he was pushed against the wall.”

“This happened to him multiple times,” the report claims.

Solitary confinement

In addition to the physical abuse, the detainees who had been through the West Texas facility described use of solitary confinement—what the government euphemistically refers to as “administrative segregation”—that appears inconsistent with the guidelines ICE contractors are required to abide by.

Under those rules, a committee at the facility is required to hold a hearing and issue a formal order before a detainee is removed from the general population. “None of the detainees we talked to who were placed in solitary confinement were provided copies of their segregation orders, found guilty of committing a prohibited act at a hearing, or posed a threat,” the report notes.

Instead, the report suggests a pattern of detainees being thrown into solitary for arbitrary or vindictive reasons, including asking for socks and underwear, talking too loudly to the warden, and asking to be sent back to Somalia.

Thursday’s report comes just weeks after an Intercept story on strikingly similar complaints made by a group of Somali detainees at an immigration detention center 1,800 miles away from western Texas—the Glades County Detention Center in Florida. Since December, dozens of Somalis who were on a botched deportation flight that was returned to Miami have been in detention, several of them accusing guards at the detention facility of violent assaults and racism. (ICE has denied the allegations.)

Detainees in Texas reported being pepper-sprayed on multiple occasions, leading, in some cases, to difficulty breathing and coughing up blood; being placed in solitary confinement as a form of punishment, including after being pepper-sprayed; and being the subject of racial epithets from guards at the detention facility. Similarly, some detainees at Glades reported that guards used pepper spray against them as a form of punishment, including by spraying into a crowded cell, making it difficult to breathe. The Glades detainees also said that they were sent to segregation units after making complaints and that they had experienced racism at the jail. “They called them ‘niggers.’ They called them ‘boy.’ They’ve said things like, ‘We’re sending you boys back to the jungle,’” Lisa Lehner, one of the attorneys representing the Glades detainees, told The Intercept last month.

At the West Texas facility, detainees similarly reported guards using racist language when addressing them. “Shut your black ass up. You don’t deserve nothing. You belong at the back of that cage,” one detainee recalled an officer saying. “Boy, I’m going to show you. You’re my bitch,” recalled another. “You are a terrorist,” said a third.

“The pattern and practice of abuses LaSalle corrections officers engaged against the group of African detainees over the course of a week amounts to hate crimes, conspiracy against rights, and a deprivation of rights under color of law,” says the report. “The officers used epithets (‘terrorist’ and ‘boy’ and ‘n*’) in combination with beatings, broad and indiscriminate use of pepper spray, and routine and arbitrary use of segregation and other violations to demean and injure the men.”

By congressional mandate, ICE is required to meet a quota of 34,000 beds filled each day. The Trump administration has sought to increase that number to 51,000. Housing that many people requires significant resources devoted to medical care. In that area, too, the West Texas Detention Facility appears to have fallen woefully short.

Medical abuse

In 2015, Taifa, the man who came to the U.S. at age 12 and now has a U.S. citizen family, was involved in a car accident where he shattered his pelvis and suffered brain trauma. According to the report, his injuries require multiple medications and psychiatric care. However, since he was detained, Taifa said he had not received medications or had access to a psychiatrist. A detainee named Mohamed, who claims to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from the torture and murder of family members in his home country, added that he was denied medication to treat his PTSD at the facility. He also claimed that he had not received any medical care in response to him coughing up blood after being pepper-sprayed several times.

Many of the men interviewed for the report have spent months or years in detention after receiving a final order of deportation because ICE was not able to deport them to Somalia. Steglich, the University of Texas Law School professor, said two deportation flights were canceled in the last month, without explanation from ICE. Many of the men did not have travel documents and could not reach their embassy, which might have been a reason for the delay, she noted.

“Overall, this raises a real question of the credibility of ICE engaging in pre-detention of folks who have been ordered deported without any assurance that flights can actually happen,” Steglich said. “I think it’s significant that we saw weeks, if not months, of detention that we know of, and two flights not going forward. And that begs the question of the necessity of [ICE] detaining folks when they did and keeping folks detained.”

The West Texas Detention Facility has a history of scrutiny for its conditions. In 2016, the ICE Office of Detention Oversight reported the detention facility had multiple deficiencies with discipline and health services. “A review of facility training records showed facility staff did not consistently receive required training on the use of non-lethal equipment, e.g., oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray,” ICE investigators found, using the name for the active ingredient in pepper spray.

A 2016 article from Fronteras Desk, a collaboration of public radio stations across the southwestern U.S., mentions detainees complaining of inhumane treatment at the facility, including some who said they were forced to use plastic bags as toilets. In May 2017, Mexican journalist Martín Méndez Pineda, who was seeking asylum in the U.S., wrote a Washington Post column on his experiences at the West Texas Detention Facility, where he was held. It was there, he said, that he “experienced the worst days of my life.”

Alan Dicker from the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee, a collective that works with detained migrants, said the report’s findings were not surprising. But many detainees will not speak out about conditions inside the facility, he added, out of fear of retaliation.

“They’re terrified,” Dicker told The Intercept. “I’ve had family members tell me their loved one will not tell them about what’s going on because they’re too afraid to do so.”

According to the LaSalle website, the detention center was owned by Emerald Corrections until April 2017, when LaSalle acquired it. Sheppard, the current warden of the facility, was previously working for the facility under Emerald, according to LaSalle’s website.

Though complaints of abuse have dogged the West Texas Detention Facility for years, Steglich said the guards are no doubt emboldened by the anti-immigrant rhetoric emanating from the highest levels of government. In January, for example, President Donald Trump reportedly used the word “shithole” to describe African countries.

“The rhetoric that we hear from high levels in the administration that has been very negative, often with racist undertones regarding Africans in particular, in combination with their discussion of the countries being recalcitrant, being terrorist supporting, and generally hostile toward America,” Steglich said. “That will feed a sense of impunity on behalf of corrections officers and jailers and give a sense of appropriateness of punishing immigrants rather than acknowledging that their detention is civil in nature only, and should not be punitive.”

Steglich added that the responsiveness of the U.S. attorney’s office to the alleged abuses, exemplified by the decision to share the information with the FBI, was encouraging. She said, “I’m heartened that they recognized the egregiousness.”

The Intercept, March 24, 2018