TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) – A federal judge has ordered the Border Patrol to improve the conditions of its holding cells in the Tucson sector, finding the agency is not meeting the basic human needs of detainees.
A class action filed in June 2015 claimed the sector’s cells are overcrowded and cold, and detainees do not receive regular food, water, medical care and access to showers. The Tucson sector includes Border Patrol facilities at a number of cities and towns in Southern Arizona, including Bisbee, Douglas, Nogales, Sonoita, Tucson, Why, Willcox, Three Points and Casa Grande.
“They have been packed into overcrowded and filthy holding cells with the lights glaring day and night; stripped of outer layers of clothing and forced to suffer in brutally cold temperatures; deprived of beds, bedding, and sleep; denied adequate food, water, medicine and medical care, and basic sanitation and hygiene items such as soap, sufficient toilet paper, sanitary napkins, diapers, and showers; and held incommunicado in these conditions for days,” the lawsuit said.
The cells are known as “hieleras” by detainees, the Spanish word for iceboxes, due to how cold they are kept.
U.S. District Judge David Bury issued the order on Friday, finding that the class showed the Border Patrol is violating the detainees’ constitutional right to sleep.
Out of 16,992 detainees between June 10 and Sept. 28, 2015, only 122 were noted to have received a mat to sleep on. The rest of detainees used a Mylar sheet for sleep, in concrete cells that are illuminated due to security concerns and kept between 71 and 74 degrees.
“As to warmth, without mats, the Mylar sheets are the only barriers between the detainee and the cold, including the cold concrete floors and benches in the holding cells upon which they are forced to lie,” Bury wrote. “Defendants admit that the Mylar sheets do not provide insulation but merely prevent evaporation so that when wrapped around the body the Mylar blankets reflect approximately 80 percent of body heat back to the body and provide a barrier between the body and air currents or drafts.”
Bury ordered Border Patrol to provide all detainees held longer than 12 hours with a mat and Mylar sheet.
Between June 10, 2015 and Sept. 28, 2015, Border Patrol only processed about 3,000 out of 17,000 detainees within 12 hours.
“Today is a victory for our plaintiffs, and a victory for the Constitution,” said Nora Preciado, a staff attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit. “No one, regardless of where they were born, should be subjected to the deplorable conditions our plaintiffs and other class members endured in the hieleras and we will ensure this order is implemented swiftly.”
Bury also put the Border Patrol on notice for the lack of shower facilities at the cells.
“Defendants assert that the lack of shower accommodations is not a problem because detainees are transferred when approaching 72 hours,” Bury wrote. “Like defendants’ failure to provide for the necessity of sleeping when detention exceeds 12 hours, defendants fail to recognize the basic human need to wash during these detentions.”
Bury noted that the class would likely prevail on its sanitation claim if Border Patrol did not make efforts to provide detainees held more than 12 hours with means to clean themselves.
“If detainees are held long enough to require them to sleep in these facilities, take regular meals, need showers, etc., then the defendants must provide conditions of confinement to meet these human needs,” Bury found. “Where there is no evidence of an express intent to punish, the court may infer that the purpose of the condition is punishment if it is not reasonably related to a legitimate governmental objective or is excessive in relation to the legitimate governmental objective.”
A Border Patrol spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.