SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Disturbing conditions – including women forced to go to the bathroom in biohazard bags and detainees confined to cells for up to 22 hours – prevail at immigration detention centers throughout California, though some facilities have begun to improve, a report released by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra found.
At a press conference Tuesday, Becerra said language barriers, restrictions on contacting family and legal counsel and limited access to medical and mental health care were common among many of the detention centers.
“We found long periods of confinement without breaks, with some detainees confined in their cells for up to 22 hours a day. We found significant language barriers, which compromised medical confidentiality and access to due process. We found difficulties in access to medical and mental health care,” he said. “We found obstacles to external communication, which limited detainees’ ability to conduct family contact and make use of other support systems. And we found barriers to access to legal representation, which left many of these detainees alone to navigate the complexities of immigration law.”
The California Legislature ordered Becerra’s investigation after the 2017 passage of Assembly Bill 103, which required a review of the state’s immigration jails.
Becerra’s team visited all ten facilities that housed detainees when AB 103 was signed, though the report focuses heavily on Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility, the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange County, and the West County Detention Facility in Contra Costa County.
Yolo houses immigrant children ages 13 to 17, Theo Lacy houses adult male detainees and the West County facility held both men and women before the Contra Costa County Sheriff ended its relationship with Immigration and Customs Enforcement over allegations that staff mistreated female detainees.
Deputy Attorney General Marisol León said many of the stories she heard were gut-wrenching.
“All of the stories we heard were incredibly touching and difficult to hear. To hear that youth are crossing multiple borders, fleeing violence, persecution, a lot of trauma, and being re-traumatized in many ways in the center and not getting proper mental health services, that was soul-crushing,” she said. “We had an adult whose baby was torn from his arms when he was detained. Women who aren’t getting proper medication – things like that that are happening and are heartbreaking.”
Deputy Attorney General Vilma Palma-Solana said the conditions seemed to result from a combination of federal standards for operating the detention centers, which are “designed more for criminal detention” and ICE’s seeming indifference to enforcing minimal federal standards.
She said the team confirmed many of the accusations that staff mistreated women at the West County facility.
“A lot of those allegations were at least partially true, including that in some circumstances women were forced to defecate and urinate in biohazard bags because they were locked in their cells for extended periods of time,” Palma-Solana said.
Becerra said he was pleased that some centers have shown a willingness to change. As a result of the California DOJ’s report, the juvenile center in Yolo County has hired more mental health professionals and is working on improving health care. The Theo Lacy facility changed its disciplinary segregation policy and now allows recreation for detainees in solitary confinement.
“We intend to keep visiting these facilities and releasing our findings over the next several years,” Becerra said.
Some detention centers were not so receptive to reform. “It’s a mix. We’ve only done the deep dive with three of the facilities. But what we did find was a need for improvement all around, and there’s a desire to improve in some cases. And we need more access in others,” Becerra said.
The Adelanto ICE Processing Center refused the DOJ’s request for a comprehensive two-week visit, according to the report, and refused to allow investigators to speak with facility staff and detainees. Inmates filed a federal lawsuit in December 2017 accusing the Adelanto facility of using forced labor. The DOJ’s report also notes that the facility saw three detainee deaths and six unsuccessful suicide attempts that same year.
The federal government has ramped up detention of those who enter the country illegally, whereas the centers used to focus on those who had been arrested for or convicted of crimes.
“The civil detainees for immigration purposes who had never been convicted of a particular crime found themselves in circumstances that in some cases might even be hard for somebody who had been detained for criminal reasons,” Becerra said. “My sense of it is a lot of this is due to the fact that the federal government isn’t doing its job of overseeing these detention centers and enforcing its own standards by these detention centers, especially the private detention facilities.”
The Attorney General’s report coincides with the release of the State Auditor’s investigation of three private detention facilities – Adelanto, Mesa Verde in McFarland and Imperial Regional in Holtville.
State Auditor Elaine Howle’s report says the cities, which contract with ICE to house illegal immigrants, didn’t properly oversee subcontracts with private operators, leading to serious health and safety issues for the detainees.
“The cities simply pass federal payments from ICE to these subcontractors, without performing any meaningful oversight,” according to Howle’s audit. “Essentially, the cities act as pass‑through entities between ICE and the private operators by paying the same amount to the private operators as the cities receive from ICE.”
“I hope the legislature will look at the state auditor’s report and our report in unison and come to some conclusions about the best next steps,” Becerra said.
Becerra said his office will continue to inspect the centers and try to win their cooperation, though some cases may require more intervention. “It may mean taking legal action,” he said. “And we’re prepared to do whatever we must to make sure that the laws of this country and of this state and the constitutional standards that we would all expect are not only protected but enforced.”