SAN DIEGO (CN) — A lawsuit claiming that a U.S. citizen’s incarceration in solitary confinement for months at a privately run detention facility in Imperial County amounted to intentional infliction of emotional distress and a failure to comply with standards of care outlined in the company’s contract can proceed in federal court after a judge declined to dismiss the complaint.
Carlos Murillo Vega was detained by immigration authorities in 2019 and held at the Imperial Regional Detention Facility in Calexico, Calif. The facility is privately run by Management & Training Corp. under a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
On the day Murillo arrived at the detention center, he claims an employee told him the facility had a problem with gangs, especially in the general population wing. He claims the employee said it was safer in protective custody, so Murillo voluntarily requested to be moved.
What that meant, according to Murillo’s 2021 lawsuit, was being placed in solitary confinement without contact with other people, without library access, visitation or other services and programs for up to 23 hours per day for 10 to 14 months, even after he requested to move to the general population wing.
Murillo was briefly transferred to the general population during repairs to the protective custody unit. After moving back to protective custody, he filed a request to return to the general population, which he says staff denied for undefined safety and security reasons.
Murillo, who was released from custody in February 2021, claims he still suffers from anxiety, nightmares, difficulty concentrating and fear that he’ll be sent back to solitary confinement because of his imprisonment in protective custody.
Management & Training Corp. sought to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming Murillo couldn’t argue it intentionally inflicted emotional distress since Murillo voluntarily entered into protective custody, but U.S. District Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel of the Southern District of California denied that argument, finding ICE’s performance-based national detention standards (PBNDS) say it’s up to the detention center to document and prove why an inmate is in protective custody.
“These instructions indicate that administrative segregation is not expected to be the default housing placement absent justification. Even assuming that Murillo had been adequately informed about what life was like in protective custody, MTC ignores that PBNDS allocates the burden to MTC, not the detainee, to justify housing a detainee in administrative segregation. MTC fails to explain or point to any “safety and security” justification for placing Murillo in protective custody and then keeping him there,” Curiel wrote.
Management & Training Corp. also claimed Murillo's incarceration did not amount to solitary confinement because he watched television, went to recreation with other detainees, exercised, worked two jobs, attended religious services and Bible study, and saw a counselor named Brenda Casteau. Murillo did not mention emotional distress, according to notes taken by the counselor.
Murillo said the counselor had trouble building a trusting relationship with detainees, including him, and did not notice his symptoms accurately. Murillo also claimed he was uncomfortable telling her every issue that bothered him because he didn’t want people to hear what he said to the counselor.
“MTC only points to Casteau’s mental health progress notes, none of which mention these purported 'daily checks' or working two jobs, and notes from only five sessions from his roughly 14-month detainment plainly indicate that he had been socializing with other detainees or family, or given access to a television or religious services,” Curiel wrote.
“MTC has failed to establish that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact concerning its conduct as to an IIED (intentional infliction of emotional distress) claim,” he added.
In response to the ruling, Murillo's attorney Catherine Sweetser said they were looking forward to proving their claims at trial.
“The judge found that plaintiff had substantial evidence to support that holding someone in solitary confinement for 14 months is intentional, outrageous and may warrant punitive damages. The judge further found that there was substantial evidence that this violated ICE’s standards to which the facility agreed," Sweetser wrote in a email.
Attorneys for the Utah-based Management & Training Corp. did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
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