LOS ANGELES (CN) – A federal judge in Los Angeles probed U.S. attorneys Monday as to why several hundred people are being held at a federal prison in the Mojave Desert, during a status hearing in a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of immigrant detainees.
About 1,000 adult detainees were transported to the prison in Victorville, California, about two hours east of Los Angeles, in June.
Last month, U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright issued a restraining order requiring the prison to allow detainees to communicate with attorneys and attend workshops where they could learn their rights while in custody.
But attorneys representing the immigrants say the detainees are being held in horrible conditions, are not allowed to change their clothes for months at a time, are forced to stay in their cells for days at a time and cannot contact attorneys for legal service – even though none of been charged or convicted of a crime. The prison also does not have a law library to help the detainees in their pending immigration hearings.
The immigrant detainees have been transported to the prison from across the country as part of the Trump administration’s new immigration policies against asylum seekers. They join about a thousand other inmates who have been convicted of federal crimes.
There have been multiple outbreaks of chickenpox and scabies at the facility, which punctuates the lack of medical services and staff at the prison, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents lead plaintiffs Gustavo Rodriguez Castillo and Gabriela M. Lopez.
On Monday, Wright wanted to know why there are still hundreds of detainees being held in the medium-security prison in the first place, since they have not been convicted of a crime but are still subjected to prison policies.
The status conference was meant to see how much progress has been made since Wright ordered the government to give detainees access to attorneys.
ACLU attorney Michael Kaufman said little progress has been made.
Several declarations by immigration attorneys detailed the barriers and conditions they encountered when trying to meet with detainees, including being told at the prison that they are not allowed to converse with each other.
Justice Department attorney Geoffrey Wilson told Wright he was not aware of that specific incident and said it might be a Federal Bureau of Prisons policy.
“A lot of the allegations made were out there,” said Wilson. “They were tugging at the heart strings. And shocking.”
Wright said he was glad Wilson finds the allegations shocking.
“Glad you were shocked. Glad I’m dealing with a human being,” said Wright.
Wilson said 50,000 phone calls have been placed from the Victorville prison and two know-your-rights workshops have been held for detainees since Wright issued his order last month.
One of the named plaintiffs, Castillo, has been moved to another detention facility which Wilson said will help with access to legal aid.
In addition to asking why there were only two rights workshops, Wright wanted to know why detainees are being held in a prison in the first place. He ordered the attorneys to confer in chambers to discuss what can be done to alleviate some of the bigger obstacles being encountered by immigrant attorneys.
“We are going to make meaningful progress, or I will draft a preliminary injunction that someone is not going to like,” said Wright.
No orders came out of the closed-door meeting Monday. But on Tuesday, the parties filed a stipulation to extend Wright’s restraining order until Aug. 13 to “determine if they can make meaningful progress toward a resolution” of the case.