Watchdog recommends relocation of detainees from ICE facility, citing unsanitary conditions and staff shortages

Watchdog recommends relocation of detainees from ICE facility, citing unsanitary conditions and staff shortages

A federal government watchdog on Friday recommended the immediate relocation of all immigrant detainees from a for-profit U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in New Mexico, citing unsanitary conditions, staff shortages and security lapses detected during an inspection.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General issued the rare recommendation in a report about the Torrance County Detention Facility, which holds immigrants facing deportation in Estancia, New Mexico. The office said it conducted a three-day unannounced inspection of the facility in early February.

The inspector general office’s investigators said they documented “egregious” problems at the New Mexico detention facility, which was holding 176 immigrants during the inspection, including issues that “exposed staff and detainees to excessive and avoidable unsanitary conditions.”

Over half of the 157 detainee cells at the facility, the report said, had plumbing issues that included toilets and sinks that were clogged or otherwise inoperable. Inspectors also noted they found water leaks, mold and a lack of hot water at the facility, which the report said was plagued by security lapses because of understaffing, poor supervision of detainees and operational blind spots.

Friday’s report also described a “critical” staff shortage that violated staffing level rules set by ICE. During the inspection, the New Mexico facility had 133 full-time employees, or 54% of the required 245-member staffing level, the office of inspector general said.

“We recommend the immediate relocation of all detainees from the facility unless and until the facility ensures adequate staffing and appropriate living conditions,” the office wrote in its report.

The office said it is planning to publish another report detailing other “deficiencies” at the Torrance facility related to detainee classification, COVID-19 mitigation measures, medical care, access to legal services and additional issues.

Migrants, who were detained trying to cross into the United States undetected, wait to be searched by United States Border Patrol agents in Sunland Park, New Mexico on September 1, 2021.

PAUL RATJE/AFP via Getty Images

ICE leadership strongly refuted the findings in Friday’s report, declining the detainee relocation recommendation and questioning the office of inspector general’s reporting methods. In a March 7 letter, Jason Houser, the acting chief of staff at ICE, said the agency had “serious concerns about the accuracy and integrity of this report.”

“In a number of instances, it appears OIG has falsified or mischaracterized evidence, and has ignored facts presented to it in order to achieve preconceived conclusions,” Houser wrote in his letter to Joseph Cuffari, the DHS inspector general.

Houser accused personnel who inspected the Torrance facility of staging a photo of a detainee getting water to drink from a mop sink and refusing to wait for faucets to produce hot water. He also questioned the impartiality of the inspector, saying facility officials heard the inspector say disparaging comments about the facility within the first hour of the inspection. 

Steven Corse, a spokesman for CoreCivic, the private company that operates the Torrance detention center, echoed ICE’s statements, saying the “inspectors responsible for this report acted in a deeply unethical manner, including misrepresenting evidence to negatively portray the facility.”

In a March 10 letter to acting ICE director Tae Johnson, CoreCivic general counsel Cole Carter urged the agency to review the conduct of the personnel who inspected the facility.

“The statements contained in the report, and the actions they represent, are so egregious and defamatory that they require your immediate attention to ensure that those responsible for making them are held accountable,” Carter wrote.

The DHS inspector general said it stood behind the findings in Friday’s report, noting that ICE itself in early March informed CoreCivic that the Torrance detention center was understaffed and plagued by other poor conditions.

“CoreCivic has not been able to demonstrate the ability to provide a safe environment for staff and noncitizens, provide the necessary security for proper facility security and control measures, and care necessary to ensure proper facility maintenance, overall cleanliness, and personal hygiene needs,” ICE said in a March 1 discrepancy report.

“Our employees’ impartiality, independence, and integrity are essential to our oversight work and will remain so moving forward,” the office of inspector general said.

ICE detains unauthorized immigrants, asylum-seekers and other non-citizens facing deportation proceedings, such as permanent residents who were convicted of certain crimes. As of last week, the agency was holding 20,146 immigrants in its detention network, which consists mainly of county jails and private prisons, government figures show.

The Biden administration has pledged to reform ICE detention. Last year, it stopped detaining immigrants at two facilities in Georgia and Massachusetts plagued by allegations of detainee mistreatment. However, ICE has yet to take public steps to end for-profit detention, a promise President Biden made on the campaign trail.

In a January interview with CBS News, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said “detention reform is a priority of mine.”

Representatives for the DHS did not respond to a request about whether Mayorkas agreed with the inspector general’s report and was addressing it, or if the secretary agreed with ICE’s rebuttal.

Advocates for immigrants said Friday’s report underscores the need to wind down ICE detention centers, which hold immigrants in civil proceedings, unlike state and federal jails and prisons that hold people in criminal custody.

“Secretary Mayorkas pledged a zero tolerance policy for substandard conditions in ICE detention but is running a jail system that’s overtly cruel,” said Heidi Altman, policy director at the National Immigrant Justice Center. “How many reports will it take until the U.S. government admits it’s time to end the use of immigration detention?”

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Author: Shirley