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With Record Number Of Immigrants In ICE Detention, Class Action Lawsuit Outlines ‘Atrocious Conditions’

Marco Montoya Amaya is 41 years old. He is currently detained at the Mesa Verde Immigration and Customs Enforcement Processing Center in California. He has “end-stage neurocysticercosis,” which is a brain parasite, and has not received any treatment.

According to a class action lawsuit filed by multiple civil rights groups, Amaya entered the United States in 2012. He lived in Napa, California. He was first detained by ICE at Yuba County Jail and later transferred to Mesa Verde in March 2019. He suffers from worsening cognitive and psychiatric symptoms that are potentially irreversible and has also been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder.

Amaya was placed in solitary confinement for about a week in May 2019 for “accidentally eating an extra tray he was given by an officer. He did not understand the officer’s instructions—likely due to his cognitive impairment—that the tray was for other detained individuals who were fasting for Ramadan.”

The lawsuit adds, “He did not receive an opportunity to appeal or challenge his segregation,” and he “was confused as to whether the segregation was disciplinary or instead for his health or protection, as he was housed in medical isolation.”

Amaya is one of fifteen individuals detained at eight different detention facilities in six states. They represent a class of around 55,000 immigrants who allegedly are subject to inhumane and unlawful conditions. Many of these individuals have endured treatment that amounts to torture.

The lawsuit challenges systemic problems that consistently result in denial of medical care, failure to provide mental health treatment, lack of accommodations for persons with disabilities, and solitary confinement.

“Atrocious conditions in immigrant detention are an open secret,” Tim Fox, the co-executive director of Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (CREEC), declared.

“Dozens of reports –some by the government itself –over decades substantiate the claims in this lawsuit.  The detainee death reports the government publishes when people in immigration detention die in ICE custody provide textbook examples of medical abuse and neglect, yet DHS [Department of Homeland Security] and ICE have done nothing to address these failures.”

Hamida Ali, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, was confined in solitary confinement for around nine months. Security staff at the Aurora ICE Processing Center in Colorado “placed her alone in a dorm designed for dozens of women.”

The lawsuit describes how Ali has a “documented history of schizophrenia and suicidal ideation and attempts, all of which were exacerbated by this placement.” Mental health staff, as well as ICE officers, apparently informed Ali there was “nothing they could do about” her confinement, “even after she had attempted suicide.”

Ali experienced several episodes of extreme psychological distress and suicidal ideation. She “made repeated requests to her ICE Deportation Officer to move dorms,” which were ignored. In April 2019, she was put on suicide watch after she heard voices, cried uncontrollably, and wrapped a sweater around her neck. “She was placed back in the dorm by herself when she was taken off of suicide watch. The conditions exacerbated her mental health difficulties.”

“During one of the brief periods in which Ms. Ali was not alone in the dorm, the other detained woman with her told security staff that they should not leave Ms. Ali alone because she had a mental health disability,” the lawsuit adds. “Ms. Ali heard security staff say that it was none of their business.”

Ali is a refugee from Sudan. She has lived in the United States for most of her life. She was living in Utah with extended family and three young children, who were born in the state.

Melvin Murillo Hernandez is currently detained at the LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Louisiana. He previously was transferred from the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Mississippi to the River Correctional Center in Louisiana and informed the intake staff that he was allergic to chocolate, jam, and peanuts. But the medical staff did not do anything to ensure he would eat food that did not have these ingredients.

As the lawsuit recalls, Hernandez “went into life-threatening anaphylactic shock requiring hospitalization three separate times over three months while at River.” He was given a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on April 7 and “lost consciousness.” He had to be transported to a local hospital emergency room.

Again, on May 5 and 6, he suffered from anaphylaxis from food allergies and was hospitalized. It happened a couple of times because staff did not screen him for medical issues or ensure he was not exposed to food ingredients that cause allergic reactions.

Staff apparently hold him in a cell for 24 hours a day, where they bring him meals that consist “mostly of eggs and rice.”

Yet another plaintiff, Jimmy Sudney, was put in solitary confinement at Adelanto ICE Processing Center in California. It happened a week after a “verbal altercation with officers, who were harassing him.” He filed a grievance, and the punishment was allegedly retaliation.

Sudney has multiple mental health disabilities, including PTSD. However, medical staff barely conducted an assessment of his health before he was put in isolation. They only asked “if he would harm or kill himself.”

“The noise in segregation triggered a PTSD flashback in which he relived the earthquake in Haiti, where his house collapsed around him,” according to the lawsuit.

Aritoteles Sanchez Martinez, a 46-year-old, has lived in the United States more than half of his life. He was a New York resident. But detained at the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, his health is deteriorating.”

The lawsuit describes how he has an “expanding hernia, neuropathy, and a foot injury that has caused a bone spur and bone deterioration. As a result, Mr. Martinez has pain and uses a wheelchair for mobility.”

After his transfer to the Stewart Detention Center, staff put him in “full restraints.” He was not able to use his wheelchair, which left him with no choice but to walk, even though his conditions impair his movement.

Collectively, the class action lawsuit aims to challenge the conditions in 158 facilities under the control of ICE, where detainees are held for more than 72 hours. These facilities are operated by local sheriffs’ offices and private prison corporations, like CoreCivic and GEO Group. Five are directly operated by ICE.

There were 24 deaths in ICE custody in the last two years. So far in 2019, seven deaths have occurred.

“Our mission is to help immigrants fight their removal cases,” said Erika Pinheiro, a litigation director for Al Otro, which is one of the civil rights groups bringing the lawsuit.

“Too often, we end up having to help them fight for their lives due to the terrible medical care they are receiving in detention. When our clients’ health is compromised, their cases suffer, due process violations are common, and they are at heightened risk of deportation.”

The lawsuit concludes, “Conditions in detention are so brutal that many people are forced to abandon viable claims for immigration relief and accept deportation out of a desperate desire to escape the torture they are enduring in detention on U.S. soil.”

That may be the goal of such rampant abuse and inhuman treatment in ICE facilities: to make detainees want to leave and send a message to those immigrating to the U.S. that this could happen to them too if they show up to the border.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."