News Human Rights

Women Face Retaliation at Texas Detention Center Following Hunger Strike

Tina Vasquez

Ten days after news broke of a hunger strike at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, reports are emerging from inside Hutto that six women are being rounded up for transfer by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as retaliation for participating in the hunger strike.

Ten days after news broke of a hunger strike at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, reports are emerging from inside Hutto that six women are being rounded up for transfer by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as retaliation for participating in the hunger strike.

Grassroots Leadership, an organization that forms part of a larger umbrella group known as Texans United for Families (TUFF), confirms two of the initial hunger strikers, Francisca and Amalia, have been moved to a remote majority men’s detention center in Pearsall, Texas. The organization also reports that Francisca’s family has verified that she has been placed in solitary confinement there.

Last weekend, Insis, a Garífuna woman from Honduras participating in the hunger strike, was placed in “medical solitary confinement” for two days.

Cristina Parker, the immigration programs director for Grassroots Leadership, told Rewire that this type of solitary confinement is a common tactic used by ICE. Hutto doesn’t have what might be considered a traditional solitary confinement area, so women are placed in the medical section alone under the guise of needing medical attention.

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A statement from ICE earlier this week said, “no one at the T. Don Hutto Detention Center was identified as being on a hunger strike or refusing to eat.” According to Grassroots Leadership, ICE “continues to deny” a hunger strike is taking place.

The exact number of detainees participating in the Hutto hunger strike is still unknown. Numbers have varied from 27 to 500. When a striker used the phrase “casi todo” to describe how many people were participating in the strike, it suggested to advocates that all of the women in Hutto’s 500-bed facility were striking. Parker told Rewire in a follow-up interview that Hutto is divided into sections, making it difficult for detainees to communicate with women in other sections of the detention center, and that it is more likely the detainee was reporting that everyone in her section at Hutto was participating in the hunger strike.

Most of the women in Hutto are Central American asylum seekers fleeing violence in their countries of origin. They are striking to protest the detention center system. In a statement released Thursday evening, TUFF’s Rocio Villalobos said that asylum seekers who have been held for more than six months should be granted prosecutorial discretion by ICE and should be immediately released, allowing the women to fight their asylum cases while living with with their families.

Analysis Human Rights

ICE Releases Reports for 18 Migrants Who Died in Detention, Medical Neglect Is Suspected

Tina Vasquez

Though the death reviews released by ICE provide further insight into the conditions inside detention centers, the bigger concern among researchers and advocates is what they don't know.

A new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) documents the deaths of 18 migrants in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody from mid-2012 to mid-2015. In some cases, the deaths were likely preventable and the result of “substandard medical care and violations of applicable detention standards.”

These are not the only deaths that occurred, however. ICE acknowledges on its website that 31 deaths have occurred between May 2012 and mid-June of this year. It is unclear whether ICE intends to release information about the additional 13 deaths that have occurred.

Even so, these new findings add to a growing body of evidence showing what HRW calls “egregious violations” of medical care standards in detention centers. A February report found such violations contributed to at least eight in-custody deaths over a two-year period.

The public is just beginning to learn more about the deeply rooted problem, Clara Long, a researcher with Human Rights Watch and the lead researcher on the report, explained to Rewire. Long referenced an ongoing investigation by reporter Seth Freed Wessler at the Nation, which explores the numerous deaths that have occurred inside immigrant-only prisons.

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Though the death reviews released by ICE provide further insight into the conditions inside detention centers, the bigger concern among researchers and advocates is what they don’t know. For example, HRW worked with two independent medical experts to review the 18 death reviews released by ICE. The experts concluded that substandard medical care “probably contributed to the deaths of seven of the 18 detainees, while potentially putting many other detainees in danger as well.” Long told Rewire that the information provided by ICE simply wasn’t enough for their independent medical experts to determine that all 18 deaths were related to inadequate medical care, but that it was “likely.”

So there is the larger, systemic issue of inadequate medical care. Researchers at HRW also don’t know exactly how ICE collects information or why the agency releases information when it does. There’s also the core of the issue, as Long noted to Rewire: that the United States “unnecessarily” detains undocumented immigrants in “disturbing conditions” for prolonged periods of time.

Major Failures Lead to Death

The new HRW report identified two of the most dangerous ways ICE is failing migrants in detention: not following up on symptoms that require assistance and not responding quickly to emergencies. Both failures are illustrated by the case of 34-year-old Manuel Cota-Domingo, who died of heart disease, untreated diabetes, and pneumonia after being detained at the Eloy Detention Center in Eloy, Arizona.

ICE’s death review for Cota-Domingo suggests there was a language barrier and that Cota-Domingo was worried about having to pay for health care, which isn’t surprising given that detention centers make migrants pay for things like phone calls to their attorneys and family members. HRW asked Corrections Corporation of America, the company that runs the Eloy Detention Center, about potential fees for medical care, and it said there are no fees for such services at Eloy. For whatever reason, Cota-Domingo was not aware he had a legal right to access the medical care he needed.

When it became clear to his cellmate that Cota-Domingo was in serious need of medical attention and was having trouble breathing, the cellmate “banged on a wall to get a guard’s attention. His cellmate said he did that for three hours before anyone came to help,” Long said. The researcher told Rewire the death report outlines how investigators checked to see if the banging would have been audible to correctional officers.  It was. “Once [the cellmate] got their attention, our medical experts said this was something that should have been followed up on immediately, but the nurse decided to wait several hours before doing anything. All of these sluggish responses went on for eight hours. This is not how you treat an emergency,” Long said.

As Human Rights Watch noted in the report, “When officers finally notified medical providers of his condition, they delayed evaluating him and finally sent him to the hospital in a van instead of an ambulance. Both medical experts concluded that the combination of these delays likely contributed to a potentially treatable condition becoming fatal.”

In other death reviews by ICE, the agency’s own records show “evidence of the misuse of isolation for people with mental disabilities, inadequate mental health evaluation and treatment, and broader medical care failures.” Tiombe Kimana Carlos, Clemente Mponda, and Jose de Jesus Deniz-Sahagun all committed suicide in ICE detention after showing signs of “serious mental health conditions.” HRW’s independent experts determined that “inadequate mental health care or the misuse of isolation may have significantly exacerbated their mental health problems.”

It’s important to note that none of the death reviews released by ICE admit any wrongdoing, and that’s primarily because they don’t seek to examine whether medical negligence was at play. The reports simply present information about the deaths.

“There is no conclusion drawn, really,” Long told Rewire. “There’s one [report] in particular that even goes beyond that; it doesn’t even take into account the quality of care that led to the death, even though it’s clearly an issue of quality of care. That raises the question: What is the report for? ICE doesn’t conclude the cause. If you read [the death reviews], you can see there’s a lot of detailed information included in them that allows someone with expertise in correctional health care and who is familiar with how these systems should work, to make an assessment about whether care contributed to death, but that’s not something ICE doesat least not in the information we are able to access.”

ICE’s Murky Death-Review Process 

In a statement to Rewire, ICE explained that when a person dies while in the agency’s custody, their “death triggers an immediate internal inquiry into the circumstances.” The summary document ICE releases to the public is “the result of exhaustive case reviews conducted by ICE’s own Office of Detention Oversight (ODO), which was established in 2009 as part of the agency’s comprehensive detention reforms,” Lori K. Haley, a spokesperson with ICE, told Rewire in a prepared statement.

In fact, the ODO was created as a direct result of a series of reforms from the Obama administration after reports of human rights abuses and deaths in detention centers. The death review it produces includes a mix of findings from ICE’s own investigators and from a Beaumont, Texas-based company called Creative Corrections.

According to its website, Creative Corrections serves “local, state and federal government agencies,” offering “training, advising, professional management and consulting services” in “correctional, law enforcement, rule of law, and judicial systems.” The company contracts include the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

“From what we can see from the documents, both ICE and Creative Corrections interview various people involved, check records, do what seems to be a pretty robust investigation for the death review,” Long said. “Unfortunately, in the set of death reviews that we used for this investigation, [the public doesn’t] have access to the Creative Corrections reports or any of the exhibits that go along with them.”

As the ICE spokesperson noted, the summary documents are typically written by ICE staff. The documents released to the public do not include medical records, full reports from Creative Corrections, or any exhibits that would provide more insight into the apparent medical neglect resulting in an estimated 161 people dying in ICE custody since October 2003. Six migrants have died in ICE custody since March 2016, two of whom died at two different detention centers in the same week. The causes of these most recent deathsand whether they can be attributed to medical neglect—is still unknown.

“If we had access to all of the information gathered during these investigations, including the reports from Creative Corrections, they would be very rich sources of information,” Long said.

Long and other researchers are also hoping for more information regarding the deaths that happen just after migrants are released from ICE custody. Teka Gulema, an Ethiopian asylum seeker detained at Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama, was released from ICE custody in November 2015 while in the hospital after becoming paralyzed from a bacterial infection acquired in detention. He died in January.

“One concern we have, and it’s a very big fear, is that there are multiple reports of folks who are released from ICE custody while in critical condition,” Long said. “When they die, they are no longer counted as in-custody deaths [by ICE]. We’re worried that’s a loophole being exploitedand for obvious reasons, we don’t have a number in terms of how often this is happening.”

The researcher said she has “no idea” when or why ICE decides to release information, including death reviews.

ICE did not respond to Rewire‘s request for information about its schedule or process for releasing such information.

“Maybe they released the 18 reports because they were cleared for release. Maybe a congressional office asked for them. Maybe they decided to be transparent. It could have been a [Freedom of Information Act] request from the ACLU. I wish I knew, but we really have no idea who decides—or why they decide—to release information, especially without making anyone aware that it’s been released,” the researcher told Rewire.

In April, ICE posted a series of spreadsheets about the inner workings of the detention system on their website that Long said provided a lot of information about how detention operates. The spreadsheets were removed from the site in a matter of days, too soon for many researchers—including HRW—to download them all.

“It’s a big system. We still don’t totally know how it works, which in itself is a major problem,” Long said. “One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned is to always check the ICE website. You never know what you’ll find.”

Rethinking Detention

DHS secretary Jeh Johnson is engaging in what some advocates are calling an “enforcement overdrive,” by funneling more undocumented immigrants into an already overcrowded detention system thanks to the detention bed quota established in 2009. This quota requires 34,000 undocumented migrants be locked up each day. It is in place to ensure more people get deported, though it’s costing taxpayers $2 billion a year while also creating “a profitable market for both private prison corporations and local governments,” the National Immigration Forum has said.

Reporting for the Nation, Michelle Chen recently noted that “migrants are warehoused under convoluted partnerships involving private vendors and state, local, and federal agencies. Homeland Security may contract out security duties to, or use facilities owned by, private vendors—dominated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group—with preordained headcount distributions ranging from 285 in Newark to more than 2,000 in San Antonio.”

Long told Rewire that 80 percent of migrants currently in detention are in what is considered “mandatory detention,” which, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, means that “non-citizens with certain criminal convictions must be detained by ICE. People who are subject to mandatory detention are not entitled to a bond hearing and must remain in detention while removal proceedings are pending against them.” This also means that those in mandatory detention aren’t allowed to have an individual assessment by ICE of their case, “so they just sit in immigration detention indefinitely,” Long said.

“This system doesn’t work. We’re detaining far too many people for far too long and not determining on an individual level if they should be detained in the first place, taking into account all of the options available,” Long said. Options include being monitored by ICE using telephonic and in-person reporting, curfews, and home visits.

Long joins a long list of undocumented community members, researchers, organizers, activists, and other advocates pushing for the Obama administration—and whoever comes after it—to see detention as a last resort, rather than the only resort.

“We spend a lot of time talking about the disturbing conditions in detention centersthat’s what our report is about. But step one requires taking a step back and rethinking this system and how it’s unnecessary and also abuses vulnerable peoples’ rights,” Long said. “In terms of the legality of treating people this way, under U.S. and international law, people who are detained are entitled to medical treatment. The state has an obligation to provide care to this population. They are failing, and people are dying.”

News Human Rights

After Hunger Strike to #EndTransDetention, Santa Ana City Council Votes to End ICE Contract

Tina Vasquez

In an emailed press release from Familia: TQLM (Trans Queer Liberation Movement), a spokesperson said, “the fight to end the ICE contract with the city of Santa Ana is not over. We will continue to organize and escalate.”

After months of pressure from activists to stop contracting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and to end the detention of transgender immigrants, the Santa Ana City Council in California unanimously voted on May 17 to end its contract with ICE after the contract expires in June 2020.

Santa Ana City Jail has detained undocumented immigrants since 1997. ICE officials in 2011 began transferring queer and trans immigrants from detention centers all over the country and funneling them to Santa Ana City Jail’s segregated unit, the only place in the country with “pods” exclusively for detaining queer people and trans women, as Rewire reported last week.

The goal was to create a “model facility for the nation” using ICE’s Transgender Care Memorandum as a blueprint. Released in 2015, the memo outlined instructions for the care of trans detainees.

The Orange County Register reports that there are 182 undocumented immigrants detained inside of Santa Ana City Jail, 26 of whom are queer and 31 of whom are transgender.

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The day before the city council voted to end the contract, three undocumented queer and trans activists—Deyaneira García, Jennicet Gutiérrez, and Jorge Gutierrez—launched a hunger strike demanding that the city of Santa Ana stop profiting from the detainment of queer and trans immigrants. Santa Ana City Jail receives as much as $105 per detainee per day, and is making $7 million each year from the detainment of immigrants, according to advocates.

The contract with ICE was an attempt by the city to pay off the jail’s debt, “estimated at $27 million through 2024,” the Orange County Register reports.

The City of Santa Ana could end its contract with ICE before its 2020 expiration date, but not without first finding another income stream to pay off the jail’s debt. At Tuesday’s city council meeting, a city official said it is “not possible to keep the jail open without the use of federal dollars.”

There was a contentious public comments period at Tuesday’s city council meeting during which 38 people addressed the city’s contract with ICE. Speakers ran the gamut from an immigrant-identified community member who asserted “illegal immigrants” do not have civil rights and a trans woman formerly detained at the Santa Ana City Jail who urged city council members to continue contracting with ICE, to members of the organizations behind the hunger strike, including Orange County Immigrant Youth United (OCIYU), FAMILIA: TQLM (Trans Queer Liberation Movement), and DeColores Queer OC.

One of the hunger strikers, Garcia, addressed the city council. The senior at Santa Ana’s Segerstrom High School said she stood in solidarity with her trans sisters and that if she had to starve herself for another year, she would.

DeColores Queer OC organizer Roberto Herrera, who wore a sweatshirt emblazoned with the word “maricón,” also addressed the city council. DeColores has attended city council meetings to speak out against the ICE contract since February. On Tuesday, Herrera reminded council members it was an election year and that his organization would continue to “show up and disrupt until all queer and trans people are free from detention.”

The hunger strike ended May 19. In an emailed press release from Familia: TQLM, Gutierrez said, “the fight to end the ICE contract with the city of Santa Ana is not over. We will continue to organize and escalate.”