Immigrants launched a lawsuit against the United States government on Wednesday, alleging harsh conditions at a federal prison used to house undocumented aliens.
Filed in a federal court in Riverside, CA, the suit says conditions at the medium-security facility are too stringent for detainees simply awaiting trial. Many of the incarcerated are asylum-seekers whose applications have yet to be reviewed. Accusations levied against the Victorville jail include religious intolerance, denying Bibles to inmates and refusing a Sikh man the right to wear a turban.
“As a result of the unconstitutional treatment of these civil detainees, many have expressed a desire to be returned, immediately, to their countries of origin—foregoing their claims of immigration relief altogether—because they would rather face the dangers back home than be imprisoned in these abysmal conditions,” claims the suit, which says detainees aren’t provided adequate medical care or food.
Immigration officials, writes the Desert Sun, began sending immigration detainees to federal prisons in Oregon, Washington and elsewhere. The move came as President Trump sought a crackdown on unauthorized entries across the U.S.-Mexico border, followed by a Justice Department directive to seek criminal charges against anyone caught making an illegal crossing.
Since then, says the Sun, immigration advocates have filed another lawsuit, alleging that detainees have been denied legal counsel and phone calls. Some immigrants say they were put in ‘lockdown’ and weren’t given a change of clothing for two or three weeks after intake.
Detainees at Victorville are only given a few hours of exercise time per week and aren’t allowed to access educational programming, says the suit.
Margot Mendelson, an attorney with the Prison Law Office, told KQED News that her clients aren’t supposed to endure criminal punishment for violations of civil law.
“The definition of punitive is locking people into a medium-security federal prison and exposing them to the kinds of custodial practices that one might expect for a population of convicted prisoners and not for civil detainees,” Mendelson said.
Mendelson, who interviewed 20 detainees at Victorville as part a legal team, said the facility uses restraints and lockdown-type punishments to control immigrant detainees.
“They are shackled at their arms and legs,” she said. “They wear belly chains. They are locked into small cells—one or two people per cell—all of the night and most of the day.”
And food is a problem, too, says Mendelson. Some detainees complained of receiving little more to eat than ‘sandwiches’ with two pieces of bread and nothing inside.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said moving immigrants to federal prison was meant to be a short-term solution. As time continues to pass, it looks like the arrangement could last a lot longer than planned.
John Kostelnik, head of Victorville’s local prison guard union, said the facility “continues to receive and release detainees, and the mission for housing them appears to be more long-term than was initially indicated.”
Kostelnik says he’s worried for his officers’ safety, many of whom are not performing additional duties in inadequate numbers and without extra training.
“[I.C.E.] still has no processes or procedures to handle these detainees, [and] we have not been provided information in regards to our responsibilities,” Kostelnik said.