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SPLC, allies sue ICE for ignoring medical, mental health and disability needs of detained immigrants

Faour Abdallah Fraihat, who ran a successful construction business for years in California, is currently in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The 57-year-old has now lost vision in his left eye because, as his vision deteriorated, he was denied the care, including surgery, that doctors said he needed.

Another man arrived in the United States seeking asylum in December 2018 and has been in ICE custody. He has severe food allergies but has been denied an Epipen. He went into potentially fatal anaphylactic shock four times before a test was ordered to confirm his food allergies.

These men are not alone in their suffering.

As the Trump administration has packed immigrants into detention centers across America, thousands of men and women are living in horrific, inhumane conditions in repurposed prisons and jails. SPLC has come to know their stories through our Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, which provides direct representation at detention facilities in the rural South where lawyers are scarce and justice is hard to come by.

Many of these facilities are operated by private, for-profit prison companies that are reaping an average of $208 per day for each person in their custody – more than double the $99 per day that the Federal Bureau of Prisons spends to incarcerate people convicted of federal crimes, according to that agency’s latest published statistics.

These two men are among the 15 individual plaintiffs and two organizational plaintiffs – and Al Otro Lado and Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice – named in a nationwide, federal class action lawsuit filed today by the SPLC, the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (CREEC), Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) and Orrick, Herrington, & Sutcliffe, LLP.

The suit – filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California –charges that ICE’s systemic failures violate the Fifth Amendment and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. As recounted in detail in the complaint, individuals in ICE custody are being denied health care, are facing discrimination due to their disabilities and being refused accommodations, and are being subjected to harmful isolation that amounts to punishment.

On any given day, about 55,000 people are being held in ICE custody.  Last year, ICE detained a total of almost 400,000 immigrants.

“ICE’s abject failure to monitor or enforce standards at the approximately 158 detention facilities where it imprisons immigrants for more than 72 hours has resulted in an unconscionable risk of harm to these men and women who came to this country seeking refuge,” said Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director for the SPLC.

“Some have been in the United States for years; others are more recent arrivals. But all are at risk of illness, discrimination on the basis of disability, and the arbitrary imposition of solitary confinement as a result of ICE’s reliance on mass incarceration and its indifference to the conditions in its prisons.” 

At least 26 people have died while being held in ICE custody in the past two years.

The lawsuit seeks an order requiring the government to comply with constitutional and statutory requirements for the treatment of detained immigrants.

Government officials have long known about these inhumane conditions and the neglect of those in ICE custody, a situation that has been exacerbated under President Trump’s policies.

“Our investigation revealed that federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) own Office of the Inspector General (OIG), have identified serious flaws in ICE’s management and monitoring of the conditions in detention centers for years, yet no action has been taken,” said Elissa Johnson, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC. “Meanwhile, ICE chooses to detain a record number of immigrants who could safely be released using much more cost-effective alternatives to imprisonment.”     

The suits seeks class action status so that any court rulings will apply to all facilities where ICE detains people.

The named plaintiffs are detained at eight different facilities in six states: Adelanto Detention Center and Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in California; Florence Correctional Center in Arizona; Teller County Jail and Aurora Contract Detention Facility in Colorado; LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Louisiana; Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama; and Stewart Detention Center in Georgia. 

The organizational plaintiffs have had to divert resources away from their missions to instead support immigrants struggling to survive in detention. For example, Al Otro Lado is a non-profit organization that provides pro bono legal services to immigrants but has had to help them fight for medical and mental health care instead of fighting their cases. The Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice is dedicated to advocating for immigrant communities but has had to hire staff and set up emergency protocols to help detained immigrants access adequate care.

Dire straits

ICE oversees a network of approximately 158 detention facilities across the country, where immigrants who are facing civil charges encounter cruel and abusive conditions that mirror – or are worse than – those found in criminal prisons. 

And they are met with indifference when seeking medical and mental health care. Their complaints are frequently ignored or mocked by guards and staff.

At least half of ICE’s detention bed capacity is at facilities operated by for-profit prison companies, including CoreCivic or GEO Group.

Both companies have a long history of refusing to provide adequate medical care to prisoners in their facilities. “However, despite knowing the inherent risks of contracting with private prison corporations, ICE continues to entrust them with the care of an ever-growing number of detained individuals,” the lawsuit states.

Restrictive segregation

According to the lawsuit, some detained immigrants have been forced into segregation after expressing suicidal thoughts – a tactic that only exacerbates their symptoms as they remain in total isolation for days, weeks or even months.

Others suffer from extreme mental illness but are thrown into segregation to languish alone when they need treatment to address their mental health concerns. Some are even confined simply for “clowning around,” a 2018 Human Rights Watch reported.  

One plaintiff is diagnosed with schizophrenia but was placed alone in a dorm for nearly nine months, 24 hours a day. Despite a history of suicidal ideations and thoughts of self-harm, she was isolated with no opportunity for interaction with others. When she expressed that she wanted to die, a guard simply told her, “Don’t say that” and did nothing further.

Consequences of Inadequate Care

One of the plaintiffs has experienced severe memory loss and other cognitive symptoms after he did not receive treatment for a brain parasite. Another man, who has extreme difficulty walking, had his wheelchair taken away for over a month, making it impossible for him to make the long walk to the cafeteria. He went without food on the several days officers refused to let other detained individuals bring his meals to his cell.   

The plaintiffs also include people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) whose conditions have deteriorated since being in detention.

The mistreatment of sick and  detained immigrants with disabilities was detailed in a report released in June by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General. It revealed that ICE has continued to violate its own standards for facilities housing detained individuals.        

In the four facilities inspected, investigators found that problems went beyond overly restrictive segregation and inadequate medical care. Nooses were found in cells, bathrooms were dilapidated, moldy and sometimes not working, security incidents went unreported, and there were significant food safety issues, including spoiled food, that put detained people at risk. The inspection included Adelanto, Aurora and LaSalle – all facilities where some of the plaintiffs are currently detained.   

Counter-therapeutic conditions

A 2019 Disability Rights California (DRC) investigation found that immigration enforcement policies implemented in recent years created a huge spike in detained individuals with disabilities.     

“Most notable is the January 2017 Presidential order that terminated the exercise of ‘prosecutorial discretion’ for people with disabilities and other special populations,” the report said. “There has also been a dramatic rise in the detention of asylum seekers, who often carry with them experiences of trauma and have significant mental health needs,”

DRC found that ICE’s Adelanto facility uses counter-therapeutic practices, underreports data on the number of suicide attempts and fails to comply with anti-discrimination laws or ICE standards when dealing with people with disabilities.   

One plaintiff currently being held at Adelanto suffers from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. But his illnesses are not being treated properly. His mental health has severely worsened while in ICE custody; he does not receive therapy and his medications changed, causing his mental health to deteriorate without needed support. He has expressed suicidal thoughts and harmful ideation.

“This administration has functionally given ICE a blank check, with no accountability for how taxpayers’ money is spent,” Graybill said. “Private contractors and local jails are making millions imprisoning immigrants while ICE looks the other way. Detained people are treated as pawns in this money-making scheme, and the consequences for them can be deadly.” 


Photo credit John Moore/Getty Images