Commentary

Relocating ICE detainees isn’t enough, release people from ‘inhumane’ federal custody

Shocking federal report outlines subhuman conditions at Torrance Co. Detention Facility

March 29, 2022 4:30 am

Detainee housing unit control room without posted officers (left) and with poor sight lines through barred and dirty windows. (Caption and photos from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General)

During the first week of February, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General showed up at Torrance County Detention Facility in Estancia, N.M. to conduct a surprise inspection. 

The staff at the facility shouldn’t have been surprised.

Over the last two years Torrance County has been under about as much scrutiny that a remote ICE detention facility in New Mexico can be under. There has been a complaint to the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, threatened legal action over access to attorneys and a lawsuit for the alleged tear-gassing of hunger striking detainees. 

In my experience, when OIG conducts an inspection at an ICE facility we usually wait months to read the report. It generally consists of recommendations to improve conditions inside and compliance with detention standards. 

So on March 18, when OIG released a management alert recommending the evacuation of all detainees from Torrance county, it was shocking and unprecedented. 

The report detailed filthy, sub-human conditions at the detention facility. Importantly, it also pointed to dangerously low staffing levels.

Federal inspectors demand ICE relocate migrants detained in Torrance County

The report shows disgusting photos that give a rare glimpse of what it is like in an ICE detention facility beyond sterilized press photos. 

I have an insider’s view of this situation. I say insider not only because I have been a practicing lawyer inside of New Mexico immigration detention centers since the Obama administration, but also because I have represented more people than I can count at Torrance County Detention Facility — most recently 52 detained Haitian gentlemen — and have been inside the prison and experienced  it with all of my senses. 

My clients call me and tell me horrible things. They tell me that they cannot get attention for serious medical issues no matter how much they ask. They tell me that the water gives them rashes and that they have to drink from the showers. They tell me that the food is like gruel. They complain about feeling discriminated against and abusive treatment from the staff. They complain of depression and anxiety and insomnia and PTSD for being detained in filthy cages for reasons they don’t understand. They complain that they are treated worse than animals. 

When the alert was issued, I cried because it felt so validating to have OIG confirm some of the problems that my clients and colleagues have been begging our government to pay attention to.

What I believe ICE should do is sign the release documents of every one detained at TCDF and end the contract with Core Civic, the corporation that runs the facility in Torrance County. 

But none of that will happen without a fight. As damning and unprecedented as the management alert for Torrance County is, it doesn’t actually compel ICE to release detainees. 

ICE’s response disputes the veracity of the inspection and claims that adjustments to the contract have been made to make the staffing issues irrelevant. What they don’t mention in their response is that those contract modifications were made after a less publicized determination that there was insufficient staffing to provide basic medical care at the facility.  

These are not problems that can be fixed by the same agency and corporation that are causing them. 

This report along with all the other complaints and lawsuits are not simply about one bad employee, one incident of violence, or a few clogged toilets. What should be clear is that ICE and CoreCivic should not be trusted to care for human life in this county, in New Mexico, or any other location in the United States. 

Each month, CoreCivic profits millions of dollars as custodians of the prison. And even though most of the beds are actually empty, the staff can’t seem to provide for the basic health and safety of the detainees. 

And ICE cannot be bothered to hold them accountable. 

In the past the argument for allowing ICE to contract with CoreCivic and similar corporations in New Mexico has been that facilities like the one in Torrance County create important jobs in rural counties

In spite of CoreCivic’s hiring incentives, people don’t want these jobs.

“At designated staffing levels the facility should have 245 full-time staff,” according to the OIG report. “At the time of our inspection, Torrance was at 54% of required staffing, with 133 full-time employees. Torrance has 112 staffing vacancies, with the majority (94 positions) in the area of security.” 

I am not here to argue against rural jobs, but if the federal government is going to pour millions and millions of dollars into counties in rural New Mexico, it needs to be for jobs that people are actually going to take and maybe ones that don’t torture other human beings for corporate profit. 

If ICE refuses to stop detaining people at Torrance County Detention Facility and will not end the contract with CoreCivic, the citizens of New Mexico have the option to ban the formation of these types of contracts in the future. 

People Over Private Prisons New Mexico is a statewide coalition that has been organizing around a vision of New Mexico that doesn’t require private prison corporations for local jobs. It wouldn’t necessarily shut down the detention facility in Torrance but the goal is to prevent the contract from renewing in the future and stop ICE from expanding their bed space in N.M. This effort deserves our attention and support, especially as more is revealed about just how tortuous these facilities are. 

In the meantime, there are people there who suffer daily, and we must use every creative means possible to pressure ICE to release them. 

My colleagues and I will use legal pathways like parole and bond requests but we must consider extra-legal pathways as well: raising our voices, protest and pressure on our political leaders to do more than just perform concern for those detained in Torrance County. 

The depraved detention of  immigrants in the United States is not something that must happen but rather something we have allowed to develop and become an inevitable part of life in our country. It’s time for that to stop.

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Allegra Love
Allegra Love

Allegra Love is an immigration attorney from Santa Fe. She is a graduate of Dartmouth College and the University of New Mexico School of Law. She is the founder of and former director of Santa Fe Dreamers Project, a legal services organization serving immigrants and refugees. Currently she works with the El Paso Immigration Collaborative to represent detained asylum-seekers in the Southwest and in the national movement to abolish immigration detention in the United States.

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