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)
Migrants being held at the Torrance County detention center have gone without food for days to protest inhumane living conditions and mistreatment from guards.
Over a dozen men detained in Torrance wrote an open letter announcing the peaceful protest, detailing filthy living conditions, medical and mental health neglect, lack of water, long stays at the detention center with minimal communication or case information, and staff misconduct, according to the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center.
This facility in Estancia, N.M., holds migrants, federal prisoners and county jail inmates. Half a year ago, federal inspectors told U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to relocate people being held in unsafe and unsanitary living conditions on the migrant detention-side.
That didn’t happen, and ICE instead moved more people into the facility, which is operated by private company CoreCivic. Months later, an asylum-seeker died by suicide, a result of the horrific conditions there, according to attorneys.
The hunger strike started on Monday and will continue until ICE re-establishes detainees’ rights, said a migrant being held at the center, who declined to be named in this story for safety reasons. Though he’s not participating due to medical issues, he said, those striking are doing it on behalf of everyone experiencing horrible living conditions that have caused physical and mental health problems.
“All of us who are here, with mental problems, psychological problems, problems with depression, people who cry, who feel not OK — this is for everyone,” he said. “And the truth is that I am concerned about all the migrants.”
He said many of the asylum-seekers are being treated like criminals at Torrance, with guards yelling at them and slamming doors. Despite trying to explain to higher-ups that they aren’t criminals, he said, the mistreatment continues.
“We have been advised by immigration lawyers that migrating to the United States is not a crime that merits jail or prison,” he said. “So we do not understand why we are being held in these conditions of confinement. Because we are in a jail, and they are treating us like criminals.”
Allegations of physical, mental health neglect
The migrant said people being detained at Torrance endure being confined to their cell blocks for 23 hours a day, only able to leave for an hour or less. Lockdowns in individual cells usually happen for up to fix or six hours during the day, he added. He’s suffering psychologically because of this, he said, and has sleeping and eating problems that officials haven’t even noticed, leading to him losing around 22 pounds.
The weight loss led to health issues. He said he almost fainted one time and repeatedly asked for medical assistance, but help didn’t come for more than a day. He’s not participating in the hunger strike because of these medical issues.
New Mexico Immigrant Law Center attorney Taylor Noya said there are other food issues at Torrance, too, like food being undercooked or too spicy to eat. And some men have had to wait hours just for a drink of water in their cell blocks, she said, since staff are slow to refill the water jug they share.
On top of that, she brought up past issues of rain coming in through windows, getting beds wet and letting mosquitoes in. The migrant Source NM spoke with also talked about sanitation issues, including a lack of cleaning materials, and badly washed or swapped-out clothing that has given him rashes.
“The entire building is completely dilapidated. There’s no maintenance,” she said.
We need to end it and say these conditions need to end. These people need to be freed. And that is what the hunger strike is about.
– Taylor Noya, NM Immigrant Law Center
A lot of the people being held are struggling with sadness or mental health issues, the migrant said. People inside the detention center are asked if they are feeling depressed or want to hurt themselves or others, but, he said, “We are scared to answer that.”
If they answer yes, they’re taken to a psychiatrist and quarantined alone in a cold room when they’re taken back to Torrance.
“The people that I have had the opportunity to talk to that have gone through that place,” the migrant said, “they have told me that they have come out with problems, with traumas, with depressive problems much more serious than how they went in.”
The physical and mental health neglect is putting people at the facility in danger, he said. He brought up the asylum-seeker at Torrance who died by suicide in August. He said that highlights just how broken the system is.
“As long as they don’t improve it, we are at risk — our integrity, our lives, our health,” he said.
The unsafe conditions that the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General highlighted in March were due in part to staffing shortages, which hadn’t improved in August, according to the ACLU. The migrant said he’s seen officers working two or three shifts in a row. He’s worried about guards not being able to respond adequately if a dangerous situation were to arise in the center, he said.
“A person who is exposed to the level of exhaustion and work fatigue of three days of consecutive shifts without sleep — I have seen it with my own eyes — does not have the motor capacity, or the ability to be able to respond to an emergency of this type,” he said.
What does it take to shut the facility down?
Despite calls for people being detained at Torrance to be relocated, the facility hasn’t stopped operating.
The New Mexico Immigrant Law Center, American Civil Union Liberties of New Mexico and a number of other organizations submitted a civil rights and civil liberties complaint against the Torrance facility and ICE El Paso Field Office in late August, and another follow-up complaint on Wednesday, Sept. 28. They’re calling for investigation of conditions and medical neglect at Torrance County, as well as the release — rather than transfer — of all noncitizens.
If ICE wanted to, low-level deportation officers could release the migrants from the detention center with a flick of their pen, Noya said. “Our system is broken,” she said.
An investigation has been opened for the original complaint, Noya said, but no results have been released.
Since the complaint was filed, people who acted as witnesses have been moved between housing units to prevent them from communicating and organizing, according to Wednesday’s supplemental complaint. The person being detained said he’s been moved around so he can’t talk to some of his peers anymore.
Noya also said officers — who aren’t quick to identify themselves — have been interrogating men about the contents of the complaint, questioning what witnesses said about officers and conditions, and trying to intimidate them.
The state of New Mexico has the power to outlaw for-profit corporations operating prisons here, Noya said, which has happened in other states. A bill to ban private companies from running prisons in New Mexico failed during last year’s legislative session.
“We’re all very upset because we’ve seen these conditions for so long,” Noya said, “and yet they persist.”
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