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Deplorable Conditions at Los Angeles ICE Facility Result in Settlement

Being locked up is bad enough. But imagine being held in a basement without basic essentials like drinking water, clean clothes, the ability to shower, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and medical care. Thousands of immigration detainees in Los Angeles were routinely subjected to such conditions at “B-18,” an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) holding facility located, literally, in the basement of a federal building.

“You actually walk down the sidewalk and into an underground parking lot. Then you turn right, open a big door and voilà, you’re in a detention center,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, director of Immigrant Rights for the ACLU of Southern California (ACLU).

The problems at B-18 were due, in part, because the facility was not designed for long-term detention. In fact, according to ICE policy, prisoners were not to be kept there for more than 12 hours.

However, ICE officials circumvented that rule by shuttling detainees back-and-forth between B-18 and local jails. A detainee would spend 12 to 18 hours at B-18, be held overnight at a county jail and then return to B-18 in the morning. This cycle would repeat itself over and over, forcing prisoners to endure B-18’s squalid conditions for weeks or sometimes months.

In early April 2009, the ACLU and the National Immigration Law Center stepped in, along with the law firm of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky and Walker, LLP. Representing four B-18 detainees, they filed a class-action lawsuit against Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security.

The suit detailed many of the horrific conditions that detainees had to endure at B-18. Male and female prisoners were denied changes of clean clothing and access to soap, clean drinking water, sanitary toilets, and toothbrushes and toothpaste. There were no benches, mats, pillows or beds in any of the holding rooms, forcing detainees who were occasionally kept at B-18 overnight to sleep on the floor. Further, the holding rooms were designed for only 40 or 50 people yet regularly held over 100, exacerbating unsanitary conditions, and were kept at frigid temperatures.

Beyond these deficiencies, detainees also were denied recreation and could not send or receive mail, let alone receive attorney visits. Prisoners were even denied access to pencil and paper.

ICE agreed to settle the case in September 2009, a mere five months after the lawsuit was filed. The terms of the settlement ended the most egregious practices at B-18, guaranteeing that detainees are provided access to clean drinking water, hand sanitizer, female sanitary napkins, writing materials and toilets that work properly, and have the ability to send and receive legal mail.

The settlement also required ICE to allow attorney visits during business hours and limited the number of detainees that can be kept in a holding room to the room’s design capacity. Most importantly, the settlement ended the practice of shuttling detainees back and forth between B-18 and county jails.

“No longer can ICE stuff people into overcrowded cells or deny detainees their right to see a lawyer,” said Karen Tumlin, a managing attorney with the National Immigration Law Center. “This settlement serves as a safeguard against what was once an almost everyday situation at B-18: unlawful treatment and unsanitary conditions.” See: Castellano v. Napolitano, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 09-cv-02281-PA.

However, the problems at B-18 may be only the tip of a much larger ICE-berg. According to a December 16, 2009 article in The Nation, ICE operates 186 “unlisted and unmarked subfield offices” that are used for short-term detention for prisoners in transit. It is unknown how many of those facilities have abusive conditions similar to those that existed at B-18.

Additional sources: The Nation, ACLU press release

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Related legal case

Castellano v. Napolitano