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Immigrant, Refugee Detainees Allege Abusive Treatment at Private Texas Facility

Detainees predominantly from Somalia have alleged abusive conditions and treatment at a Sierra Blanca, Texas, immigration detention facility operated by LaSalle Corrections, according to a new report published by the Texas A&M University School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic, University of Texas School of Law Immigration Clinic, and the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES).

Based on roughly 30 interviews conducted with detainees by the groups on March 13 and 14, 2018, the report alleges detainees at the West Texas Detention Center have been placed into solitary confinement and subjected to pepper spray without cause. The detainees also faced “verbal insults, including racial slurs; dangerous and unsanitary conditions of confinement; and denial of medical and mental health care,” according to the report.

While the acts were allegedly committed by employees of the family-owned LaSalle Corrections between February 23 and March 2, they may also have been overseen by officials employed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The detainees who were interviewed have since been moved to the Coastal Bend Detention Center, also in Texas, which is owned by the GEO Group, another private prison firm.

According to the report, many of the men have lived in the United States for decades. Many still have U.S. citizen spouses and children in the United States and are in the detention center due to committing relatively minor criminal infractions, the report says.

“Some came to the U.S. as refugees when they were children. Others entered recently with visas or without status,” the report explains. “In some cases, ICE detained the men years after a relatively minor criminal offense. Most of the men we spoke to feared persecution or torture in Somalia based on political opinion, religion, or being a member of a minority tribe/clan.”

All of the 30 men interviewed alleged they were pepper sprayed by LaSalle Corrections guards at the facility, while 14 said guards had physically assaulted them. One of the detainees claimed that a guard pointed a gun to a group of detainees’ heads while they were being pepper sprayed in a holding cell. The detainees said they were also denied a change of clothing and toothbrushes and toothpaste, and complained of moldy showers and contaminated drinking water.

When asking for a pair of clean underwear and socks, one detainee alleged he was told to “Shut your black ass up. You don’t deserve nothing. You belong at the back of that cage.” In other incidents, the report alleges, officers called detainees “n***” or “terrorist.”

“These horrific acts are a logical result of the current administration’s complete disregard for human rights and its open invitation to commit violence against immigrants and communities of color,” Jonathan Ryan, executive director of RAICES, said in press statement provided to Prison Legal News. “I am shocked and saddened that the very disregard for human dignity that our refugee clients flee is now accepted practice inside the U.S. government.”

The groups that authored the report have called for federal and local law enforcement agencies to open an investigation into the allegations of abuse, asking that the detainee witnesses not face deportation until the investigations run their respective courses. They also have called for an end to the use of privately operated facilities for immigration detention, as well as for ICE to end its contract with LaSalle Corrections if the company does not halt the behavior alleged in the report.

LaSalle Corrections has previously come under criticism for poor conditions at its facility in Sierra Blanca, with one former detainee – a journalist from Mexico who faced deportation – referring to it as “hell.” Other LaSalle-owned locations, including in Georgia and in a Texas-Arkansas border jail, also have come under similar criticism. ICE did not confirm or deny what it knew about the alleged abuses at the West Texas Detention Center, telling Prison Legal News it had “not been made aware of any allegations prior to this initial reporting from RAICES.”

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) takes very seriously any allegations of misconduct or unsafe conditions,” ICE spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa said in an emailed statement. “ICE maintains a strict zero tolerance policy for any kind of abusive behavior and requires all staff working with the agency to adhere to this policy. All allegations are independently reviewed by ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility.”


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