Inside the US Marshals’ Secretive, Deadly Detention Empire
They’re supposed to safeguard pretrial detainees. But America’s oldest law enforcement agency is suffering from a massive dereliction of duty.
by Seth Freed Wessler, Mother Jones
A large rectangle of red dirt on the flat expanse of West Texas’ Permian Basin reminds Sadrac Garcia every day of what his family has lost. A few months ago, he could stand on the small porch of his brother Juan’s double-wide and peer into the window of their parents’ trailer a few meters away. Until 2017, three generations of Garcias lived on these couple of acres. The family is slowly selling off the homes and the land, an attempt to move on after their father, Isac Garcia-Wislar, died in the custody of a local jail.
Sadrac, soft-spoken but direct, is tall and solidly built, with a rough goatee and a white cowboy hat. He shows me a photo of his father on this late August afternoon; they look nearly identical. “It’s very sad being here,” he tells me. Sadrac has moved to Odessa, about 20 minutes away. Yesenia Garcia, his mother, is living in Fort Worth with her daughter, Arely. But moving has not helped with moving on. “I never really stop thinking about it, about what happened to him,” says Sadrac.
Isac was 51 when, in March 2017, he was locked up in the Tom Green County Jail, in San Angelo, three hours east. A construction worker and oil field roustabout, Isac had been riding in a cousin’s car when a sheriff’s deputy pulled them over for speeding. The officer purportedly found open bottles of alcohol and two tiny bags of cocaine. Though Isac wasn’t driving and it was not his car, the deputy arrested both men, and because Isac had no identification, the deputy called Border Patrol to report him. While Isac’s cousin, a US citizen, quickly bonded out, Isac was not released. Border officials had placed an immigration hold on him and referred him to federal prosecutors.
Nearly 15 years earlier, Isac had been stopped by border agents on one of his routine crossings between his family’s home in Texas and their ranch in northern Mexico, and been deported. Though he’d lived in the United States for decades, his wife is a green card holder, and his kids are US-born American citizens, that old deportation and his subsequent return to join his family meant he could now be charged with illegal reentry, a federal felony.
As soon as he was charged, Isac became a detainee of the US Marshals Service, an arm of the Department of Justice. In fiscal year 2018, the Marshals held nearly 240,000 people facing federal criminal charges. On any given day, the Marshals hold more people than Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and more than all the county jails of any state except California and Texas. The Marshals run this vast pretrial detention system without owning or operating any jails. Instead, the agency houses its detainees in about 1,100 jails and private facilities around the country. Almost two-thirds of these federal pretrial detainees—who have not been convicted of any crimes—are held in local lockups like Tom Green, typically run by sheriffs. The remainder are held in either privately run jails under contract with the Marshals or federal detention centers run by the Bureau of Prisons, mostly in a handful of large cities.
Due in large part to President Donald Trump’s aggressive immigration policies, the Marshals population is approaching historic highs. About two-thirds of all prosecutions between October 2018 and April 2019 were related to immigration crimes, including many of the people swept up in Trump’s “zero tolerance” border policy. In their frantic pursuit of beds, the Marshals have helped prop up failing jails, according to our extensive analysis of government inspections and reports, as well as interviews with current and former Marshals and Justice Department officials.
After four months in Tom Green County Jail, Isac began calling Yesenia and Sadrac repeatedly each day. He said he was weak, in excruciating pain, and getting worse, but the jail wasn’t doing much to help. He asked his family to find a doctor, a lawyer—anyone who might get him the attention he needed.
On July 6, four months after he was arrested, Isac told a jail nurse that he had intense pain in his back and shoulder, and he was short of breath. He was sent to a medical holding cell for more frequent monitoring. The next day, he returned to the infirmary and a nurse wrote in his medical record that he was moaning and grabbing his arm in “extreme pain.” But a supervising nurse, who didn’t personally evaluate Isac, ordered only that he be given ibuprofen. A day later, he was still suffering. Yet another nurse flagged his intensifying pain to a sergeant, asking if Isac should be sent to the Shannon Medical Center in San Angelo, which is contracted to provide the jail with medical services and staff, including nurses. The sergeant responded that Isac was malingering, that he’d been complaining of “different illnesses” all week.
Two days later, on his 32nd birthday, Sadrac visited his father. After waiting for several hours in a video visitation booth, Sadrac finally saw Isac and was horrified to find him frail and unable to stand. Sadrac says he asked jail officials if he could bring in a private doctor, but they refused and told him they had his father’s care under control.
Desperate, Sadrac went to the federal courthouse where the Marshals have an office. “If the Marshals are at the top, I thought maybe I could go talk to them and tell them what was happening,” Sadrac told me. But he didn’t get past a receptionist.
That night, Isac collapsed, facedown in his cell. He was brought back to the infirmary, where he spent the night, and the next morning a nurse decided to send him to a hospital. Yet three more hours passed before he was rolled in a wheelchair into a jail vehicle that delivered him to the Shannon Medical Center. A nurse had told correctional officers that his case was not urgent.
Right away, the hospital staff saw what his family had already known: Isac was in dire condition. A day later, he was unconscious. On July 14, he died from sepsis and multi-organ failure.
Two independent doctors whom I asked to read Isac Garcia-Wislar’s medical chart told me that decisions made by his jailers appear to have sealed his fate. “The legitimate and appropriate concerns of medical personnel were overruled prior to transfer by an apparent non-medical jail officer who was incorrectly concerned about the risk of malingering and thus made a medical decision beyond his scope of his expertise,” one of the doctors noted. The care, the other doctor said, was “grossly inadequate.” (Tom Green County Jail did not respond to requests for comment. Shannon Medical Center declined to comment, citing confidentiality rules.) “Sepsis is a very time-sensitive illness,” one of the doctors added. “Any delay in treatment reduces the chances of survival.”
There’s no indication that the Marshals ever investigated Isac’s death, and the agency declined to answer questions about specific inmates or incidents. About a year after Isac died, a Marshals deputy arrived to perform a routine annual inspection and found the jail in full compliance with its detention standards, including medical care.
That spotless inspection report of Tom Green County Jail was no outlier—the agency had filed similarly rosy reports in the years prior to Isac’s death, including one about three weeks before. But the shoddy oversight goes far beyond one jail. Our review of seven years of inspection records of dozens of facilities, as well as interviews with current and former senior Marshals and Justice Department officials and corrections experts around the country, expose deeply flawed jails and a catastrophic failure of oversight throughout the Marshals’ penal system.
The Marshals have agreements to hold detainees in about a third of all US jails, and spent $1.61 billion on detention in fiscal year 2018, dollars that are pivotal to sustaining these facilities. Its deputies constantly move inmates in and out of these jails. So the Marshals are well positioned to exert powerful oversight over a massive segment of the American carceral system. Yet the agency supplies failing jails with dependable revenue—sometimes many millions a year for a single facility—and clean inspection reports that help those jails evade accountability. “You have a federal agency telling a local system that they’re fine even when people are at risk,” Jonathan Smith, the former chief of a Justice Department office that investigated jail and prison conditions across the United States, told me. “It’s a long-standing problem.”
“The Marshals are the invisible giant,” said César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, a professor of law at the University of Denver and the author of the forthcoming book Migrating to Prison. “They’re overlooked by almost everyone because they do not run their own prison system. You can’t point to a US Marshals facility and say, ‘That’s a Marshals facility.’ They contract with counties and private corporations and so they are invisible and are never the focus of attention.” This proved to be true even in the suicide of Jeffrey Epstein: Despite international outrage and a flurry of journalistic and regulatory scrutiny of the practices at the federally run Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York, which held him, the fact that Epstein was a Marshals detainee, and that Marshals shuttled him back and forth between MCC and the federal courthouse, went largely uncommented on. So did the fact that the agency was investigating him for failing to notify it of international travel, in violation of his sex offender status, before he was arrested in July.
Given their overwhelming size and growing role as the foundation for an interlocking system of criminal and immigration detention, “the US Marshals should be an additional layer of assurance that the custody, control, and care of humans is being performed at the level we should expect,” said Noel March, who served for eight years as the US Marshal for the District of Maine, until 2018. Yet, he told me, “That’s not the role they’re playing.” Smith, the former Justice Department official, told me they “are essentially looking the other way, playing a weak hand and leaving the jails to do what they will.” They operate, he added, with “an attitude of indifference.”
The Marshals’ far-flung detention system has never been thoroughly examined, in part because the agency has resisted the release of information. I had to sue them in federal court to obtain the annual inspections they conduct of facilities they use. Data found through the suit shows that 158 people died while in Marshals detention between June 2016 and June 2019, and hundreds more died in the preceding five years. It’s a rate of death that far outstrips that of the parallel federal system run by ICE, but on par with the troublingly high death rates in county jails in general. In the two-plus years since I filed my lawsuit, the agency has fought the release of medical records related to detainees who have died, arguing to a federal judge that it would violate the privacy rights of dead inmates or their relatives.
In April, Judge Sidney Stein of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York forcefully rejected the government’s argument, finding that “the public has a right to know the circumstances under which people die while detained in the pretrial custody of USMS.” The agency still failed to produce all the records I requested, and two months later, the judge issued a second order demanding their release.
Eventually, the rest of the files started to arrive. I arranged for a team of six independent doctors—four medical generalists and two psychiatrists—familiar with treatment in prison to review the medical care provided in these cases. While some of the charts contain too little information to allow the doctors to substantially analyze them, even in this initial release of records they’ve identified cases where failures in medical care and suicide prevention are implicated in deaths.
“You’d think they’d pay attention to the people they’re locking up,” Sadrac Garcia told me as he gazed out at where his parents’ house once stood. “You’d think.”
That the Marshals refuse to meaningfully monitor the local jails that hold its detainees is particularly ironic, since throughout the agency’s history, the Marshals’ role has been to administer justice where state and local law enforcement cannot or will not act.
The first US Marshals were appointed by George Washington, tasked with enforcing the will of the federal courts. In the movies, Marshals have been portrayed by the likes of Tommy Lee Jones, who chased down the wrongly accused Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, and Clint Eastwood, who tracked a gang of cattle rustlers in Hang ‘Em High. Real-life Marshals have included Virgil Earp and a slew of Wild West figures, but also Frederick Douglass. Part of their history is decidedly contemptible: Marshals were deployed to hunt fugitive slaves, and Marshals participated in the incident at Wounded Knee. But they were also the men who, in yellow armbands, flanked 6-year-old Ruby Bridges as she entered a New Orleans public school in 1960 to desegregate it; who guarded James Meredith while he attended Ole Miss; who enforced desegregation of Boston’s public schools; and who protected doctors trying to enter abortion clinics amid a spate of attacks.
In recent decades, one part of the agency’s purview has grown dramatically: Pretrial detention has become the most expansive and expensive slice of the Marshals operations. President Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs meant not only that more people were indicted on federal drug charges and incarcerated for longer, but also that fewer defendants were released while they awaited a verdict. The 1984 Bail Reform Act made it easier for judges to detain any federal defendant deemed a danger to the public, or a flight risk. Within a decade, the Marshals inmate population tripled to more than 18,000.
That number ballooned again as the war on drugs was joined by a war on immigrants. In 2001, the number of Marshals detainees reached nearly 39,000. A decade later, it was more than 60,000, scattered in jails and private facilities and a handful of federal centers across the country. Immigrant defendants are more likely to be locked up as they face charges because foreign citizenship is considered a flight risk factor. Nearly 9 out of 10 Latino federal defendants are detained while they await trial, far exceeding any other group.
In the final years of the Obama administration, as immigration and drug prosecutions began slowly to decline, the Marshals’ daily detainee population declined as well, to about 51,000. But the numbers are soaring again—by March 2019 they’d reached 62,000 a day—a little-noticed outcome of President Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy. Trump has made prosecuting undocumented border crossers a priority. The decision to criminally charge parents crossing with children was then used as the pretext to separate them from their children. Though some people plead quickly and are sentenced to time served before promptly being deported by Customs and Border Protection, tens of thousands spend weeks or months in Marshals detention, including an unknown number of parents whom CBP officials have separated from their children. Those charged with illegal reentry, like Isac Garcia-Wislar—people who return after a previous deportation—can be held for months by the Marshals.
In June 2019, when Congress was debating a controversial $4.6 billion emergency border spending bill, one of the central points of contention was funding the detention of migrants, including a $155 million infusion to pay the Marshals for pretrial detention of immigrants. That spending was approved, and much of those funds will continue to flow to detention facilities with minimal oversight.
The explosion of detainees in recent years has left the Marshals hungry for beds and deeply entrenched in the most shadowy, poorly run segments of the American criminal justice system—private or county-run jails. With 94 regional divisions, one for each federal court district and each with its own Marshal—each with dozens or even hundreds of deputies who transport detainees to and from court—the service is well positioned to help regulate these jails. But two decades ago, when the Justice Department tried to meet the detention boom with stronger oversight, the Marshals pushed back. Rather than bringing law and order into the breach as it had before, the agency argued that oversight was not its job and pursued a noninterventionist approach—effectively condoning bad actors.
As a retired high-ranking Marshals official who was involved for decades in detention oversight told me, “They’re looking for beds wherever they can find them. They’ll take whatever they can get.”
The Jack Harwell Detention Center, a privately run county jail on the outskirts of Waco, Texas, was “big and shiny and new,” its warden bragged, when it was built a decade ago to provide hundreds of new beds to rent to federal law enforcement agencies. The jail soon became a stain on McLennan County. Over the past two years, the Waco Tribune-Herald has run regular stories about the jail’s stunning dereliction, its poorly performing staff, and its repeated inability to pass a state audit. Between August 2018 and March 2019, the jail failed three consecutive inspections by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, a state oversight body. The situation degraded so dramatically that in May, the commission took the unusual step of ordering McLennan County to fix the problems or the commission would reduce the detention center’s population. (The center met the demands of a remedial order, and the reduction did not occur.)
Since 2011, Harwell has been inspected 19 times by the state commission and failed nearly half of these evaluations. In 2015 and 2016, two detainees killed themselves in Harwell; each time, Texas inspectors discovered that guards had forged logs to make it appear they’d performed routine cell checks that they had not. The jail said it implemented corrective measures. But two years later, state inspectors found, suicidal detainees were again left unchecked.
Other agencies sounded alarms. After the jail opened, ICE contracted with Harwell to house immigrants facing deportation. But that year, in 2011, ICE pulled its detainees out of Harwell (then run by the company CEC) over poor medical care; an ICE spokesperson said the facility was “unable to provide appropriate medical treatment in accordance to our detention standards.” (Shortly after, ICE moved detainees back into Harwell.) In September 2018, the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office sent its deputies inside and found the jail in a state of filth—with dirty meal trays and garbage strewn everywhere. “The trash was bad enough I had to step over multiple piles in order to move about,” one officer wrote. Mildew was thick in the bathroom. Detainees were walking around cells in their underwear, and they complained that Harwell only washed their clothes once a week. Guards appeared to be overworked and undertrained, and the place was scarred by violence: One deputy watched a Harwell officer smash an inmate to the ground to restrain him, sending the inmate to the hospital for sutures.
In April, I met Captain Ricky Armstrong of the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office. He’s in charge of the county’s own pretrial detainees—Harwell holds about 350 of them—and he’s the one who sent his deputies to inspect the jail. In his office in Waco, a cowboy hat on his head, he set a pair of handcuffs on his desk and told me it was time to make a change. “It’s no secret: I want the jail in county control,” Armstrong told me. He wanted the jail’s private contractor, LaSalle Corrections, out. Six weeks later, LaSalle announced it wouldn’t renew its contract with the jail.
It was a remarkable confluence, with Texas law enforcement and regulators, even federal immigration officials, united in alarm about a failing county jail. Yet even as state and county officials were repeatedly flagging dangerous failures, the Marshals, whose detainees are normally held in a dedicated wing in the jail, filed virtually spit-clean inspection reports about the jail’s operations. Even the previous suicide of Marshals detainee Kristian Culver had failed to trigger any clear consequences from the agency.
On April 2, 2016, Culver, 32, a slight, bright-eyed Latino man, walked barefoot into a hotel off a highway between Austin and Waco, and claimed to be a cop with an arrest warrant for a hotel guest. Suspicious, the hotel clerk called the police. Culver ran, the cops chased, and Culver broke his arm in the pursuit. When the police searched Culver’s car, they found a gun; he was charged with impersonating a public servant and assaulting an officer, as well as unlawful possession of a firearm, a federal charge. In anticipation of his arraignment at the courthouse in Waco, the Marshals moved Culver into Harwell on the morning of April 11, 2016.
Seven weeks later, an officer noticed a towel covering the window into Culver’s cell and opened the door to find him hanging by his neck from a braided bed sheet suspended from an air conditioning vent.
Before sending Culver to Harwell, the Marshals knew he’d been diagnosed with serious mental illness—he’d been incarcerated six years earlier by the feds, also on gun possession charges, and a document in his file notes a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. At Harwell, Culver had been evaluated by a nurse, who noted the diagnosis. Six days later, Culver met a jail doctor who wrote that he was also suffering from PTSD—that he was experiencing flashbacks and might have intended to kill himself with the gun that led him into Marshals’ custody. Days later, a Harwell officer found a rope in Culver’s cell and sent him to meet with mental health services. In that meeting, Culver said he feared solitary confinement, and the clinician evaluating him recommended not returning him to a single-person cell.
But he was sent to a hall called the N-wing, designed for disciplinary segregation and also used as overflow for “protective custody” detainees, those thought to be at risk of harm from themselves or others. He had no cellmate.
Before Culver killed himself, he wrote a note saying that his death was his fault alone: “Nobody is responsible for my untimely death. I was unable to digest the stress and fear…about going to prison.”
I had two independent psychiatrists review Culver’s file. They each said that based on his self-reports to the jail’s counselor, the medication he was prescribed for bipolar disorder appeared to be inappropriate, perhaps dangerously so, considering his concurrent PTSD diagnosis. What transpired, one of the psychiatrists told me, was “a negligent response both chronically and acutely. This was not a subtle or hard-to-predict suicide.” There is no record that Culver ever saw a psychiatrist while he was detained.
In the N-wing, officers were required to walk by each cell at least every 30 minutes. Jail logs from that day show that a guard noted he’d performed the required rounds. Days later, a state jail inspector began to look into the death. She watched hours of surveillance video and found that the inmates had been left unattended for most of the day. Culver had draped a towel over his window to hide himself from view, but it didn’t matter; nobody had tried to look in. Culver was left unmonitored for two and a half hours before the discovery of his body. The guard later told Texas Rangers investigators that he’d falsified the logs, but he said a supervisor, knowing that the guard had not completed his rounds, instructed him to stay at work until the log “looked right,” which the guard understood to mean he was expected to “back-fill” the paper to make it appear he’d done his job properly. Two days after the death, LaSalle Corrections fired the guard. A Texas grand jury declined to indict.
Captain Armstrong wouldn’t discuss Culver’s death, telling me I should ask LaSalle, but he stressed that failing to perform cell checks “is not an option. Our job is to make sure that they’re healthy and they’re alive, and so you have to do your walk-throughs to make sure they’re breathing.” (LaSalle did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
Yet for many officers at Harwell, forging logs was an implicit expectation of the job. Three former prison guards and a former lieutenant who worked at Harwell told me it was regular practice to “pencil whip” the logs in a facility they said was perpetually understaffed. They said supervisors were more concerned with making documents look right than enforcing proper rounds. The former lieutenant, Caleb Sellers, told me that while he’d never personally changed logs, it was routine because tired, overworked officers just weren’t making the rounds and faced no pressure to do so. “It’s not a thing where they’re making people do their jobs,” Sellers said. “It’s a thing where they’re making people fix the paperwork, so it looks like the job’s done.”
In part because they disproportionately house people diagnosed with serious mental illnesses, county jails have rates of suicide 2.5 times higher than the general incarcerated population. The fate of Marshals detainees is no better. Suicide took the lives of at least 47 of the 158 detainees who died in the three-year period for which we have records. But the Marshals appear to have done little to ensure that the county jails they contract with implement stringent suicide prevention measures. The agency has a prevention training document, which suggests that correctional officers perform cell checks on suicidal inmates at intervals of 15 minutes. Yet the Marshals’ own annual inspection form notes a requirement for cell checks only twice an hour, and the binding agreements that the Marshals sign with local facility operators require only that “the level of care inside the facility should be the same as that provided to state and local detainees.” In Texas, where the Marshals contract with dozens of jails, state rules require checks on suicidal detainees every 30 minutes.
In the days after Culver died at Harwell, a Marshals deputy wrote up a summary of events surrounding his death and concluded that “none of Culver’s suspect actions and statements were reported [to] the Marshals Service.” That was all; the agency had apparently washed its hands.
Yet just six months before Culver’s death, a man named Michael Martinez, who was being held on state charges and a federal detainer, was found hanging in his cell at Harwell. That day, three hours had passed without a cell check. Texas state jail inspectors found that the three guards responsible for performing those checks had altered the logs. The guards were charged with tampering with government documents; a civil case brought by Martinez’s family is pending.
The Tom Green County Jail, where Isac Garcia-Wislar collapsed, also ignored signs that a Marshals detainee was suicidal. When 40-year-old Michael Redente was detained in 2015, the agency knew that he’d tried to kill himself four months earlier. Less than 24 hours after he was detained, he committed suicide. Inspectors from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards wrote to the county about the guards’ failure to treat Redente as a high-risk detainee, saying that intake forms conducted by the jail itself and information provided to the jail by the Marshals “should have been more than enough to initiate additional precautions.”
When prisoners die, the Marshals district office is required to notify headquarters, but there’s no firm investigatory process. The Marshals often issue “prisoner death reports” after its detainees die in local jails. But these reports, several of which I’ve obtained through my open records lawsuit, fail to note potentially deadly medical care failures that the independent prison doctors I consulted were easily able to identify.
The review that the Marshals conducted after Isac’s death, for example, is a little over one page long and contains no record of an independent investigation of his death. It does not appear that the Marshals interviewed medical workers involved in his care.
I reached a former Tom Green jail nurse familiar with the case. The nurse said that it would have been against protocol to bow to the sergeant who didn’t want to send Isac to the hospital. The nurse added that Isac’s complaints may not have been fully appreciated because he spoke Spanish.
According to the former Marshals official who was involved with detention oversight and contracting, the deaths themselves should have prompted the Marshals to remove its detainees from the facility. “That is the kind of thing that should lead to the Marshals pulling their detainees out,” he said. But the agency does not maintain hard-and-fast triggers for removing detainees or ending detention agreements, according to several former Marshals officials. “Decisions to remove federal prisoners from a detention facility are made on a case-by-case basis,” Drew Wade, the agency’s spokesperson, wrote in an email. But even in the wake of Martinez’s and Culver’s deaths, the detainee population at Harwell has fluctuated between 100 and 350 people a day, an arrangement that was worth $3–$5 million a year to LaSalle, the private operator. (In October, McLennan County took over jail operations, and that money will go to it.)
Despite the deaths and failed state inspections, Captain Armstrong told me, the Marshals “haven’t voiced anything to us” about Harwell. Correspondence between McLennan County and the Marshals shows no sign that the Marshals were in touch with the county about the dangerous problems at Harwell. (The Marshals did not reply to questions about any contact they may have had directly with LaSalle.)
Marshals officials stress that the agency is often in a bind because it needs access to beds in close proximity to federal courthouses. When I asked Wade why the agency does not impose more stringent standards, he said, “They have to abide by the laws of their jurisdiction; their state and local laws and standards and regulations…That’s where we are. I mean, you have to understand that the Marshals Service is responsible for housing about 50,000 federal prisoners every day.” In 2013, the Justice Department’s inspector general characterized the Marshals’ position this way: “Higher standards for utilizing local jail facilities must be weighed against the willingness of local jail facilities to undergo such inspections and to contract with the USMS.”
But former Marshals officials argue that logic is flawed. None could recall a case where making demands on a jail had led local officials to withdraw from an agreement. The balance of power, they said, is squarely with the Marshals because cash-strapped counties depend on them for revenue to run their jails.
Noel March, the former US Marshal for the District of Maine, said that sheriffs facing budget troubles routinely asked him to send more federal detainees. He said that while he never assented to such requests, they showed how dependent jails are on federal dollars. When he needed change at a county jail, March said, he had the leverage to make it happen.
Robert Almonte, the Marshal for the Western District of Texas for six years, said that since the agency paid “good money” for bed space, “we had power that they would respect.” He said the one time he pushed a facility to correct dangerous failings, and pulled some detainees out, the facility corrected course with haste.
When the county was looking into taking Harwell away from LaSalle, Captain Armstrong did the math. He concluded that if the county wanted to run the facility without federal dollars, it would have to raise taxes or find a new source of funds.
“There is a missed opportunity here,” said Jack Hildebrand, who served for 21 years in the US Marshals, including as the head of Prisoner Operations in 2012, and now oversees compliance for a police department in Texas. “The counties want the money the Marshals pay them, and in many places they are eager to provide extra service to the Marshals. Yes, they could be exerting more leverage. They should be pushing harder.”
The marshals we see in movies chase fugitives or track bandits. But most real-life deputies typically spend their days doing court security or transporting detainees. They get less than half a year of training, almost none of it focused on jail operations. Yet these rank-and-file deputies are charged with overseeing compliance at the jails it uses. Wade admitted that “the deputy US Marshal providing the inspection is not a subject matter expert of detention and jail operations. They receive the basic on-the-job training on general facilities operations and conditions of confinement.”
The 13-page form used to conduct these annual inspections, the USM-218, is intended to “ensure the safe, secure and humane care and custody of those prisoners,” the Marshals’ former acting director, David Harlow, told Congress. But unlike typical federal prison inspections, which involve a team of experts who dig through prison files, interview staff and inmates, and observe prison operations, the Marshals inspection is designed to be performed by a deputy over the course of a few hours. The form consists mostly of checkboxes, and in some cases deputies appear simply to rely on jail authorities to provide the information, without corroborating it. Wade called the 218s “cursory periodic inspections” meant to ensure compliance with “minimal acceptable conditions for basic essential services.” He added that if deputies see problems when visiting the jails, they flag those issues to their supervisors. And several former and current Marshals told me that when they became aware of unsafe conditions in local jails, they would call or visit jail administrators to press for a change. But those direct engagements appear rare.
The agreements that the Marshals Service signs with local governments say the “findings of the inspection will be shared with the facility administrator in order to promote improvements.” Noel March, the former US Marshal from Maine, said that is not what actually happens. “The deputies are not trained to know if a jail is operating constitutionally,” he said. “We could have deputies doing this oversight work trained to do it, everywhere. But they don’t know how.”
The retired Marshals official had stronger words. “How the hell is a Marshals deputy going to know how to review medical care? How does a deputy know that? They don’t,” he said.
Starting in 2015, the USM-218 included a series of “tips” that appear to serve as a tacit acknowledgment that deputies are ill-equipped. One tip, for example, reminds deputies to “review medical records” to ensure the intake screening was performed. Nowhere is there a suggestion to review cell-check logs or surveillance video—let alone to compare the two. And the forms fail to ask for such vital data as the number of deaths.
If that weren’t lax enough, the inspections are routinely announced ahead of time, according to several Marshals officials. Former Harwell guards told me that each year, the day before the Marshals deputy was expected to arrive for the inspection, inmates and officers would be directed to scrub the facility. Harwell would “kick it into high gear when they hear the Marshals are coming,” a former guard told me. “That’s when they do it by the book, by protocol.” If the Marshals aren’t coming, “everything is lax and the facility is dirty.” Asked whether facilities are given advance notice, the Marshals spokesperson said, “I don’t know. Are they scheduled or are they pop-ups? I don’t know. I can’t answer that.”
The USM-218s are striking because of how little they tell us about facility operations. Information as fundamental as the total number of detainees held is sometimes wrong, and tallies of assaults or suicides in some cases conflict with inspections conducted by other agencies. In one Ohio facility, a Marshals inspector noted there had not been a single suicide attempt in 2018, while a separate federal report revealed there had been dozens of attempts. The USM-218s for one upstate New York jail found it “compliant” in its health care operations, even as state inspectors logged repeated and deadly failures in the facility’s medical care, calling it one of the state’s “worst offenders.” In Georgia, at a privately operated county detention facility, the Marshals repeatedly issued rosy reports even as ICE, which also houses detainees in the jail, found the facility deficient in two-thirds of the areas its inspectors examined, from health care to the operation of solitary confinement.
According to Jonathan Smith, the former Justice Department official, the Marshals’ paltry oversight has sent a message that “everything’s all right” to negligent county jails, with corrosive consequences. For five years Smith was head of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Litigation, a section of the Civil Rights Division, which conducted investigations that uncovered flagrantly negligent medical care, abusive guards, excessive use of solitary confinement, and other violations of detainees’ constitutional rights in local jails.
If those facilities held agreements with the Marshals, Smith’s team, as part of their investigation, would review past Marshals inspections. In case after case, Smith told me, those inspections “missed everything.” The 218 reports, he said, are “useless pieces of paper.”
But the Marshals’ clean 218s supplied derelict jails with plausible cover, he said. “The localities where we were investigating, and looking into serious violations, would say to us, another Department of Justice agency, ‘How come you have a problem with us when the US Marshals have said we’re fine?’ The lack of oversight was giving them permission to keep on as they were.”
Smith pointed to the case of Maricopa County, Arizona, where nearly a decade ago, Joe Arpaio, the notorious sheriff, came under investigation by the Justice Department for abusing detainees. In an attempt to defend Arpaio, the sheriff’s lawyer held up the Marshals’ clean jail inspections. “These reports are just further evidence that the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division has gone rogue,” Arpaio’s attorney, Robert Driscoll, told the Wall Street Journal, “to the point of ignoring the findings of federal law enforcement and other components of the DOJ itself, in its politically motivated pursuit of the sheriff.”
It’s not that the Marshals have never removed detainees from jails. In extraordinary instances, such as when Smith’s office released negative findings, they did. The problem, according to Smith, was “they would wait until after the findings came out. They’d never do so proactively.”
But even when the Marshals’ annual reviews do reveal major problems, the agency still hasn’t pulled detainees. Of the 259 annual audits we analyzed, at least 10 (some at the same facilities) indicate potential medical understaffing; 45 show extraordinary numbers of prisoner assaults—in one case, 869 in a single facility, California’s Fresno County Jail, in a single year; at least 11 show noncompliance with mandated rape-prevention policies; and three show attempted suicide rates of nearly 1 in every 20 detainees. But there appear to be no consequences.
In Texas, the Marshals’ lack of accountability comes into sharp relief. In at least a dozen facilities for which we have records, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards detailed alarming problems that clashed with positive inspections by the Marshals. And when the Marshals do muster a response to a troubled facility, their actions often fall dramatically short.
Take the Willacy County Jail in the Rio Grande Valley. In 2016, Jose González Rodríguez, a 32-year-old Mexican national who was detained on charges of illegal reentry, tumbled off a top bunk onto the cement floor of his eight-man cell. His cellmates called for help and reported that he appeared to have had a heart attack or seizure. The guard gave him a dose of ibuprofen. More than three hours later, González Rodríguez had another attack. The officers finally called paramedics, but upon arrival at the local hospital, González Rodríguez was declared dead. An autopsy attributed the death to heart failure. According to allegations in a 2017 lawsuit, Willacy County Jail had been operating without a single medical worker on duty the night of the death.
Eight months after González Rodríguez died, the Marshals annual inspection found the jail in full compliance, noting only that the Mexican Consulate had raised the death as a concern. According to a local press report at the time, the Marshals did remove some of its detainees from the facility after the death, but Marshals population records I obtained show no lasting decline in the population. In a subsequent inspection report, a deputy noted that “due to past medical issues,” the Willacy County Jail “does not house any detainees with known medical issues.” But that wouldn’t have helped González Rodríguez. His intake form had given him a clean bill of health. “The idea that the place is okay for healthy folks but not for the unhealthy is absolutely insane,” said a doctor I’d asked to review the file.
The response to the deaths at Harwell appears to have been even more lax. One month after Kristian Culver killed himself, a Marshals deputy conducted an annual inspection of the jail. He found that the jail had not met the Marshals requirement that cell checks be performed twice an hour on detainees in “special housing.” The jail had implemented a tracking system to ensure rounds were properly performed. But, the deputy added, “it is impossible to say that jailers are actually checking inmates in segregation.”
Texas inspectors found it easy enough to answer that question: They simply watched the video. “We look at the underlying paperwork and documents,” Brandon Wood, head of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, told me. “You get what you look for.”
Last November, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported the findings of a damning inspection of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County Jail, where the Marshals housed an average of about 30 federal detainees a day at a cost of close to $800,000 a year. Basic necessities, including meals, were withheld as punishment. Vermin were seen running around the food services area; a cell meant for two people was packed with a dozen; juveniles were housed alongside adults; and low-level medical staff were operating without credentials or were performing tasks for which they were clearly unqualified.
The failures had been documented by a team of Marshals officials, FBI agents, and prison facility specialists who had arrived at the jail unannounced and spent several days poring over paperwork, reviewing medical files and logs, and interviewing staff and detainees. But this thorough investigation only happened because Cuyahoga County had requested it following the deaths of seven inmates over a year.
A month earlier, a Marshals deputy filed an annual USM-218, which noted compliance in nearly every area of jail operation. Whereas the investigation found that 55 people had attempted to kill themselves in a year, the Marshals deputy had logged zero. The investigation discovered juveniles housed with adults, while the USM-218 noted the facility had proper policies for detaining children. The investigation discovered that sick inmates had been denied treatment, while the USM-218 found no sign of trouble in the provision of medical care.
Once the review was made public, the US Marshal for the Northern District of Ohio, Peter Elliott, called the jail “one of the worst in the country” and promptly pulled all federal detainees, along with the money that the Marshals paid the county for beds. He questioned his own agency’s inspection regime: “I don’t like the way this process is set up,” Elliott told the Plain Dealer. “It doesn’t make sense that you go in and get things from the county and it makes it seem like everything’s alright, when it’s not.”
This sort of rigorous inspection was at one point set to be implemented across a broad swath of facilities that hold Marshals detainees. In the late 1990s, as the Marshals and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (as ICE was then known) were competing for bed space, the Justice Department, which oversaw both agencies, determined it needed a centralized system for contracting and monitoring facilities. In 2001, the Justice Department opened the Office of the Federal Detention Trustee to implement “a DOJ-wide detention monitoring policy” and “ensure deficiencies are corrected in a timely manner.”
A new tool, the Quality Assurance Review, was created to evaluate facilities by a list of more than 1,000 standards. Teams of experts took days to interview staff and detainees and evaluate files, logs, and other records to compose lengthy narrative descriptions of operations. The Detention Trustee proposed performing the QARs, used to monitor private prisons for compliance with federal contracts, on any facility that held at least 200 federal detainees. The audits would have covered at least half of all Marshals detainees nationwide. “The idea was that no detainee would be held inside a facility that wasn’t monitored and accounted for,” said a former senior OFDT official. In the wake of detainee deaths that appeared questionable, the office would also sometimes draft After Action reports, which meticulously documented the care each detainee received and any medical or mental health care failures or correctional staff actions that may have contributed to the death.
But after 9/11, immigration enforcement was moved under the Department of Homeland Security, and the OFDT was limited to overseeing the Marshals alone. According to a 2013 Inspector General report, the Marshals resisted efforts to force jails to clean up their acts. The OFDT concluded that its oversight efforts were “futile,” and the office was absorbed by the Prisoner Operations Division inside the Marshals Service itself. “The Marshals were fighting tooth and nail with the Detention Trustee, and what do you think happened when OFDT got put inside the Marshals?” the former official told me.
The agency’s posture on oversight reflects fears about legal liability, according to the IG report. Were the Marshals to impose rigorous inspections and stringent standards on jails and continue to house detainees in facilities that failed to comply, the agency could be vulnerable to lawsuits, the thinking went. But if the agency imposed only baseline standards and cursory checks, responsibility for bad conditions would lie elsewhere. “If they said they are responsible, then they are liable,” said the former official. “They didn’t want liability, so they set it up so they weren’t responsible.”
The Prisoner Operations Division still performs quality assurance reviews on about a dozen private facilities under contract with the Marshals. Yet even these, according to a deeply critical 2017 Inspector General report, rarely spur the Marshals to impose consequences. Between 2006 and 2017, the report found, the Marshals did not once impose a financial penalty on a failing private facility. The IG report focused on an understaffed facility in Leavenworth, Kansas, run by CoreCivic, where “significant issues” went “unaddressed for extended periods of time.” The report slammed the Marshals for failing to stop cell overcrowding after CoreCivic was discovered to have secretly placed extra bunks in two-person cells. Even after serious failures had been documented, the Marshals didn’t force CoreCivic to change.
Leavenworth was troubled in other ways. A QAR audit from around the same time, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, documented 28 individual “deficiencies,” including a failure to ensure that solitary confinement was not imposed on detainees for more than 30 days without the approval of a senior jail administrator, or on mentally ill detainees without providing them access to psychiatric treatment, or on pregnant detainees without proper checks from administrators. Despite these deficiencies, Leavenworth received a passing grade. A CoreCivic spokesperson pointed out that the 2017 report was “by far more focused on various recommendations for the USMS regarding appropriate contract oversight” and “that the USMS has chosen to partner with us at Leavenworth for nearly three decades is a testament to the quality of service we provide there.”
And across the country, Marshals QAR inspections have repeatedly documented decay and neglect at private facilities. In Queens, New York, GEO Group operates a 241-bed facility on contract with the Marshals. The QAR inspectors flunked it in 2015, in part for allowing medical workers to perform outside their licensure and because they’d discovered a “significant insect infestation [that] continues to plague the food service kitchen.” In 2019, the Marshals signed a new $187 million up-to-10-year contract. (The facility passed subsequent inspections.) In 2014 and again in 2015, Marshals inspectors found that a medical unit in a 1,000-bed Colorado GEO facility called the Aurora ICE Processing Center, used mostly to hold immigration detainees but also dozens of Marshals detainees, was in crisis. Chronically sick detainees were not provided ongoing care from the facility doctor, and detainees were not consistently evaluated within two weeks of arrival. Medical workers reported an ongoing climate of “abusive, caustic and unprofessional treatment” from correctional officials in the facility. (GEO declined to comment.)
Despite the bright light that journalists and advocates have cast on private prisons, the Marshals’ role at these facilities has received scant notice. Around the corner from the Willacy County Jail in Texas, where Jose González Rodríguez died after the fall from his bunk, is a set of private prisons under federal contracts. In one, El Valle Detention Facility, detainees had complained of negligent medical care, abusive guards, and squalid conditions for years. In 2011, after reports emerged of widespread sexual abuse in the facility, ICE ended its contract with the Management and Training Corporation. (MTC told me it was unrelated to the allegations of abuse.) The federal Bureau of Prisons later signed its own contract to house prisoners in the facility. But in 2015, after federal prisoners set fire to rows of Kevlar tents, the prison was declared uninhabitable, and BOP ended its contract with MTC.
Yet an adjacent facility also run by MTC, the Willacy County Regional Detention Facility, slipped under the radar. The facility holds as many as 600 Marshals detainees, and just a year after the riot next door, the QAR inspection team declared it “deficient.” “USMS accepted our corrective action plan for the four areas found deficient, and we corrected the issues immediately,” Issa Arnita, an MTC spokesperson, said. But the auditors continued to log other failures in each of the following three QAR reports, including repeated noncompliance with restrictive housing rules.
In late 2016, in part because of the kind of dereliction that led to the Willacy riot, the Justice Department announced it would end its contracts with a dozen private prisons that held noncitizens convicted of federal crimes. But this order was not extended to the Marshals’ private pretrial detention facilities, even as they failed inspections.
The Trump administration reversed the Justice Department’s order and has expanded its use of private lockups. This year, the Marshals signed a contract with the Eden Detention Center, in Texas, one of the Bureau of Prisons’ private facilities that the Obama administration had walked away from. And in June 2018, the agency finalized an agreement to begin housing detainees in a CoreCivic-run facility in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, even after the Marshals’ own “pre-occupancy” QAR inspection found multiple failures to comply with the contract’s terms.
Shortly after the Marshals began using the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility, ICE quietly began sending its own detainees, mostly asylum seekers, to the facility too. ICE does not have its own contract with Tallahatchie County or CoreCivic. Instead, detainees are held there under a subcontract of sorts, a rider that allows ICE to piggyback on the Marshals’ agreement. Across the country, the lattice of the Marshals’ intergovernmental agreements and private prison contracts with about 1,100 facilities has provided federal immigration agencies with easy access to the beds that DHS has been clamoring for since Trump put immigration enforcement into overdrive. As of 2018, 19 percent of ICE detainees were held under such agreements. By 2019, ICE detained 52,000 people. Even after ICE pulled some of its detainees from the Harwell jail over negligence, the agency used the Marshals rider to continue to house a small number of detainees there.
ICE’s own standards and inspection regimes vary dramatically between facilities. In 2017, the New York Times reported that ICE planned to further relax its standards for facilities that hold immigration detainees for less than one week; the agency would ditch extensive requirements and instead adopt the Marshals’ USM-218 checklist. The proposal has not yet taken effect, but similar plans appear again in the White House’s 2020 budget request.
“The proposal has ICE following the Marshals to the bottom of the barrel,” said Heidi Altman, policy director at the National Immigrant Justice Center. “By imposing weaker standards like the Marshals do, ICE can expand detention with fewer barriers. That will lead to greater suffering.”
Customs and Border Protection also occasionally uses Marshals facilities for overflow detention of people caught crossing the border, but CBP performs no independent oversight. The Marshals’ paltry system offers the only real chance federal authorities have to clean up most bad facilities. But a Marshals spokesperson told me the agency “has no involvement in custody or oversight for the detention of CBP detainees.”
The border agency’s use of Marshals contracts has already had fatal consequences. In May 2018, a local jail in Starr County, Texas, made headlines when Marco Antonio Muñoz, a 39-year-old Honduran man who, with his wife and child, claimed to have fled death threats, was found dead in his cell. The day before, Muñoz had been arrested for illegal entry by CBP and separated from his family. Muñoz was visibly in distress, telling border officials that he believed the US officials planned to kill his wife and 3-year-old child. After CBP learned that the first jail it had planned to send Muñoz to was full, CBP called Starr County. An officer there said they had space for another detainee as long as he was healthy. Muñoz spent the ride to the county jail frantically kicking at the door of the CBP transit vehicle in an apparent attempt to escape. Once he arrived, Muñoz was placed in a padded isolation cell. Before he had even been formally charged, Muñoz hanged himself.
Because he hadn’t been charged, Muñoz was not yet technically a Marshals detainee—but Starr County was holding him on behalf of CBP under the auspices of a Marshals agreement.
Two weeks after Muñoz’s death, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards found video that showed officers repeatedly skipping their required rounds, at times letting nearly three hours pass before checking on inmates with mental illness. Muñoz was left unchecked for 46 minutes before he was found hanging in his cell. “Starr County Jail staff members did not conduct thirty-minute checks on Muñoz as is indicated in the logs,” a Texas Rangers investigation found. Muñoz’s wife has filed a lawsuit against CBP and Starr County. Neither would comment, citing pending litigation.
A week before the Texas Commission completed its review, a Marshals deputy filed the agency’s annual inspection of the Starr County Jail. It was clean.
This story was reported in partnership with Type Investigations.
Edited by Clara Jeffery
Fact-checked by Jacob Rosenberg
Copy-edited by Daniel King
Data reporting by Taylor Eldridge
Additional research by Maha Ahmed and Darya Marchenkova
Visuals by Adam Vieyra, Carolyn Perot, Mark Murrmann
Photographs by Brandon Thibodeaux
Videos and Podcast
Videos by Mark Helenowski, James West, and Sam Van Pykeren
Podcast by Latino USA
This article was originally published by Mother Jones (motherjones.com) in its November/December 2019 issue; reprinted with permission. Copyright, 2019 Mother Jones and the Foundation for National Progress
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