ICE Continues to Abuse and Traumatize Under Biden. Immigrants Are Fighting Back.
Just after dawn on September 16, 2021, E.E. and six other African immigrant men were resting in their bunks at the Glades County Detention Center in Moore Haven, Florida, when Captain John Gadson and a group of at least 15 sheriff’s deputies stormed in, as Truthout reported, pepper spraying them in the eyes before dragging them to solitary confinement cells.
E.E. and the others sat in solitary with pepper spray burning their skin, prohibited from showering until the next day. On September 17, E.E. received paperwork with charges — but someone else’s name was on it. Nine days later, he and the others finally had a hearing. They learned Glades would keep them in solitary for 30 days, the maximum time allowed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policy, under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
“We are being targeted,” wrote E.E. in a formal complaint to the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
Seventy-seven such complaints have been submitted by or on behalf of people detained at Glades since 2017, particularly for denial of medical care and excessive force, according to the new Florida Detention Database from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida. Advocates say testimonies like these played a key part in the pressure that led to ICE’s decision on March 25 to “limit” the use of Glades County Detention Center. Understanding the history of the Glades County Detention Center shows why ICE’s attempts at reform are not enough.
“It May Smell Like Money to Some People”
Conditions in DHS’s immigration prisons have been under scrutiny the entire 20 years of ICE’s existence, just as the agency’s predecessors had also experienced critiques, arguably all the way back to Ellis Island in the 1890s. But there are major differences under ICE — namely, the massive scale of detention, both in the number of people and the amount of time they are held.
This has resulted in a major upsurge in national and international interest, and outrage over the immigration policies that have become a defining characteristic of the United States, right alongside its unmatched behemoth of a prison system. Groups that may have previously focused on reforms and piecemeal improvements via legislation and litigation are joining in the call for a complete “shut down” of ICE detention centers.
Nonpartisan groups like the ACLU have joined much smaller, and often grassroots, volunteer-led organizations, issuing powerful statements, such as this one from September 2021, by ACLU Campaign Strategist Isra Chaker: “While the Biden administration has halted some of the former administration’s cruelest policies, far too many unjust anti-immigrant policies remain, and thousands of immigrants are paying the price.” Chaker noted that, until the 1980s, most immigrants were not detained while navigating the legal process, but today detention has become the norm rather than the exception.
The reason has become painfully obvious to most anyone who takes a look, including the Government Accounting Office (GAO), which issued a report on ICE detention in February 2021. The report notes that of the $3.14 billion provided to operate its immigrant prisons, hundreds of millions in public dollars are wasted on empty beds, often being paid for under the terms of private contracts.
These profiteering interests operate over 70 percent of ICE facilities, and they lobby hard to keep them open.
Citing a similar profit motive, in March 2021, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) led a letter to President Biden’s Director of Domestic Policy Susan Rice and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, calling for an end to ICE contracts with local jails and prisons. “Some of the worst examples of abuse and retaliation against detained immigrants during the COVID-19 pandemic … occurred in jails and prisons operated by localities,” wrote Omar.
In 2018, the Vera Institute’s “In Our Backyards” series, which took a close look at the financing of jails and prisons around the U.S., did a deep dive into the history of one such local facility contracting with ICE, in Glades County, Florida. The history and present-day happenings at Glades reflect a much bigger picture of abuse and corruption at all levels, but also of the resistance that is bringing urgent changes to the immigrant detention policies of this country.
The Vera report on Glades highlighted the shady dealings that landed the financing to build a far bigger jail than the county would ever need. The Vera report also looked at the social history of county. As the authors, Jacob Kang-Brown and Jack Norton, summarized it:
What is now called Glades County was a place of refuge where people would go to try and live full lives away from state-sponsored racial violence. In the decades before Florida was admitted to the union as a slave state in 1845, Creek and other native people migrated to Spanish-controlled Florida along with enslaved people of African descent fleeing the United States. Their descendants created the Seminole nation in what is now known as the Everglades — swampland that extends from present-day Orlando to the end of the peninsula. During the Seminole Wars in the nineteenth century, many of their descendants were killed or forcibly relocated to Oklahoma by the U.S. government. Many of those who remained were moved to a number of small reservations, including the Brighton Reservation which lies within the borders of Glades County…
Kang-Brown and Norton note that in the 1920s and ‘30s, Glades County’s swampland was drained so sugarcane could be farmed there. Clewiston-based U.S. Sugar, in nearby Hendry County, now owns much of Glades County’s land. “During the harvest season, sheets of thick white smoke rise above the fields where workers burn the cane before harvesting and shipping it to the nearby refinery,” wrote Kang-Brown and Norton. Visitors to the Glades County Detention Center (GCDC) have noticed sugarcane ash dusting their cars, and a distinct smell in the area.
“It has an odor,” said County Commissioner John Ahern, in an interview with Kang-Brown and Norton. “It may smell like money to some people.”
Most of the land in the county — 86 percent — is farmland. Much of what isn’t U.S. Sugar’s property is owned and ranched by the Lykes Brothers corporation, where 65,000 cattle outnumber people at a near five to one ratio, as of 2020 reports.
At first glance, it could be easy to write off the area as another rural stronghold of conservative and reactionary politics, ripe for a prison economy. A closer look paints another picture. The Seminole and Miccosukee people on and off the reservation lands of South Florida continue to consider themselves unconquered. While a significant number of their population was shipped out to Oklahoma in tandem with the Trail of Tears, the war waged against their community of Indigenous and escaped African refugees is considered by historian Richard J. Procyk as the “most protracted armed conflict engaged in by U.S. armed forces” until the Vietnam War. But resistance in the area is not just history from 150 years ago.
Seminole people have continued to push back on the U.S. government for much of the past century on issues including relations with Cuba; gaming rights; land and water use; and energy infrastructure. Into the ’80s and ’90s, the more recently arrived local people, largely descendants of European settlers, have been fighting land use battles against the county’s cattle barons. After a campaign of sabotage against Lykes’ fences that limited public access to the county’s much-loved Fisheating Creek, a 1998 victory in circuit court ruled that the waterway belonged to the people of Florida, liberating over 18,000 acres surrounding the waterway back into the commons.
And in Collier County, one county over from Glades, lies the farmworker stronghold of Immokalee, where the immigrant agricultural workers, primarily from Mexico, Central America and Haiti, have been capturing international attention since the ’90s and 2000s for labor sit-downs, blockades, hunger strikes and massive anti-corporate boycotts that brought multinational fast-food giants like McDonald’s and Taco Bell to the negotiating table.
This history is the backdrop for the fight to shut down ICE at GCDC just as much as that of big sugar, corporate cowboys and corruption.
“If You Build It, We’ll Fill It”
Since the construction of the immigrant detention center, Glades County commission meetings have had three predictable elements: the Pledge of Allegiance, a prayer for the county and Commissioner Ahern reporting on how many “customers” ICE is sending to the jail.
The county began building this $33 million facility in 2002, the same year that Congress — riding a wave of nationalism and xenophobia in the wake of 9/11 — passed the bipartisan legislation that created ICE. Hoping this new agency would imprison hundreds of immigrants at a time in their rural county, Glades County leaders constructed a 546-bed jail, with about 450 beds reserved for those in ICE custody.
“They said if you build it, we’ll fill it,” noted Stuart Whiddon, Glades’ sheriff at the time. If filled, the jail would be profitable to the county. ICE would pay $80.64 per person, per day (raised to $90 in 2017, according to county and ICE records). Only 22 percent of that would go to food and medical care for those detained, which has led to inevitably deplorable conditions. Food was reported as frequently bug-infested and rancid; “shit water,” as one detained man called it, poured into sleeping areas from a broken second floor toilet; medical staff denied life-saving medications and surgeries. “The nurse told me that just having a heart attack or being on the floor is the only way to get me to the hospital,” another detained man reported.
Shaving what they spend on detained people down to a sliver has left sizable chunks for sheriff’s department wages, as their staff oversees day-to-day operations, and for investors.
Though the Glades detention center is not owned by a private, for-profit company like GEO Group (which does happen to operate a state prison directly across the street), the county jail nevertheless has investors hoping to profit from the incarceration of immigrants. Specifically, OppenheimerFunds, Inc. in New York City purchased a majority stake of the tax-exempt bonds that covered the entire $33 million it cost to build the jail, expecting to be paid back with interest once it was full. Lest the county be held liable if the bonds couldn’t be repaid, Glades County leaders, including Ahern and Whiddon, formed a nonprofit called the Glades Correctional Development Corporation as a buffer. During an IRS audit in 2017, the nonprofit converted the bonds to taxable to comply with new regulations, by which time it had helped bondholders avoid $23.5 million of income tax. (OppenheimerFunds was acquired by Invesco in May 2019, at which point it managed over $229 billion in assets.)
Over the years, Ahern’s reports on jail numbers have been riddled with anxiety. In 2014, when numbers in detention dipped to 68, the jail nearly closed. Only during Donald Trump’s presidency was ICE consistently filling Glades with “customers.”
At every commission meeting, between the pledge of allegiance and Ahern’s “customer” report, the commissioners pray that they would do their best to serve Glades County. They do not mention pepper spray, or burning skin and eyes. They never say the name of Valery Joseph, a Haitian 23-year-old with learning disabilities who died at Glades the year after the detention center opened. They never mention Onoval Perez Montufar, a 51-year-old Mexican man who died of COVID-19 there in 2020. And they don’t speak of the multiple women who have come forward about sexual harassment and violations of the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
Serving Glades County, as the commissioners define it, means praying their jail stays full.
“Boy, You’re in Glades County”
“When it comes to us, the Africans, they have a problem with us,” said one of the African men who was assaulted and pepper sprayed along with E.E. Just one month before these seven Africans were targeted, seemingly for their race and ethnicity, GCDC had been required to pay damages to five other detained African immigrants they had targeted earlier with religious discrimination, racial slurs and violent abuse.
Before coming to Glades, these five had spent 40 hours shackled to their seats — chained at the wrists, legs and waists — on an ICE-chartered flight in December 2017, along with 87 other Somali men and women. The plane left for Somalia, then sat in Senegal for 23 hours after stopping there to refuel, then abandoned the deportation and returned to Miami, citing logistical problems.
During those 40 hours, the 92 Somalis report being forced to urinate in bottles or in their seats when the toilets filled up after so many people spent so much time on board. They were beaten, choked, threatened, violently dragged down the plane aisles, denied medical care and placed in full-body restraints just for asking guards questions. When they landed in Miami, some of the men had serious injuries, doctors reported.
After the horrors of their flight, more than half of the Somalis on board were imprisoned at Glades, where abuse continued. Glades staff “said things like, ‘We’re sending you boys back to the jungle,’” according to Lisa Lehner, an attorney at Americans for Immigrant Justice. Much like E.E., they were thrown in solitary confinement for no reason, pepper sprayed in the face until they vomited, and then denied showers to wash the burning chemicals from their skin.
Through all this abuse, Glades denied them the right to seek solace in the rhythms of their faith. The lawsuit that required Glades to pay damages, filed February 27, 2019, stated that Glades prevented prayer services “deprived plaintiffs of religiously compliant meals and instead provided them with food that is inedible, nutritionally deficient, or both; and failed to provide Plaintiffs with essential and commonplace religious articles that are necessary for their religious practice, including Qur’ans, prayer rugs, and head-coverings.”
When one of the Somali nationals confronted the chaplain about this, the latter allegedly retorted, “Boy, you’re in Glades County.”
History repeats itself in Glades County because no amount of oversight, bad press or even financial consequences seem to curb the sheriff department’s racist abuse.
Even in 2018, the complaint that documented the abuse against the Somali nationals noted, “These allegations against Glades are not new. For many years, nonprofit organizations have documented abuses and inadequacies at Glades.”
Lehner added, “The guards and the administration up there at Glades, they think they’re immune. To me, it’s so brazen to be doing this. They know there’s a federal case. They know we’re up there all the time. They know there are investigators up there.”
The Glades County Detention Center, like ICE itself, has shown that it cannot be reformed.
“All Stuck in an Unsanitary Box Together”
The alleged pattern of brazen abuse at Glades, coupled with the profit motive that drives the center to skimp on life-saving medical care and basic sanitation, has made it one of the nation’s worst detention centers for COVID-19 infections. This medical neglect is what led to the death of Onoval Perez Montufar on July 11, 2020, just one week after he arrived at Glades. His niece has described how Perez Montufar begged for medical care to no avail. He was not even taken to the hospital until one of his dorm mates demanded an ambulance.
Those detained at Glades had long feared such an outcome. In March 2020, at the very start of the pandemic’s spread in the United States, about 100 detained immigrants at Glades went on hunger strike, using one of the few methods of resistance available to them to protest the deterioration of already unhygienic conditions. The hunger strikers reported “a lack of antibacterial soap, lack of testing, overcrowding, inedible food and the danger posed by in-transfers from other facilities.”
It would be the first of many hunger strikes and other actions taken by people inside Glades as COVID-19 spread, leaving death and debilitating symptoms in its wake for the hundreds of people exposed to the virus there. From the start of the pandemic to the present, imprisoned immigrants at the facility have protested the conditions of their confinement. In addition to the hunger strikes, they initiated commissary boycotts, federal complaints, op-ed articles and a lawsuit against ICE.
Their actions were part of national resistance inside the walls of detention centers. When COVID-19 began to spread worldwide, detained people knew exactly what it would mean for them. They knew it would be impossible to social distance. They knew there could be no meaningful steps to sanitize squalid, deteriorating facilities. They knew ICE cared nothing for their lives.
“Please, if this gets out, we are helpless,” one detained person at Glades said of the virus. “We are all stuck in an unsanitary box together.”
Immigrants went on hunger strike nationwide. One hundred and forty immigrants at Hudson and Essex, two county-owned facilities outside of New York City, went on strike for 15 days from late 2020 to early 2021. Immigrants in the nearby Bergen jail went on hunger strike for a month just prior to that. “We are tired of the inhumane treatment we receive from the authorities,” a hunger striker wrote. “We are tired of being treated like the worst criminals.”
At York County Prison in August 2021, 35 immigrants went on hunger strike to demand their release after the county terminated its contract with ICE. With the facility closing, they wanted to join loved ones close by rather than being transferred to a distant facility. ICE swiftly retaliated against the York hunger strikers, denying them access to phones, TVs and showers. Five of the strike’s organizers were thrown in solitary.
When York and Essex closed, many who had been detained there were sent a thousand miles south to Glades — including E.E. — in what appears to have been a retaliation transfer, using the poor conditions and known racism in Florida jails and prisons as punishment for resistance.
Yet many of those transferred from the Northeast continued to resist, joining those already detained at Glades. They’ve continued to file federal complaints, speak to the media and make public declarations.
In mid-September 2021, as ICE filled Glades with men and women transferred from other states, around 100 people went on hunger strike to demand immediate release, sanitary conditions, personal protective equipment, access to phones and no deportations. The strikers also raised concern about how crowded the facility was as yet another COVID-19 outbreak tore through the facility and Glades kept everyone “quarantined” together: seriously ill people, people with symptoms and those who were still healthy — just as Glades has done throughout the entire pandemic.
“Winning the Fight of Our Lives”
Even as the Biden administration has taken steps toward improving the path to citizenship for some immigrants, there are nearly 5,000 more immigrants in detention in March 2022 than at the end of the Trump administration. The number of detained people had dropped to 15,000 in January 2021, down from 38,000 in March 2020, pre-pandemic (which was also down significantly from May 2019, when ICE reported 52,398 detained immigrants — the highest in the agency’s history). But, despite widespread protests demanding abolition of the agency entirely, the number detained began climbing steadily since the White House last changed hands.
“We did have hope for the Biden administration that they would at least very significantly limit or lessen the use of immigration detention,” said Kathrine Russell, an immigration attorney with RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services). “Unfortunately, that does not seem to have happened whatsoever.”
Advocates continue to express that even the promise of citizenship is not enough so long as immigrant communities are being crushed by the abuse and trauma of detention in places like Glades and deported away from loved ones and communities.
“We cannot act like the path to legalization is a path flowing with milk and honey,” writes Subhash Kateel, co-founder and former co-director of Families For Freedom, a human rights organization by and for families facing and fighting deportation. “It is a necessary step in a path towards a greater vision of social justice.”
That greater vision of social justice, writes Kateel, must build power in immigrant communities:
We must stop talking about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigrants and build with those most affected. This is the only way to build a movement with more depth. Families that have survived the prison-industrial complex are not sob stories and charity cases; they are individuals that have survived one of the most sophisticated systems this society has for marginalizing someone.
The solutions, according to Kateel, must come from immigrants themselves and must protect what they have already learned and built on the road to freedom. Lastly, winning “the fight of our lives” must also confront DHS directly and creatively.
Kateel initially wrote these words in his essay, “Winning the Fight for Our Lives,” published by Prison Legal News and other outlets back in 2008, and then included in a 2012 book anthology, Beyond Walls and Cages.
While it has been over a decade since its initial publication, the crux of the position rings true, louder than ever, following the past two years of COVID-19-related protests, uprisings and lawsuits from inside prisons and detention facilities.
“If the immigrant rights movement doesn’t understand raids, detention, and deportation in the context of the greater prison-industrial complex, and organize accordingly, we will lose the fight of our lives — a fight we can and must win,” writes Kateel, making the case that detained immigrants and non-immigrant prisoners, their families and support networks, have much to learn from each other.
“If Glades Continues to Break the Law, ICE Must Terminate Its Contract”
The fight at Glades is not over, but the Shut Down Glades Coalition — a grassroots group of local and national organizations — has seen wins, and a growing glimmer of future victories to come. Most significantly, by the latter part of March 2022, no one was detained in ICE custody at Glades, and on March 25, ICE announced that it was “limiting the use” of Glades, and would stop paying Glades for the guaranteed minimum of beds that it had begun funding during the pandemic (first 425 beds, and then 300).
“The long, disturbing record of inhumane treatment at this facility demands this move,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida), who has led members of Congress in calling for a full closure. “I will continue to closely monitor this contract, and press for its complete termination if anything close to the abhorrent mistreatment persists.”
The coalition continues to push for the contract to end and never be reinstated, as is happening in other local jurisdictions across the country, including two other county-run ICE detention centers in Florida: Monroe and Wakulla.
“Through our monitoring of immigration detention,” said Sofia Casini, Director of Visitation Advocacy Strategies at Freedom for Immigrants, “we have documented that ICE often empties detention centers in the face of public scrutiny only to refill them months later under a veil of secrecy. We won’t let that happen here. Reform is not possible. This has been proven time and again. The Biden administration must cut the Glades contract before it’s up for renewal next month.”
The Shut Down Glades Coalition points to media exposure of Glades’ abuses as central to their strategy. This media coverage, combined with social media pressure and requests from the coalition, has led members of Congress to call on DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas twice now to shut the detention center down for good. Most recently, on February 2, 2022, a group of 17 members of the U.S. House called for the immediate closure of Glades, citing at least 15 civil rights complaints having been filed during the Biden administration alone, causing oversight divisions of DHS to launch investigations. Additionally, environmental law organization Earthjustice joined the Shut Down Glades Coalition in calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate GCDC for exposing immigrants to toxic chemicals multiple times a day. (Civil rights complaints requesting an investigation by DHS can be filed whenever a person’s rights are violated while they are in detention. Complaints can be made via an official DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties form or by writing a letter. See below for the mailing address and email address.)
On top of these numerous complaints and actions, the ACLU of Florida and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) announced on January 24, 2022, that, unless Glades provides prompt redress, they will pursue legal action against the facility for illegally deleting video surveillance footage — a violation of federal regulations, which could be used to substantiate the multiple reports of abuse under investigation.
“The deletion of surveillance footage at Glades is the latest example of ICE’s appalling failure to follow and uphold critical recordkeeping laws,” said CREW Senior Counsel Nikhel Sus, in a statement about filing their complaint alongside the ACLU. “It is shameful that ICE appears to be comfortable with keeping the public in the dark about abuses taking place in one of its detention centers. ICE and NARA [National Archives and Records Administration] must intervene as legally required, and if Glades continues to break the law, ICE must terminate its contract with the center.”
The CREW statement explains that Glades’ destruction of security footage isn’t the only example of ICE attempting to dodge recordkeeping laws. “In 2019, ICE obtained permission from the National Archives to destroy years’ worth of sexual assault and death investigation records from ICE facilities across the country — a plan later blocked by a federal judge following a lawsuit filed by CREW.”
Most importantly in all of this work, organizers with Shut Down Glades say, is that deportations have been halted and people have been released.
Just days after E.E. participated in a federal complaint about the threats and brutality he was targeted for at Glades, ICE attempted to deport him and two other Liberian men who had been targeted alongside him. E.E. contacted his lawyer soon after he was transferred, en route to his deportation flight. Advocates in South Florida, as well as those in the Northeast who had known these men earlier, worked together to contact members of Congress in Florida and Pennsylvania, who then demanded a halt to the deportations. Calls to action blasted across social media. A small group of coalition members showed up unannounced at the ICE field office and demanded a meeting with the field office director — and then posted the video of ICE officials trying to dissuade them, until they eventually got their meeting. Ultimately, these three men were granted Z-holds, temporarily halting their deportations while ICE and the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties investigated both their original complaint and the deportation attempt.
Soon after, a Liberian man who was one of the seven African immigrants, was released.
ICE tried a second time to deport E.E. and others referenced in the complaint. His deportation was halted once again through a combination of advocacy and his own resistance.
Today, E.E. is free. His immigration case is entirely closed, and he is at home with his family in Pennsylvania. He says the first thing he did upon release was spend time with his two children, as many among the more than 22,000 currently remaining in ICE detention also long to do. “If Glades is closed,” E.E. told the Shut Down Glades Coalition in January, shortly after his release, “the people who are there now should be released. People need to be with their families.”
DHS Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Complaints can be emailed to CRCLCompliance@hq.dhs.gov or mailed to: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Compliance Branch, Mail Stop # 0190, 2707 Martin Luther King, Jr. Ave., SE, Washington, DC 20528-0190.
Rebecca Talbot is a researcher and writer whose work has appeared in Contrary, South Florida Poetry Journal and other publications. She is also an organizer with Immigrant Action Alliance. Panagioti Tsolkas is the assistant editor for Human Rights Defense Center publications (Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News), co-founder of Fight Toxic Prisons and former editor at Earth First! Journal. He also worked as a statewide coordinator of Florida Immigrant Coalition’s civic engagement program.