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Immigrants in California CoreCivic Detention Center File Complaints Over Staff Mistreatment, Sexual Misconduct

By Chuck Sharman

Four men held for federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by private prison firm CoreCivic at its Otay-Mesa Detention Center in San Diego filed complaints after a staff member allegedly ogled them on March 22, 2022. That was less than two weeks after another group of 12 detainees complained to the California Board of Psychology on March 8, 2022, alleging mistreatment by a staff counselor.

In that earlier incident, the men said that Dr. Hyrsso Fernbach mocked their symptoms and accused them of making them up, leaving several to contemplate or attempt suicide. Requests for a different counselor were rebuffed, they added, because they were told that Fernbach was the facility’s only psychologist, though CoreCivic spokesperson Ryan Gustin called that “wholly inaccurate.”

Trauma symptoms are common among immigrant detainees, especially asylum seekers like one of the dozen who complained, former detainee Junior Jerome. The Haitian said he told Fernbach about the voices he was hearing, but her notes from the session mention only that he experienced “difficulty with sleep.” About the nightmares he reported, Fernbach noted that his descriptions “do not conform to an expected presentation and pattern.”

Reviewing those notes, Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Dr. Jim Recht said this was either “an intentional error” or one “based on ignorance” because there is “no ‘actual’ or ‘standard’ presentation of a nightmare.”

During a 2009 court martial of a U.S. Army sergeant accused of fatally shooting several fellow soldiers, Fernbach’s treatment of the defendant was called “pretty hostile and aggressive” by an Army psychiatric nurse, Cpt. Blaine Ropson. Asked during the trial whether such comments might trigger someone like the sergeant, who suffered clinical depression and PTSD, Maj. Fernbach allowed only, “I guess it could.”

In the more recent incident, two of the men who complained—Erik Mercado and Elenilson Coto Delgado—described nearly identical experiences with the unnamed CoreCivic employee, who allegedly entered their cells as they lounged in boxer shorts in the heat, feigning a search for a bucket as he stared at their penises. Mercado reported that the employee said he was “looking for something big” and got an erection.

Spokesman Matthew Davio promised that their allegations would be “investigated fully” and reported to local law enforcement if substantiated. But Freedom for Immigrants National Hotline Manager Amanda Diaz said that “ICE operates under a veil of secrecy.”

“Sexual abuse ranging from verbal harassment to the extremes of rape are rampant, and it’s often covered up by the perpetrators,” she explained. 

Source: San Diego Union-Tribune

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