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ICE Ignores Inspector General’s Call for Immediate Removal of Migrant Detainees from CoreCivic New Mexico Detention Facility

by Mark Wilson

Months after a government watchdog found wretched conditions at a privately operated New Mexico prison and called on federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to remove its migrant detainees, they remained there, holding a hunger strike in protest in September 2022.

Both ICE officials and the prison’s operator, Tennessee-based CoreCivic, denied any knowledge of a strike at the Torrance County Detention Facility (TCDF) in Estancia, New Mexico. But the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy group, claimed the strike began on September 26, 2022, over complaints “ranging from egregious filthy conditions, medical and mental health neglect, and insufficient drinking water to prolonged detention, staff misconduct and unlawful retaliation.”

Earlier in the year, the Office Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Homeland Security, ICE’s parent agency, issued its first-ever “Management Alert” on March 16, 2022. Pointing to “critical staffing shortages that have led to safety risks and unsanitary living conditions,” OIG called on ICE to empty the prison and immediately move its migrant detainees to a different facility. See: ManagementAlert – ImmediateRemoval ofAllDetaineesfromtheTorrance CountyDetentionFacility,March 16, 2022; OIG 22-31.

The prison has been the site of numerous disturbances, including a November 2000 uprising in which detainees took guards hostage, leaving eight injured, two critically. OIG conducted its most recent inspection from February 1-3, 2022. The unannounced visit soiught to determine whether TCDF complied with the Performance Based National Detention Standards. Afterward, OIG sent its Management Alert warning Acting ICE Director Tae D. Johnson of “urgent issues that require immediate attention and action.”

“During our inspection, we found such egregious conditions in the facility that we are issuing this management alert to notify ICE,” investigators wrote. “We have determined that ICE must take immediate steps to address the critical facility staffing shortages and unsanitary living conditions that have led to health and safety risks for detainees at Torrance.”

Designated staffing levels called for 245 full-time staff, but OIG said it found that“Torrance was at 54 percent of required staffing, with 133 full-time employees.” That left the prison with “112 staffing vacancies, with the majority (94 positions) in the area of security.”

Inspectors also highlighted unsanitary living conditions. “We reviewed all 157 cells in the 8 housing units holding detainees and found 83 detainee cells (roughly 53 percent) with plumbing issues, including toilets and sinks that were inoperable, clogged, or continuously cycling water,” OIG reported. That “resulted in detainees obtaining their drinking water from a communal area faucet intended for filling mop buckets.”

In addition, inspectors found security lapses throughout the prison. “Based on our observations, the requirements for effective security are not being met at Torrance,” OIG wrote, not least because guards “did not properly supervise and monitor detainees in the housing units.”

 ICE and CoreCivic rejected the findings and recommendations, claiming that investigators misrepresented evidence and “ignored facts . . . in order to achieve preconceived conclusions.”

In May 2022, with detainees still held at the prison, a request was filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by another nonprofit advocacy group, the Innovation Law Lab (ILL), seeking records that might explain the delay. ICE stonewalled that request, leading ILL to file a FOIA lawsuit on June 13, 2022. That suit is still pending in federal court for the District of New Mexico. See:  Innovation Law Lab v. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, USDC (D. N.M.), Case No. 2:22-cv-00443.

As of November 23, 2022, there were 15 detainees still held at TCDF, down from 176 in February of the same year. But CoreCivic is still being paid its contracted total price, about $2 million a month – enough in one year to buy each detainee a house worth $1.2 million. The prison is also an important source of jobs and revenue for the rural community.

Additional sources:American Civil Liberties Union, AssociatedPress, Border Report, Innovation Law Lab, Searchlight New Mexico

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Related legal case

Innovation Law Lab v. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcementt