Updated Thursday, 9:30 a.m.
Immigrants sued the U.S. government Wednesday over conditions at a federal prison in Southern California used to house detainees since the Trump administration stepped up the detention of asylum-seekers and others arrested on the U.S.-Mexico border.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Riverside, alleges that harsh prison conditions at a medium-security facility in Victorville, California, are too restrictive for detainees awaiting their immigration court hearings, many of whom are seeking asylum.
Attorney Margot Mendelson with the Prison Law Office, a public interest firm in Berkeley, told KQED that her clients are not supposed to be punished for violations of civil law.
"The definition of punitive is locking people into a medium-security federal prison and exposing them to the kinds of custodial practices that one might expect for a population of convicted prisoners and not for civil detainees," Mendelson said.
Mendelson was part of a legal team that interviewed 20 detainees at the Victorville facility, located in San Bernardino County. She cited the constant use of restraints and lockdowns as the most obvious violations detainees endured.
"They are shackled at their arms and legs," she said. "They wear belly chains. They are locked into small cells -- one or two people per cell -- all of the night and most of the day."
Getting enough food was also a constant problem, she said. Some detainees reported being served a sandwich with two pieces of bread and nothing inside. Detainees said food was sometimes rotten and they were constantly hungry.
Questions Over Religious Freedom
The complaint also alleges detainees have been deprived of religious rights by being denied access to a Bible and the use of a Sikh turban.
"As a result of the unconstitutional treatment of these civil detainees, many have expressed a desire to be returned, immediately, to their countries of origin, foregoing their claims for immigration relief altogether, because they would rather face the dangers back home than be imprisoned in these abysmal conditions," said the lawsuit, which alleges inadequate medical care and food and seeks to have detainees removed from the prison.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment on the case. ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley said in a statement, "As a matter of policy, we do not comment on pending litigation. However, lack of comment should not be construed as agreement or stipulation with any of the allegations."
The agency says about 700 detainees are currently at the facility. Plaintiffs' attorneys placed the number at 800.
Immigrant Detention at Bureau of Prisons Facilities
In June, immigration authorities began sending detainees to prisons in Oregon, Washington and elsewhere to deal with overcrowding at ICE detention facilities. The Federal Bureau of Prisons set aside up to 1,600 beds to house immigration detainees as the Trump administration sought to stem illegal border crossings and take a stricter approach to asylum cases.
Since then, immigrant advocates have filed a separate lawsuit to gain access to detainees held in Victorville, who they said were deprived of access to lawyers and phone calls and placed on lockdown for days at a time.
In Wednesday's lawsuit, plaintiffs said the prison didn't issue detainees a change of clothing for the first two to three weeks. One man reported having to wash his clothes with hand soap in the toilet in his cell.
Detainees have only a few hours of outdoor exercise time each week and no educational or other programming, the suit said.
In Oregon, similar litigation has been filed over conditions at a federal prison in rural Sheridan. Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union are involved in both cases. Wednesday's complaint could potentially affect those arrangements.
Prison Guards Lack Guidance on Detainees' Treatment
When ICE first revealed plans to transfer 1,000 detainees to the federal prison in Victorville, an agency spokeswoman said the arrangement was a temporary measure until ICE could obtain other contracts or until border crossing subsided.
But a July 20 newsletter by John Kostelnik, the head of the local prison guard union, says the Victorville prison “continues to receive and release detainees, and the mission for housing them appears to be more long term than was initially indicated.”
Kostelnik worried about the safety of officers who were assigned additional duties, without any training or extra staff.
“The agency still has no process or procedures to handle these detainees, [and] we have not been provided information in regards to our responsibilities," Kostelnik wrote.
This post contains reporting from KQED's Criminal Justice and Immigration Editor Tyche Hendricks and the Associated Press.