Protesters hold signs outside the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield on June 4, 2020. California lawmakers have questioned ICE's use of solitary confinement as 'excessive and seemingly indiscriminate' earlier this month, and have pressed the agency for answers on how it plans to fix the problem. (Tania Bernal/California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance)
A 41-year-old man woke up in a tiny cell day after day, on a bed that sits just a few feet away from olive-colored walls. He was locked up alone in what detainees refer to as “the hole,” he told KQED, for 22 hours or longer per day.
The space has a sink and a toilet, but no windows to view the ample sunshine outside the immigration detention building in Bakersfield.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention is legally classified as civil, rather than criminal, and is not intended to be a punishment. But that’s one of many incongruities for Mohamed Mousa, who said he was held in a restricted housing unit, or RHU, in solitary confinement for more than 40 days, beginning in late June.
“It’s devastating. This right here shouldn’t be happening. That’s what I think about all day,” said Mousa, an Egyptian immigrant who was once hopeful about the individual freedoms this country promises. “This right here is un-American.”
The United Nations has argued that solitary confinement — also known as segregation or isolation — beyond 15 days can amount to torture and should be banned in most cases. But the practice, which experts agree is so punitive that it can spark or exacerbate severe mental illness and depression, continues to exist in California, though it faces rising opposition.
The state Senate is expected to vote by August 31 on a bill that would restrict segregated confinement for all incarcerated people, including immigrant detainees. Meanwhile, both California U.S. senators questioned ICE’s use of solitary confinement as “excessive and seemingly indiscriminate” earlier this month, and have pressed the agency for answers on how it plans to fix the problem.
Four detainees at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center, including Mousa, allege staffers kept them in solitary confinement for several days or longer for supporting a peaceful labor strike, according to KQED interviews and a recent lawsuit.
Dozens of detainees who were paid $1 a day to clean dormitories and bathrooms at the facility and the nearby Golden State Annex are calling for California’s minimum wage of $15 an hour.
A spokesperson with The GEO Group, which owns and operates both detention centers, vehemently denied the men's allegations of retaliation, and referred other questions to ICE.
The spokesperson also repeatedly denied that a labor strike is taking place at the facilities, arguing that the work program is voluntary and in compliance with ICE’s guidelines that detainees be compensated “at least” $1 per workday. Congress can change the rate, but hasn’t done so since 1978.
U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla declined a request for comment. But Padilla is “actively engaged on the issues being raised” at Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex, according to a spokesperson for the senator.
“He is working to increase transparency on how these concerns are being addressed in order to ensure proper oversight,” the spokesperson said in an email.
Mousa sent to solitary due to demonstration
Mousa said he was kept in isolation until Thursday because he was “standing up for his rights and the rights of other detainees,” including by signing his name on a letter supporting the work stoppage on June 28.
“It’s retaliation, it’s cruel, it’s punishment,” said Mousa, adding that his depression and anxiety have soared. “They want to break me. They want me to stop advocating. I’m already in hell. Detention is hell.”
GEO documents show Mousa was ordered to “administrative segregation” on June 29, and later found guilty of “engaging in or inciting a group demonstration” and “conduct that disrupts or interferes with the security and orderly operation of the facility.” Both charges are labeled as high offenses by the ICE standards Mesa Verde must follow.
The facility denied Mousa’s appeal on July 15.
“A records review indicates your direct involvement in the misconduct incident,” wrote GEO staffers in a report addressing Mousa’s grievance. “Further, as you correctly asserted, ‘I’m known to stand up for my rights,’ you consistently have attempted to disrupt the orderly running of the facility, and it will not be tolerated.”
An ICE spokesperson said the agency will not disclose details of individual disciplinary actions, and would not comment on the claims by Mousa or the other detainees.
“ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference, including through peaceful assembly and protest,” the ICE spokesperson wrote in a statement, but declined to comment on why the agency considers a detainee inciting or engaging in a demonstration a high offense.
Isolation 'only when necessary,' but evidence suggests otherwise
According to ICE, placing a detainee in segregation is a “serious step” that should follow the agency’s guidelines, and be used only when necessary after careful consideration of alternatives.
A detainee may be isolated from others for disciplinary reasons or a wide range of “administrative” ones, including medical issues, a detainee’s own safety and the orderly operation of the facility.
Disciplinary segregation is restricted to no more than 30 days. Yet, the agency’s guidelines fail to spell out any limits for the administrative kind, which leads to abuses, according to immigrant advocates.
ICE did not immediately respond to KQED's requests for the number of detainees currently held in solitary confinement. Between 2013 and 2019, the agency recorded nearly 13,800 segregation placements nationwide that lasted longer than 14 consecutive days or involved vulnerable detainees, such as those with mental illness, identifying as gay or on a hunger strike.
The agency’s watchdog found the figure could be higher, because ICE ignores the full extent of segregation use at its more than 200 detention centers around the country. Facilities owned or operated by for-profit companies such as GEO hold most immigrant detainees in the U.S.
The lack of comprehensive isolation data hinders the agency’s “ability to ensure compliance with policy, and prevent and detect potential misuse of segregation,” according to a report by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General published last fall.
For example, inspectors found no evidence that detention centers considered any alternatives to isolating detainees in 72% of the incidents they studied. During an unannounced inspection of a privately run detention center in Calexico, east of San Diego, the OIG discovered two detainees isolated for more than 300 days.
Caitlin Patler, assistant sociology professor at UC Davis, said she worries there is no better oversight by the federal government.
“It’s highly likely that individuals’ rights are being violated by being placed into these extremely punitive settings,” said Patler, who has analyzed thousands of ICE solitary confinement incidents and found them more likely to occur at privately run facilities.
ICE officials concurred with the OIG’s recommended changes to improve the agency’s supervision of segregation, including requiring facilities to track all cases — regardless of how long they are or any detainee-identified vulnerabilities.
The agency had committed to implementing the recommendations by August 31 before requesting an extension. The new due date is now October 31, according to an OIG spokesperson.
ICE declined to comment on why the extension was needed. But Stephen Roncone, the agency’s chief financial officer, acknowledged that the size of ICE’s network of facilities may present reporting challenges while the agency tries to ensure compliance with the rules.
“The goal of ICE detention standards is to ensure that detainees are treated humanely … and receive the rights and protections they are entitled to,” Roncone wrote in the agency’s response to the OIG report.
State bill would limit use of solitary confinement
This comes as the California Senate considers AB 2632, also known as the California Mandela Act in reference to the United Nations rules that prohibit indefinite or prolonged solitary confinement beyond 15 days.
The bill, by Assemblymember Chris Holden, D-Pasadena, would also limit the use of segregated confinement to no longer than 15 consecutive days or 45 days in a period of six months. The practice would be banned for incarcerated people who have a mental or physical disability; have a serious mental health disorder; are pregnant; are 25 years old or younger, with some exceptions, or older than 60.
Opponents, including law enforcement groups such as the California State Sheriffs' Association, argue that the bill’s restrictions will practically end the practice, including when they believe it’s needed for the safety of inmates or staffers. Proponents counter solitary confinement diminishes the prospects of successful rehabilitation in prisons and can irreparably harm people.
Holden, in response to questions about segregation reports at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center, said that stories like Mousa’s were not uncommon.
“The reports that solitary confinement has been used by private prison companies to undermine the First Amendment rights of immigrants in detention is exactly why California needs to pass the California Mandela Act,” said Holden in a statement. “California is no place for torture.”
Supporters argue California has the authority to regulate conditions of confinement for people within its borders, but legislative analyses say it’s an open question whether the bill can cover immigration detention centers, which are overseen by the federal government.
ICE arrested Mousa in December 2019 as he was released from Tehachapi State Prison in Southern California. Mousa had served a prison sentence for felonies related to an assault and possession of a firearm. The former film student, who lived in Los Angeles for years, has additional prior convictions.
Mesa Verde, with 400 beds, currently holds 52 men and meets ICE’s detention standards, according to the agency’s statistics. Agency officials make custody determinations on a “case-by-case basis” and focus on cases that represent a threat to public safety or flight risk, an ICE spokesperson said.
Mousa will remain in custody pending a review of his case at the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, according to ICE. Immigration judges had granted him protections from deportation in 2014 and then again in 2020, but ICE appealed, said Mousa’s attorney Kelsey Morales with the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office.
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