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California Lawmakers Call for Investigation Into Detainee Complaints of Solitary Confinement

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A large sign outside that says "GEO Golden State."
Protesters gathered outside the Golden State Annex immigrant detention center in McFarland, on May 29, 2022. The event was part of a statewide effort to call attention to conditions for immigrant detainees. (Courtesy of Joyce Xi and the Dignity Not Detention coalition)

More than a dozen California members of Congress called this week on the Biden administration to investigate a civil liberties complaint by immigrant detainees who allege they have been punished — including with solitary confinement — for participating in a peaceful labor strike at two for-profit facilities around Bakersfield. 

In their letter to the heads of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, as well as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the lawmakers said it’s critical for these agencies to conduct a review of reported “disturbing conditions and abusive and retaliatory behavior towards detainees.” 

“We want a complete investigation,” Zoe Lofgren (D-San José), who chairs the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, told KQED. “If they determine that these allegations are correct, we believe that the contract for these facilities should be terminated.”

Nine men detained at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center and Golden State Annex, which are operated by the prison company The GEO Group, filed a complaint Tuesday with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. 

Six of them said ICE and GEO staff placed them in solitary confinement because they supported a months-long labor strike seeking California’s minimum wage, instead of the $1 a day detainees are paid to clean dorms and bathrooms at the facilities. 

The men also allege officials engaged in retaliation by taking away access to commissary items, and declined to investigate other grievances by detainees. The complaint was submitted by the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, the ACLU of Northern California and other immigrant rights organizations.

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This week, detainees at a third privately run facility in Calexico complained to DHS’s civil rights office that they were locked up in solitary confinement for voicing concerns about poor conditions, which the operating company, Management and Training Corporation, denies. That detention center, Imperial Regional Detention Facility, was flagged in 2020 by agency inspectors who found two detainees had been kept in isolation for more than 300 days.

This comes as Gov. Gavin Newsom is considering AB 2632, a bill approved by state lawmakers that would significantly restrict the use of solitary confinement for all incarcerated people, including immigrant detainees. If signed by Newsom, the bill would align California with United Nations rules that say prolonged solitary confinement lasting longer than 15 days can amount to torture and should be banned in most cases. 

One complainant held at Mesa Verde, Mohamed Mousa, told KQED he was forced to remain in solitary confinement for more than 40 days beginning in late June, shortly after he joined the work stoppage.

Another striker at the facility, Pedro Figueroa, said he was isolated for more than a week.

“We’re the ones that have to experience the mistreatment or even retaliation when we do speak up,” said Figueroa, 33, who also signed on to a recent lawsuit accusing GEO of systemic wage theft and forced labor, which the company denies.

“If we allow it, then they just get away with it,” Figueroa added. “But we are humans. We shouldn’t allow those things, so we have to speak up.”

Both men were moved to segregation under charges of “inciting or engaging in a demonstration,” as well as “conduct that disrupts/interferes with the security or operation of the facility,” according to GEO documents reviewed by KQED.

ICE arrested Figueroa in 2021 and Mousa in 2019 upon their release from state prisons. Figueroa pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter in 2015, while Mousa’s convictions include felony assault in 2017 and possession of a firearm in 2019. Both men are fighting deportation. 

According to ICE, placing a detainee in segregation is a serious step that should be used only when necessary and after careful consideration of alternatives. 

But between 2013 and 2019, the agency recorded more than 13,700 segregation placements nationwide that lasted longer than 14 consecutive days or involved vulnerable detainees, such as those who are pregnant or mentally ill. That figure could be higher, as ICE fails to track the full use of segregation at its more than 200 detention centers across the country, according to a report by DHS’s Office of Inspector General. 

ICE has committed to implementing the watchdog agency’s recommendations to improve its supervision of solitary confinement by October 31.

The federal complaint by detainees at Mesa Verde and Golden State requests oversight agencies, including the recently created Office of the Immigration Detention Ombudsman, to recommend disciplinary measures for staffers who undertook or approved the alleged retaliation. Complainants also urged their release from detention, and for ICE to stop considering participation in a demonstration as a high offense.

A GEO spokesperson vehemently denied the allegations of retaliation, and said the company is committed to ensuring “a safe and humane environment” in all of their facilities, including a total of four detention centers in California.

“GEO has a zero-tolerance policy with respect to staff misconduct. Any alleged misconduct by GEO staff is promptly investigated and addressed,” the spokesperson said in a statement, adding that the company is required to follow ICE’s strict standards, including for the use of segregation. 

“These baseless allegations are being instigated by politically motivated individuals and groups who use the media to promote their anti-detention agenda,” they said. “Their efforts are part of a long-standing radical campaign to attack ICE contractors, abolish ICE, and end federal immigration detention by proxy.”

The GEO spokesperson has 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.

An ICE spokesperson did not comment directly on the complaint or the letter by lawmakers, but said the agency takes allegations of misconduct very seriously. 

When a complaint is received, it is investigated thoroughly to determine veracity and ensure comprehensive standards, which ICE is required to follow, are strictly maintained, and enforced,” the spokesperson wrote in a statement. “ICE fully respects the rights of all people to voice their opinion without interference, including through peaceful assembly and protest.”

DHS did not immediately return a request for comment. 

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