California AG reveals unprecedented look at state's 10 immigration centers

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra on Tuesday announced the results of vising 10 public and private immigration detention centers in California, finding in part, that more oversight is needed and many detainees had inadequate access to health care, lawyers and family. 

"This is the first glimpse," he said, speaking at the San Francisco Department of Justice on Golden Gate Avenue. "It's the first time we've taken a look at the 10 centers. Transparency is essential. Today, we get to shine a light on these conditions."

Becerra's overall impression was that if these centers were better supervised and managed, some of the problems his team found wouldn't exist. He did give a nod to the fact, however, that the visits even took place in the first place.

ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley said the private prison companies and county jails that house detainees "must meet rigorous performance standards."

"The safety, rights and health of detainees in ICE's care are of paramount concern and all ICE detention facilities are subject to stringent, regular inspections," Haley said.

Here's what Becerra's inspection team found, which they detailed in a 147-page report: 

-- Prolonged periods of confinement without breaks, with some detainees confined in cells for up to 22 hours a day. This complies with federal standards, but his office said "this is not humane." 

-- Detainees were held for more than 50 days on average, with the longest stay at a single facility exceeding four years.

-- Significant language barriers, compromising medical and legal confidentiality. 

-- Difficulties with access to medical and mental health care, increasing the risk to detainees of a major medical or mental health incident. 

-- Obstacles to external communication, limiting detainees’ abilities to contact family or other support systems.

-- Barriers to access to legal representation, leaving many detainees to navigate the complexities of immigration law themselves.

He said as a result of these visits, some of the centers, including one in Yolo County, has already hired more mental health employees, and another center has amended its recreation time. Many of these detainees are civil detainees awaiting immigration hearings, and not criminal detainees, Becerra emphasized. 

“What’s happening to detained individuals in California mirrors our immigration detention system as a whole," said Christina Fialho, executive director of Freedom for Immigrants. "This report is more than a chronicling of conditions, it is a call to action. We must work to end this inhumane system. The report confirms and reinforces what we have documented — that California immigrant jails and prisons are rife with abuse and have led to a toxic culture of impunity fueled by taxpayer money at the expense of thousands of lives." 

His team visited each center for one day, and they looked at three centers more comprehensively, Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility, Theo Lacy Facility in Orange County, and West County Detention Facility in Contra Costa County. 

n July 2018, the Contra Costa County Sheriff ended its relationship with ICE after public outcry, especially over allegations about the treatment of female detainees, and closed that center.

That facility in Richmond is now closed, and the AG's report stated that inspectors coudln't really do a full review in August 2018, because almost all the detainees had been moved elsewhere. In general, the inspectors found that staffing issues caused women to experience extended lockdowns many times a day and that toilets were often inaccessible, leading them at times to defecate and urinate in biohazard bags when locked in their cells. Women were kept in their cells up to 22 hours a day, and that most all the classes were in English. 

Here's an excerpt from the report: 

"Our review of the facility was severely curtailed because (1) ICE had transferred most detainees out of the facility in the days before our visit, with the last eight detainees being transferred out during the frst day of our visit, and (2) sergeants and deputies that the Cal DOJ requested to formally interview declined our requests upon the advice of their union counsel. Nonetheless, command and administrative staff as well as Internal Affairs investigators agreed to be formally interviewed, and some other deputies engaged in very brief informal discussions with our experts. As a result, we obtained suffcient information to evaluate the San Francisco Chronicle allegations, and found evidence at least partially supporting most of the allegations. We found that a number of factors contributed
to the female population’s complaints discussed in this report, including a lack of adequate means of communication between them and personnel; a lack of personnel awareness of gender-responsive practices; the failure to hire additional personnel after the County entered into the service agreement to house immigrant detainees and instead rely on overtime to provide adequate personnel coverage for detainees; and a lack of adjustments to accommodate the cultural differences and needs of the detainee population."

The visit to that center comes after the San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2017 on allegations of excessive lockdowns, denial of access to bathrooms, use of biohazard bags to defecate and  urinate, lack of access to educational materials and adequate medical care. 

Each visit was announced.

"We weren't trying to blindside anyone," Becerra said. 

Fialho, from Freedom for Immigrants, added in a separate statement that "if we want to know what’s truly happening inside detention, we shouldn’t be giving them a pass by telling them when to be on their best behavior."

She is also pushing a new federal bill with California Sen. Kamala Harris to introduce a Detention Oversight Not Expansion Act, which would increase oversight of ICE centers and halt construction of new immigration centers in the country. 

Becerra acknowledged that a deeper dive needs to occur at more of the centers and that this type of fact-finding must be ongoing. 

The Attorney General found that during the last three years, detention facilities in California, including those operated by local governments, have held more than 74,000 immigration detainees, including individuals as young as 13 and as old as 95, from over 150 different countries, such as Argentina, Armenia, Canada, China, Cameroon, France, Germany, Guatemala, Ghana, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, New Zealand, and Singapore.

The Attorney General's report is the result of Assembly Bill 103, which passed in 2017, requiring the Department of Justice, over a 10-year period, to report on: conditions of confinement; the standard of care and due process provided to detainees; and the circumstances around the apprehension and transfer of detainees to facilities. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report