After visiting the Victorville federal prison for a second time, I remain concerned about asylum seekers being held in these facilities. The Trump Administration’s immigration policies are not only inhumane—they‘re a huge waste of taxpayer dollars. pic.twitter.com/lhTdmwi2n8— Mark Takano (@RepMarkTakano) August 16, 2018
Since early June, a federal prison has been holding hundreds of asylum-seeking immigrants, forcing non-criminals to be housed with convicted inmates, all because Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has no room for them.
ICE started using the Federal Correctional Complex in Victorville, California, to house asylum seekers on June 8. While the number of immigrants sharing facilities with inmates has fallen from 1,000 to 460, the numbers often fluctuate.
Democratic lawmaker Rep. Mark Takano visited the facility in early June along with Sen. Dianne Feinstein and again more recently. He explained that while conditions are now “marginally better,” the situation remains difficult for immigrants fleeing violence and persecution.
Many of the detainees he talked to were Sikh or Hindu who are also vegetarians. But because of the language and cultural barriers, many were initially served lunch meat, forcing them to live on bread alone. According to Takano, that, at least, has changed.
At first, Sikhs were also forced to remove their head coverings, a situation that rightly enraged them as it is part of their religious traditions. Now, that too has improved, as they are allowed to cover their heads.
Even their clothing caused them problems in the beginning, as staff ordered only an additional 1,000 jumpsuit sets before their arrival, forcing detainees to wear the same garments, including underwear, for 40 days straight. It was only after new sets arrived that they could take them off so they could be washed.
While Takano admitted the small changes implemented so far have helped, he said that's not enough. After all, he said, “prison is just an inappropriate place to detain immigrants.”
Takano is right. However, President Donald Trump’s zero tolerance approach to immigration policy has forced federal immigration officials to find “additional immigrant detention space,” ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley told reporters. As a result, ICE made deals with private prison systems to house these detainees. The Federal Correctional Complex in Victorville is one of them.
“[Immigrants are] coming from places along the Texas border, California, and the Southwest, from ICE facilities that are full, from Customs and Border Patrol facilities that are full,” Takano explained while visiting the California facility. “And why are they full? Because of the zero tolerance policy of not allowing anybody really to have any kind of parole. So they have to come to a federal prison, which was not designed to accommodate immigrant detainees.”
Prison employees agree.
Feeling the pressure of having to deal with asylum seekers without getting any special training, guards said they are destined to fail.
“Since day one, it’s been chaotic,” said John Kostelnik, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3969. “The chaos has not stopped. It’s a mess. We still have no procedures in place. We got four days notice [of the detainees’ arrival].”
Unfortunately, the detainees are starting to lose hope, Kostelnik added.
With two immigrants having attempted suicide and another now on suicide watch, it’s clear that the setting isn’t ideal. And with the prison facility’s medical personnel severely understaffed, detainees are experiencing an outbreak of both scabies and chickenpox with 11 new chickenpox cases being reported recently.
This situation breaks their spirit, Kostelnik said, because every time a new case of chickenpox is discovered, the entire unit is put on quarantine, forcing detainees to just sit and rot in their cells for 21 days.
“One of the guys [who attempted suicide] had literally been quarantined three times,” he added.
Unlike convicted inmates, these immigrants don’t have the same resistance to this type of life. The result is misery for everyone involved.
“[T]hese detainees are new to the system,” Kostelnik explained. “It’s really easy to break these guys. That’s what’s happening.”
The situation is so out of control, Kostelnik said, that it’s dangerous even for guards.
“We’re a prison, not a detention center,” he explained. “As far as I understand, [the detainees] are not criminals. But we have to treat everybody the same in here, so if they’re in here, they’re going to be treated like criminals. Guards will either go too rough on the detainees or too soft on the inmates and get themselves killed.”
To Takano, it’s clear, Trump is to blame for this mess. His immigration policy is forcing asylum-seekers to sit in jail until their cases are heard, and with 733,000 cases being currently reviewed by the U.S. Immigration Court, many of these asylum-seekers may have to endure being treated as criminals for a long time.
Takano is calling on the Trump administration to find alternatives to make this situation better. After all, he said, these immigrants “really aren’t posing a threat to the safety of our national security or communities,” and we shouldn’t be wasting taxpayer money on keeping them detained as criminals.
But Trump won’t listen to reasonable arguments. The more he’s pressured and criticized for the inhumane consequences of his immigration policies, the more he doubles down, ignoring the criticism or dismissing it as “fake news.”
Sadly, without a president who’s willing to make adjustments to better the situation for non-criminals and asylum seekers who are fleeing violence, immigrants will continue to suffer this type of treatment.
Banner and thumbnail image credit: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton