Federal Watchdog calls for removal of detainees from ICE facility


A state watchdog has taken the unprecedented step of demanding the immediate removal of all immigrant detainees from a facility in New Mexico after security breaches and critical staffing shortages were discovered.

The Department of Homeland Security’s office of the inspector general issued a warning Friday, calling for detainees to be relocated until conditions improve.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement controversial the investigators’ findings and declined to evict the Torrance County Detention Center at Estancia, about an hour’s drive southeast of Albuquerque.

The Office of the Inspector General is mandated by Congress to conduct unannounced visits to approximately 130 ICE facilities across the country. Investigators visited the Torrance facility Feb. 1-3, which was housing 176 male ICE inmates at the time.

“We recommend that the Acting Director of ICE immediately transfer all inmates from the Torrance County Correctional Facility and place no inmates there unless the facility ensures adequate staffing and living conditions,” the report concludes.

Unhygienic, understaffed

Inspectors found “excessive and avoidable unsanitary conditions” at the facility managed by CoreCivic, one of the largest for-profit prison companies.

Half of the inmate cells had broken sinks and toilets. Some “resulted in detainees drawing their drinking water from a faucet in the common area designed to fill mop buckets,” the report says. Photos taken by inspectors showed a moldy sink with still water and a toilet clogged with human waste in empty cells.

According to the inspector general’s report, the facility had just over half the required full-time staff, with the vast majority of the 112 vacancies being security positions.

A staffer told investigators that part of what holds the staff shortage is the facility’s remote location.

Investigators said the staffing issue has exacerbated security vulnerabilities throughout the facility. Control rooms offered poor sightlines and were undermanned. They observed unattended inmates dumping buckets of water from the second floor to quickly clean the living area.

ICE pays about $2 million a month to house inmates at the facility.

ICE answers

ICE chief of staff Jason Houser contradicted the characterization that Torrance was critically understaffed, saying the watchdog “ignored the facts presented to him to come to preconceived conclusions.”

In a letter to Inspector General Joseph Cuffari, Houser acknowledged the contractual staffing shortage but said the level was reasonable for the current smaller number of inmates. He said that since the visit, staffing levels are at 83% of the required level, further recruitment is pending and the substandard conditions have been remedied.

“While ICE leadership continues to work to improve conditions at the TCDF in Estancia, New Mexico, we do not agree with the OIG’s overall conclusion that it does not provide a safe, secure, and humane environment for detainees,” he wrote.

But in a March 1 report on breaches of contract, ICE said the facility had repeatedly violated detention standards. In response, the agency reduced 25% of its monthly bill and reduced facility capacity by nearly 30%.

“The critically tight staffing schedules are directly responsible for the collapse of overall operational capabilities,” the agency wrote. “CoreCivic has not been able to demonstrate its ability to provide a safe environment for employees and non-citizens, the necessary security for adequate facility security and control measures, and the due diligence necessary to ensure proper facility maintenance, general cleanliness and to ensure personal hygiene requirements.”

In a call with reporters Thursday, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas reiterated that the agency first took such action last year two facilities closed that was not up to standard.

“We will not tolerate the mistreatment of detainees, nor will we tolerate substandard conditions that do not meet our standards,” he said.

“Unsuitable for humans”

Congressional Democrats called on ICE to terminate its contract and shut down the facility.

“I am concerned that conditions have become so unsafe, unsanitary and inappropriate for people,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), chair of the House Justice Department’s subcommittee on immigration, wrote on Twitter. “You can’t miss that.”

Immigrant advocates have long documented poor conditions in Torrance. Last November, the American Immigration Council and other groups submitted an application civil rights lawsuit accused of “serious violations of due process and inhumane conditions”. Last September, ICE’s own inspectors entered the facility insufficient class.

The inspector general said he plans to release another report on the Torrance facility with findings on issues such as lack of communication between staff and inmates, COVID-19 containment, medical care and access to legal services. Federal Watchdog calls for removal of detainees from ICE facility

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