ADELANTO (KPIX) — Reports of abuse and inhumane conditions in federal immigrant detention centers prompted the California attorney general to take over control and monitoring of the facilities this year. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency that oversees the facilities, says any past problems have been fixed. It invited KPIX on a tour of one of the biggest detention centers in the country, the Adelanto Detention Facility.
It’s a massive barbed wire complex in the middle of the Mojave Desert. The City of Adelanto contracts with a private company called the GEO Group to run it for ICE.
Just like prisoners, detainees’ every move is controlled. They live in locked housing units and sleep four to a cell. There’s four hours a day to use the outdoor recreation fields, and no internet. Telephones are the only access to the outside world.
GEO guards conduct head count five times a day. If detainees defy orders, they face disciplinary segregation. “They locked us up for 10 days,” said Isaac Lopez. He ended up there this summer after a hunger strike, along with Julio Barajones and seven others. “The problem is the bonds are too high, and we don’t have a way to pay,” said Barajones.
The men want out while they await their day in court because they say they never committed a crime, just asked for asylum after fleeing cartel violence in El Salvador. More than half of detainees nationwide are asylum seekers.
But just like others caught in the U.S. illegally, they too are locked up until an immigration judge hears their case. With the current backlog that could take months and if they appeal even years.
“We worked with an asylum seeker who was in detention for nine years,” said Christina Fialho with CIVIC, a national support group for detainees. Fialho said ICE has abandoned a former unwritten policy known as catch-and-release. “President Trump’s executive order in February not only mandated an end to catch-and-release, but it put a chilling effect on parole and bonds,” said Fialho.
As a result, detainees are languishing longer and longer behind bars, Fialho said. We asked ICE Deputy Field Office Director Tom Giles about that. “Nothing has really changed,” said Giles. “Our parole requirements are still the same.” ICE also has discretion to issue bonds without approval from a judge, but the agency says it doesn’t specifically track the number of immigration bonds it issues.
For the GEO Group, longer stays mean more money, because ICE pays an average of $125 a day per detainee. Plus, detainees do most of the work, for a dollar a day. “Most of the detainees here do work, again it’s voluntary we don’t make them do that, they take pride in what they do,” said Giles.
Taxpayers foot the bill but are largely kept in the dark about how their money is being spent. That’s because privately-run facilities don’t have to comply with public records laws.
For instance, during the hunger strike in June, Barajones told us he and the other strikers were pepper-sprayed and beaten. “They beat me in the knees, stomach, elbows. They treated us like animals,” said Barajones.
“They doused us with hot water, that made the pain from the pepper spray ten times worse,” said Lopez.
Giles denied the charges. “The GEO staff is here for the safety and security of the detainees,” said Giles. “In this particular incident, no one was beaten or physically harmed during the alleged hunger strike.”
But detainees told us there’s security camera video of the beatings. “If they say we are lying, why don’t they release security camera video?” said Barajones.
ICE says a review of the incident, including the security camera footage, found that all proper policies and procedures were followed. But when we asked to see the video the agency told us it’s GEO Group property.
“I mean I have heard horror story after horror story,” said state Senator Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens). “And for us, it’s important that we finally have some much needed transparency.”
Lara introduced a bill earlier this year that would prevent local officials from contracting with companies to build or expand immigrant detention facilities. It passed and is currently on the Gov. Brown’s desk.
“You know in my opinion these companies are strictly money making machines that depend on incarcerating immigrants,” said Lara. “They don’t care what their case is or who they are, they are just dumping everybody together.”
Meanwhile, there’s good news for our two detainees. A coalition of immigrant rights groups crowdfunded to pay their bonds and free them, allowing Barajones to reunite with his wife, Ana, and a newborn son. “It’s been almost four months since they separated us,” said Ana Barajones. “My dream has come true because now we are together as a family.”
Now they just wait and hope for their asylum request to be granted.
The bond fund is hosted on the website of CLUE Justice. The following organizations have been involved in promoting the bond fund:
- CARECEN LA
- Detention Watch Network
- Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice
- The Immigrant Youth Coalition
- Black Alliance for Just Immigration
- Haitian Bridge Alliance
- California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance
- Pueblo Sin Fronteras
- Surenxs En Accion
- Indivisible Morongo Basin
KPIX 5 reached out to the GEO Group for comment on this report, but did not hear back.