March 19, 2022

New government report details reportedly unsafe and unsanitary conditions at Torrance County Detention Facility

The federal Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Inspector General issued an alert this week to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to recommend that all individuals housed at the Torrance County Detention Facility be relocated due to reportedly unsanitary and unsafe conditions.

The 19-page report issued on Wednesday detailed conditions that include a broken toilet containing human waste in a vacant cell in an occupied housing unit, as well as staffing shortages, a lack of hot water access and other issues. Several nonprofit organizations that advocate for the rights of detainees called on ICE to release the individuals housed at Torrance County Detention Facility.

The Democrats in New Mexico’s congressional delegation also issued a press release late Friday condemning the “inhumane” conditions and called on President Joe Biden to “act swiftly” to address the reported unsafe conditions.

“ICE should no longer defend the inhumane living conditions at the Torrance County Detention Facility. In December, we alerted the administration to our concerns that Torrance’s routine failure to meet inspection standards underscores the deeply-rooted structural problems at the privately-run facility. The findings by the DHS Inspector General are extremely troubling and in many cases validate the audit ICE itself had commissioned last year,” U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján and U.S. Representatives Teresa Leger Fernández and Melanie Stansbury said in a jointly released statement.

ICE responded to a request for a comment by saying that the agency’s response is in the report. ICE questioned the integrity of the report and the individuals who conducted the surprise inspection in early February, the report states.

Ryan Gustin, director of public affairs for CoreCivic, said in a response to NM Political Report that the for-profit prison company, which runs the facility, also questions the integrity of the report, citing that the inoperable equipment were in areas where detainees were not living and that they were scheduled for repair. Gustin said CoreCivic was also trying to recruit more officers for the facility.

The OIG inspectors found 53 percent of the detainee cells to have plumbing issues, including toilets and sinks that were inoperable, clogged or continuously cycling water. There were sinks missing cold and hot water buttons and some faucets did not produce hot water. Broken sinks and water fountains rendered restricted due to COVID-19 resulted in detainees getting drinking water from a faucet intended to fill mop buckets.

The report states that the inspectors found mold and leaks throughout the facility and the problems remained unresolved beyond a 12-day work order timeline.

The inspectors also observed detainees dumping buckets of water from a second story railing in “what appeared to be an attempt to quickly clean the housing area,” the report states.

In addition to the reported unsanitary and unhealthy conditions, the report said that, due to significant staffing shortages, detainees were at times unsupervised and the facility lacked the level of staffing necessary to provide safety and security to detainees.

The report states that one detainee told inspectors that he felt he would be unable to receive immediate attention in the event of an emergency due to the staffing shortages.

This isn’t the first time Torrance County Detention Facility has faced reports of problems. Guards at the facility allegedly pepper sprayed several detainees in 2020. According to a lawsuit filed by nine asylum seekers last year, the detainees were engaged in a peaceful hunger strike to protest their living conditions, lack of information provided and the lack of COVID-19 precautions at the facility.

Related: Lawsuit against alleges civil rights violations by private prison company, Torrance County

Late last year, legal experts trying to offer assistance to detainees at Torrance County Detention Facility alleged that new immigrants arriving at the facility were not being allowed their due process rights. The immigrants were asylum seekers from Haiti and they arrived at Torrance County shortly after the incident involving a man on horseback apparently whipping a Haitian refugee at the border in Texas went viral on social media.

Related: Legal experts say Haitian asylum seekers held at Torrance County Detention Center not allowed due process rights

The nonprofit advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, said the Torrance County facility has a long history of mismanagement, abuse and neglect of the individuals it houses.

Both the nonprofit groups and the Congressional Democrats cited CoreCivic as part of the problem.

“It is clear that CoreCivic continues to fail to meet their responsibilities in managing this facility in a safe and responsible manner,” the Congressional Democrats said in their joint statement.

While the OIG report recommended that the detainees be relocated, the locally-based advocate groups said in a joint statement that the detainees should be released immediately. The advocates said relocating the detainees would “re-traumatize” them and they would continue to be denied adequate medical and mental health care and this would be “unacceptable and cruel.”

“We are shocked but not surprised by the findings in the OIG report describing dangerous, unsanitary and inhumane conditions at the Torrance County Detention Facility. We call upon ICE to immediately release, not transfer, all the people detained there, allowing them to reunite with their loved ones and receive the community-based resources and care they urgently need,” said Rebecca Sheff, ACLU of New Mexico senior staff attorney through the news release. “CoreCivic has an egregious track record of neglect and abuse at Torrance and these disturbing conditions are sadly common at ICE detention facilities in New Mexico.”