October 3, 2022

Asylum seekers go on hunger strike at Torrance County Detention Facility

Photo Credit: Mitchell Haindfield Flickr via Compfight cc

A group of 13 detainees announced a hunger strike at Torrance County Detention Facility to protest “inhumane” conditions.

The hunger strike began last Monday, according to Orlando de los Santos Evangelista, an asylum seeker from the Dominican Republic who has been detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Torrance facility since July. He spoke to NM Political Report by phone through an interpreter provided by Pacific Interpreters, based in California.

CoreCivic, the for-profit company that has a contract to operate the facility, and ICE each denied that a hunger strike was taking place. 

Both CoreCivic and ICE denied the hunger strike when NM Political Report reached out to them on Thursday.

“There were no detainees on a hunger strike at Torrance County Detention Facility, nor is there a hunger strike occurring today,” wrote Matthew Davio, CoreCivic public affairs manager. “Not one detainee has missed a meal.”

ICE did not respond further to a request for comment.

The 13 detainees announced their hunger strike through an open letter signed by the men. The letter detailed “very poor” conditions, including mold growing in the bathroom, raw food, fungal infections on men’s heads due to unsanitary barber tools and an excessive amount of flies and mosquitoes.

The letter further states that one detainee had problems breathing but guards placed him into a cell without air conditioning. When some of the detainees pointed out the problem to the guard, the guard “quickly closed the door and became aggressive,” according to the letter.

The letter also says that guards woke up the men at 2 a.m. one night with papers and “they wanted us to sign quickly without knowing what the papers said as they were only in English.”

Other issues of negligence recounted in the letter include the detainees’ phone calls to family cut short. Some have had no direct contact with a deportation officer and some of the guards are cruel, the letter states.

“They get aggressive with us because we don’t understand the language they speak,” the letter states.

De los Santos Evangelista told NM Political Report that he is coming forward to speak to the media because conditions at Torrance County Detention Center are “inhumane.” The Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Inspector General issued an alert, after a surprise inspection of the facility, to ICE in March of this year that recommended that all detainees be relocated due to the conditions.

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

De los Santos Evangelista said guards have retaliated against him since NM Political Report began working on the story and he anticipates he will be retaliated against, again, after the story goes to print. He said that Thursday night two guards entered his cell and “turned it upside down.” He said they also took a pillow and a sleeping mat from him.

How it began

The hunger strike began, in part, as a reaction to a Brazilian man, Kesley Vial, taking his own life at Torrance County Detention Facility after a meeting with detention officials in August, de los Santos Evangelista said.

Related: Immigrant advocacy organizations seeking answers around Brazilian man’s death by suicide while in ICE custody

De los Santos Evangelista said the men started the hunger strike last Monday and four of the men were sent to a nursing station. He said guards placed two of the four into solitary confinement which de los Santos Evangelista described as “a torture location.”

“It’s very dark, you’re alone and very, very cold. When people come out of there, they come out with big trauma,” he said.

He said the third man began talking and begging the officials not to put him into solitary confinement. The guards took the third man back to his cell. Then they turned to de los Santos Evangelista.

“They started talking to me. I was in the doctor’s waiting room. The one in charge said, ‘tell me why you’re in this hunger strike.’

“I said, ‘we want our liberty, our immigration rights and we want to stop the involuntary deportation.’ After that, he [the official] started saying, ‘here in this center, we have rules. You’re now in the center. We have rules. You need to eat. We need you to follow the rules. If you don’t eat, we can put a tube in your mouth and make you eat because these are the rules. There will be consequences and those are the consequences. I need you to talk to the inmates [detainees] and let them know,’” de los Santos Evangelista recounted the facility official saying.

De los Santos Evangelista said a nurse was waiting with a tray of food as the official talked and that he felt that if he did not take the tray of food, the guards would send him to solitary confinement.

“A lot of inmates [detainees] are not willing to go with the hunger strike because they are afraid,” de los Santos Evangelista said of the other detainees held at the Torrance County facility.

When NM Political Report asked CoreCivic about the alleged intimidation and the refutation of CoreCivic’s denial, Davio responded with the following statement:

“There was no intimidation,” he said.

De los Santos Evangelista said that in order to help the two men who had been put into solitary confinement get out, he and the others “had to pretend we were going to eat and not going to continue.”

“That’s how I managed to stay out of the hole and get the inmates [detainees] out. Pretending,” he said.

But, de los Santos Evangelista said, the men have continued the hunger strike.

“We have continued and have not stopped. Some became afraid and stopped for a day. I never stopped doing it,” he said.

CoreCivic had another story of what happened that night:

“The detainees asked for an update on their cases and our staff were happy to coordinate that for them, after which they accepted their meals,” Davio said.

But one of the complaints by the detainees at Torrance County Detention Facility is that ICE does not provide the men with information about their asylum requests.

According to the open letter, Vial died by suicide in August, in part, because of the stress involved in being unable to learn information about his case. The letter states:

“When the official came to us, he did so with threats against me and my friends saying that everyone here is going to be deported because I am the one in charge here so don’t ask me when you are leaving because everyone is staying locked up in here for up to two years. He left and we have not seen him since…The next day, a person killed himself in desperation and because of the stress the officer caused.”

De los Santos Evangelista confirmed that the man the letter referenced was Vial.

“You have no idea our pain for Kesley. We just want justice for him. And we are asking for our freedom; for no more people brought to this location and no involuntary deportations,” de los Santos Evangelista said.

CoreCivic said the open letter “also made several other false claims about the conditions at TCDF, some of which are easily refuted.” According to CoreCivic, the claims in the letter are refuted by the following:

  • “The facility gets its water from the City of Estancia, so it’s exactly the same water used by residents and businesses in the area.
  • All detainees have daily access to sign up for medical care, including mental health services.  Our clinic is staffed with licensed, credentialed doctors, nurses and mental health professionals who contractually meet the highest standards of care. 
  • We’re firmly committed to providing those in our care with access to counsel and the courts, which is codified in our Human Rights Policy. Our facility has not received any complaints or grievances from detainees or attorneys about legal access issues.

TCDF is monitored closely by our partners at ICE, and it’s required to undergo regular review and audit processes to ensure an appropriate standard of living for all detainees. For example, TCDF earned accreditation from the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC) earlier this year by demonstrating compliance with NCCHC’s Standards for Health Services in Jails, which are some of the most rigorous in correctional health care. ICE also employs a Detention Standard Compliance Officer to ensure we adhere to their strict standards and policies.”

The detainee’s open letter does not mention water problems at Torrance County Detention Facility but the watchdog report and alert in March from federal agencies said there is a lack of fresh drinking water. De los Santos Evangelista said guards give the men a cooler with water and ice but several hours can pass before it is refilled.

De los Santos Evangelista said, in addition, there is a smell of feces in the hallways and the food is very salty even though De los Santos Evangelista suffers high blood pressure. He said he worries about his health.

He also said officials do not wash the detainees’ clothes properly and the armpits smell after guards return the clothes from the laundry. He said even the toothpaste and deodorant is “very bad,” and doesn’t “work at all.”

“The conditions are so bad, not for a human. We are suffering discrimination and racism from officers. It’s very bad,” he said.

De los Santos Evangelista said he believes many of the men held at the Torrance facility have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He said there are many detainees who have talked about taking their own lives.

De los Santos said he expects the guards will place him into solitary confinement, which he called “the dark hole,” as a result of speaking with NM Political Report.

“Coming forward like this, I am concerned about all of the retaliation I will get and even more about what they will do to stop the strike. They have not given us a solution. The suffering is so bad for us. We want our freedom. This is traumatic and very hard,” he said.

Why de los Santos Evangelista seeks asylum in the U.S.  

De los Santos Evangelista said he left the Dominican Republic because he encountered problems with gangs and corrupt police officers who tried to physically abuse de los Santos Evangelista and extort money from him.

He said the situation was so dangerous he almost lost his life. He migrated to Panama but encountered discrimination and experienced more danger to his life, so he fled to the U.S. 

De los Santos Evangelista said all the men held by ICE at the Torrance facility are asylum seekers. He said he has both family and friends in the U.S. and that his family members are prepared to sponsor him if ICE would release him from custody.

“It’s very sad and very shameful. We came here because we thought we’d be protected. We’d finally have some rights and find this retaliation, psychological abuse and verbal abuse,” he said.