October 13, 2022

DHS Inspector General again recommends closure of Torrance County Detention Facility

Kendra Chamberlain

The existing vehicle barrier fencing that lines portions of the border in New Mexico is being replaced with bollard-style fencing, comprised of steel beams placed roughly 4 inches apart.

The Office of Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security recommended for a second time this year that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement close Torrance County Detention Facility.

The OIG watchdog released the follow-up report the same week that 13 men began a hunger strike inside the facility located in Estancia. A lawyer with New Mexico Immigration Law Center said at least some of the men involved in the hunger strike were deported this week. Orlando de los Santos Evangelista, one of the detainees who told NM Political Report last week that he and the others were engaged in the hunger strike, said he and the others are asylum seekers. He said was fleeing gangs and corrupt police in the Dominican Republic.

An ICE spokesperson said through email that as of October 12, there are no detainees on a hunger strike.

ICE and CoreCivic, the for-profit company that holds a contract to manage the facility, have both said there were no detainees on a hunger strike at the facility despite Evangelista’s personal testimony to NM Political Report that he and others were engaged in a hunger strike for about two weeks.

Related: Asylum seekers go on hunger strike at Torrance County Detention Facility

The OIG report noted that in Fiscal Year 2021, ICE paid CoreCivic nearly $2 million a month to house detainees and that ICE pays for unused beds under a “guaranteed minimum” contract with CoreCivic.

The facility has the capacity to house 842 individuals. During FY 2021, the average daily population was 152 detainees.

The September report was a follow up to a previous OIG report released last spring. The March report, which documented dire conditions in the facility, was based on a surprise visit OIG inspectors made at the detention center in February 2022. ICE denied the claims in the report, as did CoreCivic.

But since then, ICE concurred with all 14 recommendations OIG made in March and reportedly addressed four of the 14 recommendations. The other 10, however, remain open until ICE can demonstrate that it has complied with the OIG’s recommendations.

ICE said through email to NM Political Report that all facilities that house individuals under ICE detention “are required to follow ICE’s stringent detention standards.”

“ICE is committed to continuous improvement of civil detention operations” the statement from ICE said.

CoreCivic said that the company stands by its previous comment in March which questioned the integrity of the OIG report.

“We stand by our previous remarks regarding our concerns with the original Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (OIG) report, and also stand by our dedicated employees at Torrance County Detention Facility (TCDF) who work hard every day to keep those in our care safe while providing for their needs as they progress through the civil immigration process,” Matthew Davio, CoreCivic public affairs manager, said.

To resolve the final 10 issues, ICE must send a letter within 30 days stating that it has addressed the problems, according to the letter accompanying the report.

Some of the 10 issues OIG considers not fully resolved include staffing levels, appropriate dental care and screening and stronger evidence that detainees are allowed to make legal calls.

Davio said that given the reduced number of detainees at Torrance to 20 percent of capacity, the 66 percent staffing level is considered appropriate.

But Sophia Genovese, a lawyer with New Mexico Immigrant Law Center, said there is not enough staff to respond to emergencies. She said it can take hours before the detainees receive water.

Genovese said NMILC and another group began a mental health hotline for detainees to call if they are struggling with thoughts of suicide and other mental health concerns. She said the number of calls from the Torrance facility increased last week. She said she attributes the increase to the mistreatment and the poor conditions.

Juan, a recent Colombian detainee who, through his lawyer, asked NM Political Report not to use his last name or details of his asylum request for fear of retribution while his case is still pending, said the 73 days he spent at Torrance County Detention Facility in recent months was “the most horrible experience” he’s ever had.

Juan told NM Political Report through a translator after his release that he came to the U.S. seeking safety but the men in detention at the Torrance facility were “psychologically dying.”

He said some of the guards treated the detainees “like a disease,” and that the men were allowed very little time in sunlight. He said he was so miserable, thoughts of suicide began to creep into his mind.

“Some of us were sick at the time. They would deny us. We would scream in pain. There was no acknowledgement,” he said.

Davio said the detainees have access to mental health care as well as medical care and pointed to the OIG report that found the “health care program was well organized and managed” and in compliance with standards.

But Juan said officials were “more than capable to provide treatment but refused.”

Juan said that when detainees complain about their conditions, the guards isolate them.

Juan also said that sometimes there were foul smells and he feared he would die of hunger because of the conditions.

“I have allergies; they didn’t care. The meat was still raw. I worked in the kitchen for a bit. We had a thermometer to check the meat and they didn’t care. They would put it out raw,” he said.

A complaint filed by groups of advocates and legal teams in late August that work with immigrants said that individuals held in detention clean the facility before inspections, that there is a lack of due process, in addition to egregious conditions and discrimination.

Davio said that all of CoreCivic’s immigration facilities, including the Torrance facility, “are monitored very closely by our government partners at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).”

“ICE, which has daily, unfettered access to TCDF,” he said and pointed to a page in the OIG report that says ICE, ‘disagree(s) with OIG’s previously reported overall conclusion that TCDF does not provide detained noncitizens a safe, secure, and humane environment and their recommendation that ICE immediately relocate all detained noncitizens from TCDF.’ We have been and will continue to work directly with ICE on the recommendations provided. It’s important to note that the OIG regards several of these recommendations as already resolved and closed,” he said.

Juan said he sometimes pretended he was feeling fine when he wasn’t out of fear guards would isolate him or put him into solitary confinement.

“It was the saddest experience I’ve ever had,” he said.