A group of six U.S. Senators, led by Senator Martin Heinrich, signed a letter urging the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to terminate its contract with CoreCivic for its operation of the Torrance County Detention Facility.
The Democrats’ letter is in response to the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General follow-up report in September that ICE had not fully addressed 10 of the 14 OIG recommendations to improve conditions at the facility. The OIG report recommended the detainees be relocated from the facility. This is the second time this year the OIG has made that recommendation. In March, the OIG released its initial report, based on a surprise visit in February, recommending the immediate relocation of detainees due to “inhumane” conditions.
Senator Ben Ray Luján was also one of the signatories to the letter urging ICE Acting Director Tae Johnson to terminate ICE’s contract with CoreCivic. The for-profit company manages the facility.
The senators’ letter says that “grievous living conditions, critical staffing shortages, and lack of access to detainee services at TCDF have been consistently documented and shown to be widespread,” despite assurances ICE has made to the contrary.
“This neglect puts those individuals who remain in the facility in unconscionable circumstances,” the letter says.
In response, Jason Houser, ICE chief of staff, released the following statement:
“Torrance County Detention Facility has passed its recent inspections and ICE will be continuously monitoring the facility to make sure it’s consistently meeting our high standards and minimum requirements. If those standards and requirements are not met, ICE will terminate the agreement for use of the facility.”
Ryan Gustin, director of public affairs for CoreCivic, said reports of a hunger strike that began in late September and other allegations of a lack of medical care, lack of potable water and other allegations of abuse are not true.
“While we always welcome interest in and oversight of our facilities, there’s unfortunately an inordinate amount of misinformation being shared about Torrance County Detention Facility (TDCF) that creates an inaccurate perception of the quality of the operations and the dedication of our staff,” Gustin wrote in an email.
The OIG September report states that in Fiscal Year 2021, ICE paid for-profit CoreCivic nearly $2 million a month to house detainees, despite the fact that the facility housed only 152 individuals on average each month. ICE must pay CoreCivic for unused beds under a “guaranteed minimum.”
The senators’ letter urges ICE to release detainees who are eligible, reevaluate detainees not currently eligible for release or transfer and provide robust access to legal rights throughout the process.
In March of 2022 the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General released its watchdog report in which it stated that the OIG inspectors found a broken toilet with human waste, a lack of hot water and drinking water issues as well as staffing shortages. New Mexico congressional Democrats issued a press release in response asking President Joe Biden to take action to address the reportedly unsafe conditions.
In August a group of detainees filed a complaint regarding conditions at the Torrance facility reporting a lack of due process, terrible conditions including bug infestations, water coming into cells and discrimination by guards.
At the end of August, one of the detainees, a Brazilian man named Kelsey Vial, took his own life within the facility.
The senators’ letter points to Vial’s death by suicide when noting that the OIG’s September report stated that inadequate staffing “impacted the level of care detainees received for suicide watch.”
The senators’ letter called that “a stark statement given the recent death by suicide of 23-year-old Brazilian Kelsey Vial while detained at TCDF.”
“We understand from the information ICE has released publicly that Mr. Vial was transferred into TCDF after the DHS OIG issued its calling for the immediate depopulation of the facility due to dangerous conditions – and after ICE rejected those recommendations and continued to detain people in TCDF despite ongoing serious health and safety issues.”
The letter says that Vial’s death calls into question CoreCivic’s management at TCDF.
Gustin responded to the letters’ concerns about Vial’s death by saying that CoreCivic is “cooperating fully” with a “comprehensive agency-wide review of this incident.”
“Regarding Mr. Vial’s passing, TCDF staff found him unresponsive on Aug. 17 and immediately began life-saving efforts and contacted local paramedics. Emergency medical personnel arrived at the scene, took over efforts to save Mr. Vial’s life, and transported him to the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque for further evaluation, where he remained until his passing on Aug. 24,” Gustin said.
The same week that the OIG issued its follow-up report in September, a group of 13 detainees began a hunger strike. Both CoreCivic and ICE denied the hunger strike but one of the detainees spoke to NM Political Report, through a translator based in California, and affirmed the hunger strike was ongoing. Orlando de los Santos Evangelista told NM Political Report that he is an asylum seeker running from gangs and corrupt police in the Dominican Republic. He described abuse, fungi growing on mens’ heads due to unsanitary hair cutting, raw food and mold.
But within a little over a week after the OIG released its September report, ICE reportedly deported most of the men who were on hunger strike, according to one of the attorneys working with the detainees.
ICE responded by saying there were no detainees at Torrance County Detention Facility who were on a hunger strike.