The Trump Administration Is Preventing Detained Immigrants From Practicing Their Religion

Amid the chaos of family separations and zero-tolerance policies being implemented at our borders, Immigration and Customs Enforcement decided in early June to begin transferring immigrants to prisons operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Their appalling treatment in these prisons reveals, yet again, the depraved cruelty of this administration toward immigrants. 

On Wednesday, with our co-counsel partners — the Prison Law Office and the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center — we sued the Trump administration, ICE, and the BOP for violating the constitutional rights of immigrants currently detained at one of those federal prisons in Victorville, California. We are asking the court to order ICE to immediately remedy the unlawful conditions and ultimately remove immigrants from the prison. 

The Victorville prison is in a remote location in the California desert, two hours outside of Los Angeles, far from community support and legal services. It is an enormous complex of concrete buildings surrounded by fencing and barbed wire. The immigrant men who are detained there wear orange and brown prison jumpsuits, but most have not been convicted of, or even charged with, a crime. They are merely seeking relief under U.S. immigration laws — as is their legal right. 

Their movement is highly restricted. They are detained two to a cell, confined indoors for most of the day with little opportunity for exercise or exposure to sunlight. Their “meals” are often inedible: spoiled milk and meat that is infested with worms and maggots. The food is nowhere near adequate to sustain them. 

When they arrived at Victorville, the detained immigrants were not provided a change of uniform or underwear for several weeks. Some recount how they had to wash their underwear in the toilet in their cell with a small bar of soap that was also to be used for washing themselves. 

Medical and mental health needs are ignored, an especially dangerous situation for those who have fled persecution or torture in their home countries. Poor hygiene and medical neglect are so extreme that there have been outbreaks of chickenpox and scabies. When the men try to seek medical help, they are often dismissed, mocked, and verbally abused by staff who threaten them with isolation and other punishment. 

Communication with the outside world is severely limited. The men do not have access to legal materials, and the most basic information is provided solely in English, a language that the majority of the men do not speak. They were only allowed to consult with attorneys after the ACLU of Southern California won a court order granting access to the detainees. 

As if these conditions were not appalling enough, prison officials have denied the men one of the few things that might bring them some comfort or peace of mind: the ability to practice their faith. Victorville officials have refused to provide religious services or other opportunities for group worship and prayer. By policy, the men are not allowed to worship outside of their cells. Prison officials also have not provided meals that fully comport with their religious beliefs, forcing them to eat food that violates their faith or go hungry. 

Officials confiscated immigrants’ religious items, including religious clothing and holy books. For example, Sikh immigrants had their turbans taken. They have not been able to regain access to them or obtain replacements, even though wearing a turban is one of Sikhism’s most sacred religious practices. Another immigrant had his Bible seized and has likewise been unable to procure a replacement. These violations of religious rights persist, even though the BOP’s and ICE’s own regulations recognize the right to engage in these religious practices. 

Let’s be clear: No one — not even those convicted of crimes — should be subject to these shocking conditions of confinement. Many of the men report that they feel depressed and that they never expected that this could happen in America. The situation is so dire that some have engaged in self-harm, while others simply abandon their legal claims because the abuse is too much to endure. 

Despite all that these people have gone through, an ICE agent told one of our clients "to think of Victorville like a hotel."  

But the problem isn’t limited to Victorville. At the Sheridan Federal Detention Center in Oregon, another BOP facility, immigrants likewise suffer from lack of access to counsel and other unconstitutional conditions, which are being challenged by the ACLU of Oregon and the Federal Public Defender. The ACLU and ACLU of Oregon filed a brief on Wednesday with the Oregon federal district court, supporting a request for an emergency order directing prison officials to allow the immigrants incarcerated at Sheridan to practice their religion while they are confined. 

The men at the Victorville and Sheridan prisons are detained under an agreement between ICE and the BOP, allowing for the detention of 1,600 immigrants in BOP facilities in Washington state, Oregon, California, Arizona, and Texas. While ICE uses its own network of prisons and jails to detain immigrants, the move to transfer immigrants to BOP facilities at this level is unprecedented.      

Before these transfers started, federal prisons like Victorville were used to incarcerate those who have been convicted of crimes — and the BOP did a poor job of that. Over the years, the Victorville prison has been plagued by a number of problems, including understaffing that has led to dangerous conditions for those incarcerated there. 

BOP officials themselves have acknowledged that the situation in these facilities is untenable. Some BOP employees have reported that they were not provided adequate notice that hundreds of immigrants would be transferred to BOP facilities, which were unprepared to handle a sudden influx of people or the particular needs of this population. While reports initially indicated that the use of federal prisons for immigrant detention was a temporary, 120-day arrangement, the contracts between ICE and BOP will last a year. 

The harm resulting from such imprisonment is profound. Many of the immigrants detained at Victorville and Sheridan may suffer medical and mental health effects years or even decades after they are released. 

None of this had to happen. 

Like the Trump administration’s family separation and zero-tolerance policies, these transfers were made in reckless haste, with no regard for the well-being and lives of the immigrants who are detained. President Trump and ICE might not care about them, but we do. 

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Teresa Bessett

The arrogant and ignorant comments here are not surprising. The truth of this article is incapable of penetrating these closed minds and hateful hearts. Its easy to be flippant with responses when it isn't you or loved ones being imprisoned for nothing more than wanting a new life. These are not illegal immigrants, and even if that were true, that they are being treated so cruelly would be inhumane no matter the reason and what country they are being held. That it turns out to be my country, the United States, who has suddenly become a dictatorship with all the mad insensible citizens taking over the assylum is something so unreal, so against everything this country stands for, is unreal and difficult to absorb. Our only recourse is to fight, never give in, or give up. And we shall, until humanity, equality, and justice are no longer threatened, and levelheads with compassionate and kind hearts prevail. The inane comments here are merely the broken seeking a forum to express their brokenness. And they did it very well. Every human being understands, learning in our youth, the words each of us speak, or express, are indicative of our own soul. Thank you for all you do and continue to do for all people, everywhere.

Dr. Timothy Leary

What's wrong with inane comments? Inane comments are what got Trump into the White House.

Susan B

The behavior of our government is shameful and criminal under international law. We would not condone this behavior in a dictatorship. As a Christian, I and most major religious denominations have spoken out against these cruel policies. This is not the America I knew and loved.

Noah Waters

It's obviously terrible that people are treated the way they are by our government, but along with that it's so sad that there are people that are not disturbed by this at all, not only because they have no heart and they have no concern for human decency or what this country is supposed to stand for and that they would claim they and our country has, but also because they are so full of self importance and hate that they can't see we are ALL at risk because inhumane treatment of people by a government NEVER stops and leaves the citizens of that country safe. The disease of hate and wanting to cause pain spreads and is then used on it's own people.
Those that cheer on terrible abuse of others will only awaken when it's them asking for help... and by then it will be too late.

Peace.

Anonymous

Are all the prisoners subjected to this ? Or are the immigrants getting "special" treatment?

RENS

We continue to refer to these people as immigrants. They are not. They are refugees from life threatening situations seeking asylum. By mislabeling them we accept gevernment propaganda aimed at demonizing them and robbing them of human dignity. Sending them to their countries of origin means death for many of the men and physical abuse and violation of women and children. Those who came the the US as infants or young children have no preparation for living in what to them is a foreign country where they do not know the language or have no familial support. Our government is now deporting even naturalized citizens and veterans of the US Military. We are therefore both refusing asylum to refugees and in some cases stripping men and women of their civil rights as potential or sworn citizens.

Anonymous

I truly don't understand refugees desire to enter the US. It's shocking to me. They are treated like dirt, discriminated against, forced to do menial service, imprisoned and generally detested by Americans, so why move there?

Susan R

This is horrifying!!! They should be getting food, medical care, and that

the other prisoners receive. It's another example why Trump needs to be impeached!!! He's a threat to our country in many ways and needs to be removed from his position!!!

Theresa Noe

It is so unfortunate that we are repeating the past. Why we can't learn from the atrocities of World War 2 is mind boggling. Japanese interment camps sound like resorts compared to where we are interring immigrants. All we can do is lobby our politicians. We have to push back against the inhumanity of this administration.

Anonymous

from some of the paragraphs I read it sounds like conditions in US prisons for citizens. Also please report what the conditions were like 6 years ago, or 8 years ago. Lets be honest in these reports. Report the facts with no bias.

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