ACLU Sues U.S. Immigration Officials and For-Profit Corrections Corporation Over Dangerous and Inhumane Housing of Detainees

January 24, 2007 12:00 am

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In a Legal First, ACLU Seeks to Change Overcrowded and Degrading Conditions at San Diego Facility

SAN DIEGO – The American Civil Liberties Union today joined a lawsuit on behalf of immigration detainees at San Diego Correctional Facility, charging that chronically severe overcrowding places detainees’ health and safety at risk and is unconstitutional.

“Immigration detainees are held under civil rather than criminal laws,” said Gouri Bhat, a lawyer with the ACLU National Prison Project. “Since they are detained for non-punitive purposes, immigration detainees are legally entitled to better living conditions than convicted prisoners or pre-trial detainees.”

The proposed class action complaint filed by the ACLU’s National Prison Project and Immigrants’ Rights Project, the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties and the law firm of Cooley Godward Kronish LLP, addresses the practice of long-term overcrowding at the San Diego facility and is the first of its kind to seek broad improvements in the housing of immigration detainees based on their status as civil detainees.

According to the complaint, immigration detainees at the facility are literally living on top of each other. More than 650 detainees live three-to-a-cell, meaning that one of them sleeps on a plastic slab on the floor by the toilet. Additional detainees sleep on bunk beds in the recreation area, driving the population of some housing units to more than 50 percent over design-capacity.

The backlog of immigration cases in the Ninth Circuit is the largest in the country, according to court statistics. While some detainees at the facility are held for relatively short periods, hundreds live in these overcrowded, intolerable conditions for many months or years, as their immigration cases are reviewed on appeal, the ACLU said. More than half of the detainees in ICE custody have never been convicted of a crime and are only in custody to await civil proceedings related to their immigration status.

“Immigration detainees are at a particular disadvantage because they have no right to appointed counsel,” said Judy Rabinovitz, Senior Counsel with the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project. “Detaining these people in crowded, unsafe conditions for months or years on end is perverse and inhumane.”

SDCF is one of the largest immigration detention facilities in the country and houses about 1,000 detainees in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Corrections Corporation of America, Inc. (CCA), the nation’s largest for-profit prison company, manages the facility under a contract with ICE. The ACLU’s complaint charges that both ICE and CCA are responsible for the widespread practice of packing three detainees into cells designed for two.

According to the ACLU, overcrowding at SDCF has led to incidents of violence at the facility, including a September 2006 disturbance in which detainees who peacefully waited to speak with ICE officials about the new triple-celling policy were abruptly tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed by CCA officers. The complaint also states that triple-celling has resulted in delays in medical and mental health treatment, physical and psychological suffering, the spread of infectious diseases, lack of adequate exercise, and poor sanitation.

“As we have seen in so many California prisons, overcrowding increases tensions among detainees and prison guards, and it is only a matter of time before those tensions erupt into violence,” said David Blair-Loy, Legal Director of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. “The conditions at SDCF are not only unconstitutional, they are dangerous for the health and safety of everyone at the facility.”

The San Diego facility was one of five immigration detention facilities audited by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (OIG) in 2005 to assess the overall treatment of detainees in ICE custody. The OIG’s long-awaited report was released last week and disappointed many immigrant advocates who expected a more critical and comprehensive report on detainee living conditions.

The report, for example, does not address the issue of triple-celling at SDCF although the practice was pervasive at the time of the audit and the subject of many detainee complaints. Despite its narrow focus, however, the OIG report identifies several instances of egregious physical and sexual abuse by officers at SDCF, as well as significant failures on the facility’s part to provide adequate health care and monitor suicidal detainees.

In legal papers filed today, the ACLU is seeking to amend a complaint filed by detainee Isaac Kigondu Kiniti, who has been representing himself in a case he filed in May 2005 that challenges overcrowded conditions at SDCF. Kiniti was taken into ICE custody in May 2004 and sent to SDCF in November 2004. Since 2004, he has been awaiting proceedings to determine whether he will have to return to Kenya, where he fears he will be subjected to persecution and torture. Living conditions have worsened since Kiniti’s case was filed almost two years ago and the ACLU hopes its involvement will help improve conditions at SDCF so that they meet constitutional standards.

The ACLU’s proposed second amended complaint is filed in Kiniti v. Wagner, Case No. 3:05-CV-01013-DMS-PCL (S.D. Cal.), and is available at:

SDCF detainees are represented by Bhat, Tom Jawetz, and David Fathi of the ACLU National Prison Project, Rabinovitz and Mόnica Ramírez of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, Blair-Loy of the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, and Anthony M. Stiegler and Mary Kathryn Kelley of Cooley Godward Kronish LLP.

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