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Caged alone 24 hours a day, denied medicine: lawsuit claims 'torture' in US migrant jails

Sam Levin in Los Angeles
Photograph: Damian Dovarganes/AP

Melvin Murillo Hernandez suffered allergic reactions so bad he had to be hospitalized four times. Martín Muñoz had no access to insulin for ten long days. Denied a wheelchair, Faour Abdallah Fraihat was unable to get to the cafeteria.

The men are three of 15 plaintiffs and two not-for-profit groups alleging “horrific conditions” and “torture” in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) detention centers in a new class-action lawsuit on behalf of 55,000 detainees. The plaintiffs, who live with conditions ranging from cerebral palsy and bipolar disorder to blindness and schizophrenia, accuse the US government of denying jailed migrants food, medicine, surgeries and the most basic accommodations for disabilities.

The suit filed in Los Angeles on Monday outlines individual experiences at eight different facilities, but immigration lawyers say the mistreatment is representative of systemic problems that affect tens of thousands of people. The complaint comes as the Trump administration escalates its efforts to make it harder for asylum seekers and migrants from certain countries to come to the US, detains undocumented migrants for longer periods of time and expands the use of private prison contracts in the immigration system.

Attorneys said the conditions at some US detention centers were so brutal that migrants who have fled torture and violence “are forced to abandon viable claims for immigration relief and accept deportation out of a desperate desire to escape the torture they are enduring in detention on US soil”.

Related: Are we approaching a turning point in US’s immigration crisis? | Jackie Stevens and James Marcus

“They cannot take it any more,” said Elissa Johnson, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of several not-for-profit organizations involved in the suit in Los Angeles. “That is not a choice that anyone should have to make,” she told reporters.

Near-death experiences

The suit alleges the detention center failed to provide the most elementary care or essential supports for detainees suffering from chronic conditions or living with disabilities.

Melvin Murillo Hernandez, an 18-year-old immigrant, was held in an Ice detention center in Louisiana. He has multiple life-threatening food allergies but was not given a special diet for more than six months in Ice custody, the suit says. He suffered seven severe allergic reactions and was repeatedly hospitalized due to anaphylactic shock.

He was eventually placed in “medical segregation” because of his allergies, leaving him alone in a cell 24 hours a day, the suit says. Staff now bring him his meals, which consist mostly of eggs and rice. But the segregation brings new health concerns, since he had previously relied on other detainees to get the staff’s attention during the anaphylactic shocks that caused him to lose consciousness.

José Baca Hernández, a 23-year-old detainee in the Adelanto detention center in California who has been blind since 2015, has to rely on cellmates, attorneys and guards to read any documents related to his medical care and immigration case, the suit says.

When Faour Abdallah Fraihat arrived at Adelanto in December 2016, he reported an issue with a disc in his back and knee and was provided a temporary wheelchair. But the facility took it away after just one month, the complaint says. Fraihat made extensive requests for a wheelchair after that, sometimes on a daily basis, but did not receive one until February 2019, the suit says, adding that without a wheelchair, Fraihat couldn’t get to the yard or the cafeteria and had to rely on officers to bring him food.

Fraihat, 57, also suffered deteriorating vision while in custody, the suit says, but Ice refused to provide a surgery recommended by a doctor. He eventually lost vision in his left eye.

Mentally ill and in solitary

Gisselle Contreras, at podium, daughter of an immigrant detained at Adelanto, California, describes her father’s housing conditions before his final deportation to Guatemala. Photograph: Damian Dovarganes/AP

Mentally ill inmates at the centers languish in isolation, the suit alleges.

Hamida Ali, a 28-year-old refugee from Sudan who has been in the US for most of her life, has schizophrenia and has also been suicidal during her time in Ice custody in Colorado, the suit says. But almost immediately after she was detained, Ice isolated her in a dorm alone for roughly nine months, leading to “episodes of extreme psychological distress”.

Sergio Salazar Artaga, a 25-year-old detainee in Florence, Arizona, who has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and psychosis while in detention, was put on suicide watch for self-harming behavior and hallucinations, the suit notes, but he was unable to see a mental health provider for an entire month of detention.

Jose Segovia Benitez, a 38-year-old US Marine Corps veteran who completed two tours of duty, has depression, anxiety, traumatic brain injury and combat PTSD. But Adelanto has subjected him to solitary confinement, which has exacerbated his mental health struggles, the complaint says.

Denied medication

And staff members at detention centers have made life-threatening medical mistakes, the complaint says.

Martín Muñoz, who has been in the US for more than four decades and has diabetes, had an insulin overdose when Adelanto staff administered more than triple his regular dose, the suit says. He was allegedly taken to medical observation when “staff realized the mistake”, but he was never evaluated by a doctor.

On at least one occasion, Muñoz was left without high blood pressure medication for two weeks, when Adelanto ran out. Recently, he did not receive insulin for 10 days. He also allegedly went a week without his cholesterol medication.

Systemic problems

Al Otro Lado, a legal services organization and one of two not-for-profit groups serving as plaintiffs in the case, says in the suit it has struggled to support asylum seekers and refugees because its staff has to spend significant resources fighting for the medical needs of its existing clients.

The organization says two of its clients lost their pregnancies in custody due to failed medical intervention and argues it has had to spend extensive time advocating for clients with HIV to get basic care and safe housing where they won’t be exposed to infectious diseases.

An Ice spokesperson declined to comment on the allegations but said there were “timely and appropriate responses to emergent medical requests”, and that “comprehensive medical care is provided to all individuals” in custody.

A spokesperson for Geo Group, the private prison company that operates Adelanto and other centers for Ice, said the allegations were “baseless” and that the corporation’s medical programs “provide 24/7 access to health care free of charge” and are “supported by professional teams including full-time physicians”.