[UPDATED with 300 Groups Demand Closure:] Theo Lacy Facility Outed as Among the Worst Immigration Detention Centers in the U.S.

See the Update No. 2 at the end of this post on 300 groups calling on the president to close troubled immigrant holding facilities, including Theo Lacy's.

See Update No. 1 on the ACLU of Southern California citing the Detention Watch Network report in calling for the closure of Orange County's immigrant holding facility.

ORIGINAL POST, NOV. 13, 8:38 A.M.: Theo Lacy Facility in Orange is among the worst immigration detention centers in the country.

So claims Washington, D.C.-based Detention Watch Network, which calls on President Barack Obama to reform the immigration system and with it the nation's 10 worst holding facilities, which include Theo Lacy.

See also:
Immigration Detainee Dies at Theo Lacy Jail
Transgendered, Gay ICE Detainees Sue Over Treatment at Theo Lacy Jail
Ruben Maya Gallegos Dies in Custody at Theo Lacy

The 11-acre jail between Orangewood Children's Home and Orange County Animal Shelter is the only California facility to make the 10 worst list. Theo Lacy joins Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama, Pinal County Jail in Arizona, Hudson County Jail in New Jersey, Tri-County Detention Center in Illinois, Baker County Jail in Florida, Houston
Processing Center and Polk County Detention Facility in Texas, and Stewart
Detention Center and Irwin County Jail in Georgia.

As the immigrant population has exploded in the U.S. over the past 15 years, facilities like these have increasingly “appalling conditions,” claims Detention Watch, noting that Obama promised reform of an “inhumane system” in 2009. Things are now so bad at Theo Lacy and the other nine that the only option is to shut them down, the nonprofit watchdog maintains.

The group on Thursday will unveil to the nation's media a series of reports titled “Expose and Close” that will apparently reveal “the widespread pattern of mistreatment.” Among the evidence (in the words of Detention Watch Network):

  • Roberto Medina-Martinez, a 39-year-old immigrant, died at Stewart in March 2009 of a treatable heart infection. An investigation conducted following his death revealed that the nursing staff failed to refer Mr. Medina for timely medical treatment and the facility physician failed to follow internal oversight procedures.
  • A man with serious emotional health problems in the Houston Processing Center in Texas was placed in solitary confinement for months at a time, a practice which the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has deemed torture.
  • At Baker, Etowah and Pinal County Detention Centers and Jails, families are only able to visit with their loved ones in detention through video monitors after having driven hundreds of miles to see them.
  • At the Pinal County Jail complaints regarding sanitation include receiving food on dirty trays, worms found in food, bugs and worms found in the faucets, receiving dirty laundry, and being overcrowded with ten other men in one cell and only one toilet.

Not part of the Detention Watch Network heads up, but possibly rolled into the report, is last year's death of 55-year-old Honduran Jose Aguilar-Espinoza, who suffered a heart
attack inside Theo Lacy, as my colleague Nick Schou revealed at the time.

Schou also wrote about a transgendered, gay ICE detainees suing the county last year for mistreatment at Lacy.

Among those scheduled to speak as the report is released Thursday are: Azadeh N. Shahshahani, National Security/Immigrants' Rights Project director, American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Georgia and president of National Lawyers Guild;
Pedro Guzman, a former Stewart Detention Center detainee; and Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño of the United Methodist Church/Los Angeles Area.

UPDATE NO. 1, NOV. 15, 4:46 P.M.: In the wake of the
Detention Watch Network report released today detailing “grim
conditions for immigrant detainees housed at Orange County's Theo Lacy
Detention Center, including widespread abuse and substandard medical
care,” the ACLU of Southern California is “calling on the federal government to terminate its contract with the
Orange County Sheriff's Department and stop using the high-security
prison as an immigrant holding center,” according to a statement from the group's LA office.

“The punitive conditions at Theo Lacy are not fit for
housing anyone, and certainly not for immigrants who are being held only
on suspicion of committing civil immigration violations,” says Michael
, staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, in the release. “The federal
government should honor its commitment to a 'civil detention' model by
terminating its contract at Theo Lacy.”

The report titled “Expose and Close,” which as previously reported here designates Theo Lacy
as one of the 10 worst immigration detention centers in the
country, alleges staff
there kick and shove detainees, subject them to racial
epithets including “nigger” and “camel” and so neglect
their medical needs that at least one died as a result. “The report also documents overuse of solitary confinement for
minor rule infractions,” notes the ACLU statement, “a punishment that can cause permanent damage to
mental health.” 

Click here to read the report.

Like the ACLU, the Detention Watch Network concludes Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) should close the facility and instead rely on alternatives to detention that, they contend, have proven track records and are more cost-effective.

Sheriff's officials claim the ranking of Theo Lacy is based on anecdotal evidence. While conceding there is always room for improvement at any government-run facility, these officials maintain the report rolls into an agenda by foes to close all such facilities housing immigrants here illegally.

But in 2009 the operation of Theo Lacy and the James A. Musick Facility for all inmates–even those in the U.S. legally–came under U.S. Justice Department scrutiny because of widespread complaints of brutality, horrid conditions and even deaths.

The ACLU and Detention Watch Network join in recommending that while Theo Lacy's immigrant hold center remains open, ICE should impose a zero-tolerance policy for abuse of inmates, end the use punitive solitary confinement and better facilitate family visitations.

UPDATE NO. 2, NOV. 28, 11:12 A.M.: Three hundred national and local organizations sent a letter
to the White House today calling on President Barack Obama to close what have been deemed the 10 worst immigrant detention centers in the U.S., including the one at Theo Lacy Facility in Orange.

“We hope the call for
closure from such a diverse array of organizations across the country
will convince President Obama that he must act,” says Andrea Black,
executive director of Detention Watch Network, which released the damning report Nov. 15 that the groups reacted to. “ICE claims it has taken
steps to reform the detention system, but the people actually in
detention are suffering as much as ever. In his second term, the
president has the power to bring about change that will uplift
immigrants instead of lock them up.”

Click here to view the letter signed by the groups.

Besides closing the troubled center like Theo Lacy's, the groups call on Obama to make “immediate changes to
ensure the safety, dignity and well-being of immigrants held in

Besides the groups, Detention Watch Network has received support for its closure call from U.S. Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colorado) and Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas).

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Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.

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