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Safety Issues and Lax Oversight Plague Immigration Detention Centers in California

State investigations raise concerns about human rights abuses in federal detention facilities.

Robin Urevich

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Adelanto detention center (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

Stonewalling by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement prevented California’s attorney general from fully investigating immigration detention in the state as a 2017 law now requires, but it didn’t prevent the state auditor from slamming California cities for lax oversight of detention and for subsidizing federal detention in the state. On February 26 both the AG and the state auditor released investigative reports that raised concerns about human rights abuses in federal detention facilities in California. The state holds some 4,500 immigrant detainees for ICE, more than any other state except Texas.

The state auditor recommended the legislature pass a bill that would take effect immediately and require California cities that contract with ICE to ensure that detention centers meet federal standards.


Orange County lost $1.7 million last year because it neglected to charge ICE the full cost of jailing immigrants in two lock-ups


Both reports flagged conditions at the Adelanto detention center, where a detainee hanged himself and three others recently attempted suicide. A surprise federal inspection revealed that braided bedsheets, like the ones used in the suicide and two of the attempts, were hanging in 15 cells in the facility in violation of detention standards. Both guards and detainees referred to them as nooses.

“When you have suicides and attempted suicides, that raises red flags,” said Assemblyman Rob Bonta. Bonta said he’d like to include the auditor’s recommendation in a budget bill or possibly in private prison legislation he’s introduced this year.

The AG wrote short reports on seven facilities while providing in-depth investigations of three county jails that also house ICE detainees — Theo Lacy in Orange County, Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility and West County Detention Facility in Contra Costa County, which has since terminated its ICE contract. The AG failed to break new ground in its probe of the state’s four private facilities where 80 percent of immigrant detainees are held; its report described the limited access ICE provided to those lock-ups.

Among the attorney general’s findings:

  • Some detainees are locked in cells for 22 hours a day.
  • Language barriers lead to arbitrary or abusive discipline or treatment of detainees by staff.
  • Medical care has been delayed or denied.
  • Unsafe suicide watch and solitary confinement practices were discovered.
  • Contact with family members is sometimes difficult because of financial or geographic barriers.

California’s auditor discovered the following:

  • Orange County lost $1.7 million last year because it neglected to charge ICE the full cost of jailing immigrants in two lock-ups. Orange County disputes the finding, arguing that it would have incurred the extra costs even if had not jailed ICE detainees.
  • Yolo County spent an estimated $700,000 more than it was paid by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, failing to recoup its costs for holding immigrant youth in its juvenile detention facility.
  • The cities of Adelanto, McFarland and Holtville failed to adequately oversee the detention centers they contract with ICE to operate, despite serious health and safety issues raised by ICE’s own inspectors.

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The federal government opposed the state attorney general’s investigation and waged a court battle to invalidate AB 103, the state law that mandates the AG’s probe. The government argued that the inspections would preempt federal authority over immigration; however, a federal judge disagreed and dismissed the government’s case against AB 103. The government continues a court fight against provisions of one other state sanctuary law.

Still, even after Assembly Bill 103 survived its court challenge, ICE stymied the AG’s inspections. For instance, investigators from the attorney general’s office had requested a two-week site visit to the 1,940-bed Adelanto Detention Facility in San Bernardino County, but its report noted that ICE provided only a “limited tour and did not permit us to speak with detainees or facility staff informally, or to conduct formal detainee or staff interviews.” AG inspectors took similar day-long tours of the three other private facilities in the state but were only permitted to talk to detainees at two of them.


City officials couldn’t answer basic questions about the detainee population in their facilities.


However, ICE’s lack of cooperation didn’t hinder the state auditor, whose findings were based on reporting by California cities and counties. The auditor was sharply critical of Adelanto, Holtville and McFarland, which have contracted with ICE to run detention centers, but which neither operate the facilities nor adequately oversee the for-profit firms that do. The ICE contracts, known as Intergovernmental Service Agreements, allow the agency to bypass federal contracting rules that require competitive bidding and transparency.

The auditor noted that city officials couldn’t answer basic questions about the detainee population in their facilities. They didn’t demand reports or accountability from the for-profit prison firms with which they subcontract and rarely set foot in the detention centers, although they have a right to do so.

In addition to its recommendation to the legislature, the auditor recommended that counties avoid spending county monies on immigration detention, and instead recover the full cost of detention from federal agencies.

The attorney general’s office stressed that its investigation continues. It has $1 million dollars to report on immigration detention in California over 10 years.


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