Civil Rights And Prisoners Rights Groups’ Suit Cites Inhumane Treatment At Victorville Prison

The American Civil Liberties Union, the Prison Law Office, and the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center filed a lawsuit on Wednesday August 1 against the federal government on behalf of six specific inmates alleging violations of their rights at the Federal Correction Institution in Victorville.
According to the suit, those who have lodged the suit, Stephenson Awah Teneng, Marcel Ngwa, Ankush Kumar, Gurjinder Singh, Atinder Paul Singh and Noe Mauricio Granados Aquino, are not criminally charged and have not been criminally convicted but are being held as civil detainees under the auspices of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and the Department of Homeland Security as a consequence of their applications for asylum and residency as foreigners.
“Specifically, plaintiffs ask the court to enter an order directing the defendants, under a strict deadline, to move all Immigration and Customs Enforcement immigration detainees from Victorville as quickly as possible,” the suit states.
The suit names President Donald Trump, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, Acting Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Ronald D. Vitiello, the field office director of the Los Angeles Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement David Marin, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Acting Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons Hugh Hurwitz, and the warden of the Victorville Prison, David Shinn.
According to the suit, the plaintiffs, none of whom are yet U.S. Citizens, have constitutional rights, and the defendants have engaged in “violating the constitutional rights of immigrants detained at Federal Correctional Institution Victorville.”
The suit’s allegations apply, the suit maintains, to Teneng, Ngwa, Kumar, Singh, Singh and Aquinao “and all others similarly situated.”
According to the suit, “In early June, Immigration and Customs Enforcement began transferring immigrants from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection facilities to prisons operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, through an agreement that sanctions the detention of 1,600 people in Bureau of Prison facilities in Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, and Texas. Since June 8, 2018, defendants have imprisoned more than 1,000 civil immigration detainees, in violation of their constitutional rights, at Victorville. On that date, with very little notice to the Bureau of Prisons and its staff, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (“ICE”) of the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) transferred these men to Victorville, subjecting them to harsh prison conditions that can only reasonably be described as punitive and inhumane. Many of those imprisoned are asylum seekers. Some have been separated from their children.”
The suit maintains that “detainees at Victorville are being held at a medium-security federal prison and subjected to policies and practices designed for persons who have been convicted of crimes. As a result of the unconstitutional treatment of these civil detainees, many have expressed a desire to be returned, immediately, to their countries of origin—foregoing their claims for immigration relief altogether—because they would rather face the dangers back home than be imprisoned in these abysmal conditions. Many of these men—refugees from El Salvador, Honduras, India, Cameroon, and other troubled regions—risked their lives and those of their families by traveling across continents to avail themselves of our nation’s asylum and immigration laws. All of them seek a legal remedy under our nation’s immigration laws.”
The suit states that “Prior to June 2018, Victorville housed only criminally convicted persons. On information and belief, the prison has housed well over 1,000 civil immigration detainees since June. Some have been detained at Victorville for nearly two months. According to the Bureau of Prisons corrections officers’ union, the officers and staff employed at Victorville are trained under Bureau of Prisons standards and have not received training under Immigration and Customs Enforcement standards. Upon their arrival at Victorville, Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees are given Victorville’s Bureau of Prisons Inmate Handbook. On information and belief, the handbook is available only in English and Spanish. Bureau of Prison policy states that Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees in Bureau of Prison facilities are to be treated as criminal pre-trial detainees. Victorville has always operated, and continues to operate, as a prison that incarcerates people who have been convicted of crimes.”
The suit continues, “Upon transferring plaintiffs and other detainees to Victorville, defendants maintained a 24-hour lockdown for three or more days, during which time plaintiffs were not allowed to leave their cells for any reason. Outdoor exercise is limited to only a few hours of fresh air and sunlight each week. Correctional officers bark orders in English, occasionally in Spanish, even though many of the men speak only French, Punjabi, Mam, or other languages.”
According to the suit, “Defendants fail to provide minimally adequate health care to plaintiffs and other detainees. Detainees receive minimal or no medical, dental, or mental health screenings upon their arrival at Victorville. The lack of screening is especially dangerous in light of the confirmed outbreaks of chicken pox and scabies. Those detainees who have received any sort of health screening generally have been forced to communicate with medical personnel who speak only English, without the benefit of a translator, even when the detainee does not speak English. Detainees do not have access to necessary medications.”
In addition, according to the suit, the prisoners were provided with “only one set of clothing upon their arrival at Victorville. Defendants did not issue another set of clean clothing, including clean undergarments, to detainees for approximately the first two to three weeks the detainees were at the prison.” Prisoners were reduced to washing their clothes in their toilets using hand soap, according to the lawsuit.
The suit makes issue of the food provided to the prison’s inmates.
“These meals are small, inadequate, and of poor nutritional value, and frequently do not contain meat or any other sufficient source of protein,” the suit states. Contradictorally, according to the suit “Upon their initial arrival, detainees who are vegetarians for religious reasons were given meals with meat in them, with no alternatives. Detainees who are vegetarians for religious reasons, like Plaintiff G. Singh, are often offered nothing but two pieces of bread for lunch, and green beans and rice for dinner.”
According to the suit, some prisoners encountered “worms or maggots in the meat” as well as “spoiled milk.” In addition, the suit claims guards routinely rushed the prisoners at meal time, giving them “inadequate time to eat.”
The suit maintains that many of the prison’s inmates are denied the right to freely exercise their religious beliefs. According to the suit, “Defendants fail to provide religious services or consultation with clergy, and they prohibit detainees from engaging in group prayer and congregate worship. They deny detainees halal or kosher meals that comport with their religious needs, forcing many to go hungry. Upon the detainees’ detention by the defendants, defendants confiscate all religious head covers, jewelry, and other articles of faith, and the detainees are unable to obtain replacements for the items.”
The Bureau of Prisons handbook the prisoners were provided with informed the detainees of a list of classes available at the prison. According to the lawsuit, when the detainees inquired about those classes, they were told they could not attend them.
“These conditions, all well documented at the Federal Correctional Institution Medium II Victorville, are constitutionally impermissible when applied to individuals convicted of crimes and sentenced under our nation’s criminal laws,” the suit maintains.
The way in which the prison is being operated violates American principles and values, according to the suit.
“Faced with harsh, punitive conditions, some detainees have been coerced into abandoning their immigration claims and returning to their home countries rather than remain incarcerated at Victorville,” according to the suit. “Emerson Berrios Banegas, who had planned to seek asylum, reported, ‘I signed papers agreeing to be deported. I do not want to go back but I signed the papers because I do not like being treated like a criminal prisoner.’”
Security and health care staff at the prison have protested that it is ill-equipped to handle the influx of detainees. Several housing units at the prison that were previously closed due to understaffing reopened in June for the purpose of detaining immigrants, and staffing remains deficient. Detained immigrants describe conditions at the prison as dangerous and chaotic. Attorneys on the case believe this is a human rights crisis for those detained.
“People should not be imprisoned simply because they are seeking asylum in this country,” said Margot Mendelson, a staff attorney at the Prison Law Office. “The federal government is needlessly locking these individuals into a medium-security federal prison, and is depriving them of basic human needs such as health care, food, and sunlight. This lawsuit calls on the government to remove ICE detainees from the federal prison at Victorville immediately and to ensure that their constitutional rights are protected.”
Tim Fox, co-Executive Director of the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center, said, “Through its so-called ‘zero-tolerance’ policy, ICE has created a situation in which people who have violated no criminal laws and are simply seeking a better life are imprisoned and subjected to unconstitutional conditions, a pattern and practice unworthy of this country.”
Mark Gutglueck

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