A Southern California federal prison being used to house approximately 850 immigration detainees has devolved into chaos, according to interviews with inmates, staffers and attorneys, who described the last three weeks inside the facility to Rolling Stone. Inmates are growing increasingly frustrated with unpredictable lockdowns and programming cuts, they say, staffers are overworked, and detainees are confused about their confinement and have no means to contact their families. All three groups have concerns about inadequate medical care, leaving them fearful of contracting contagious diseases that have been detected inside the facility. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has largely failed to lend any kind of support, despite early promises that it would be responsible for providing services to detainees. Routines that once kept the facility in order have been abandoned and plans are made up as they go along. “Basically, this place has literally turned into hell on earth,” Rasheed Jamal Brandon, who has been incarcerated at the prison for 2.5 years, tells Rolling Stone in an email.
ICE claims the use of the facility for detention is necessary to enforce immigration laws and referred all questions about the state of the prison to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), which told Rolling Stone it continues to “provide a safe and appropriate environment for the detainees.”
The detainees have been housed in the medium security facility at the Victorville federal prison compound, 85 miles northeast of Los Angeles, since early June. The move is a the result of an agreement between ICE and the BOP, which allows the immigration authority to use 1,600 beds across five facilities. ICE said it needs to use these facilities because of a “surge in illegal border crossings” and the Department of Justice’s zero-tolerance policy. Under the deal, Victorville, which is located about 140 miles from the Mexican border, is receiving the bulk of the detainees – up to 1,000 – who are from Central America, the Indian subcontinent and Africa. It is unclear how they entered the country – some have indicated they are seeking asylum – and many were previously housed in detention facilities in Texas and Arizona, according to ICE tuberculosis screening documents obtained by Rolling Stone.
The population of the prison complex – which includes another medium security prison, a low security camp, and penitentiary – has ballooned to roughly 4,200 people. Half of the prisoners from the medium-security facility, about 600 men, were moved to make room for the detainees. However roughly 600 inmates were left behind to help with cleaning and cooking, according to John Kostelnik, the president of the local union, American Federation of Government Employees Local 3969.
After being on lockdown for the first week, the inmates – who are housed in separate quarters than the detainees – now receive sporadic time in the yard and are confined to their cells whenever the detainees move between the cafeteria and recreation time, according to Kostelnik and five inmates who spoke to Rolling Stone. Inmates can receive visitors three times a week, but those can be called off with no notice. On June 28th, officials made an announcement that all visitation would be canceled without explanation. The inmates said that they were promised conditions would improve since there were fewer inmates in the prison left to care for, but daily routines that were once filled with programming aimed at rehabilitation have been turned upside down.
“We were told that things around here would be good and that we would benefit from being cadres but what I’m realizing is that day by day we are losing the privileges we once had,” says inmate Robert Morales.
The chaplain library has been closed for two weeks, religious services have been cut back and inmates are now given recreation time just once a day, as opposed to the usual three, they say. On some days they must choose between dinner and recreation, while on others, they receive no recreation time at all. They report being on lockdown for two full days last week. Education programs have been slashed as teachers have been reassigned to guard duty in a practice known as “augmenting,” Kostelnik says. Information about daily plans has not filtered down to corrections staffers and inmates. Announcements regarding movements are seemingly made on a whim.
“We cannot figure out where we stand amongst all of this or where this is going or what is going to happen to the programs we were formerly attending,” writes Clarence Remble, who is serving a 36-year sentence. “Believe it or not… some of us are trying to better ourselves around here and this is taking away from that.”
The prison was already struggling to provide adequate programming after BOP recently cut 120 vacant positions that officials were hiring for, says Kostelnik, who works as a case manager. “Even before this, I knew our inmates were having trouble with rehabilitation.”
The inmates are responsible for cleaning the detainees’ cells, shower area and cafeteria. Many detainees haven’t been given proper medical care due to understaffing. The detainees receive a 30-second medical review upon entry and those who were found to have rashes or scabies weren’t considered a significant enough of a risk to be isolated, Kostelnik said. Since their arrival, there have been two confirmed cases of chicken pox and 38 cases of scabies, up from 10 just a week ago, according to Kostelnik and internal memos obtained by Rolling Stone.
To keep up with demand, Victorville borrowed medical staff from other facilities. In total, there are just two physicians, nine physician assistants or nurse practitioners, and one medical clerical worker to care for the roughly 4,200 people currently incarcerated on the compound, documents show. Medical staff have become “emotional” as they struggle to provide proper care, Kostelnik says.
On June 19th, 56-year-old inmate Barry Keck, who had been at the facility since April 20th, was found dead in his cell due to an apparent suicide. Under BOP policy, each detainee must receive a physical exam within 14 days of entering the facility, but he never received one due to staffing shortages, according to Kostelnik. “If there was a potential for him to receive medication and he didn’t get required medications because he wasn’t evaluated, that is some form of neglect and we are responsible,” he says.
In a statement to Rolling Stone on June 22nd, a BOP spokesperson said it “takes communicable diseases seriously.” BOP was not able to respond to detailed follow-up questions by press time.
Like the inmates and staff, the detainees are living without any sort of direction. Very few speak English and are distressed about the location of their family members. Eva Bitran, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, met with two men – from Honduras and Guatemala – on June 21st. After being apprehended for crossing the border into Texas, both have been convicted and served time for illegal entry. They are now in the early stages of their immigration proceedings, Bitran says, noting that they both have expressed fears about returning to their home countries. Up until she saw them, they hadn’t spoken to anyone outside of the prison and were only allowed to use a phone to call their consulates. When the man from Guatemala called, the consulate didn’t pick up. The two men had concerns about the medical treatment, Bitran says, and their level of despair was “incredibly high” as they had no idea what was happening to them or where they were.
“One of the men I spoke with didn’t even know where he was being held,” Bitran said. “He asked me to write down the name of the facility for him.”
ICE has yet to follow through on its promise to provide translators, discouraging the use of phone translators because they are expensive, according to Kostelnik. The agency did not return questions about this claim from Rolling Stone.
An ICE spokeswoman said that the use of the facility is temporary until it obtains long-term contracts with private detention facilities or “until the surge in illegal border crossing subsides.” But it’s possible that it may use the prison longer than expected, said Kostelnik. “I fear that this is far from over and the agency continues to refuse to hire staff and ensure the safety of everyone involved.”
For Brandon and the other inmates, an extension could be devastating.
“It’s so depressing here it’s sickening, not to mention it’s nothing but tension,” he said. “Keeping us caged in is just a boiling pot ready to run over.”