SAN FRANCISCO — On Thursday morning, protesters gathered in front of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office in San Francisco to demand an end to what they say is the ongoing abuse of ICE detainees at two state detention centers.
The Mesa Verde Center in Bakersfield and the Golden State Annex Center in McFarland in Kern County, the subject of media attention in recent months, are private, for-profit centers that have been contracted out to the GEO Group, a company that operates private prisons with profit motive in the US.
Detainees awaiting deportation have reported violence, medical neglect, sexual abuse, malnutrition and generally poor living conditions. According to detainees, when they report their concerns to ICE, they are ignored and often face retaliation.
The GEO Group denies allegations of abuse of detainees.
“We reject these baseless allegations, which we believe are part of a long-running radical campaign to attack ICE’s contractors, abolish ICE, and end federal immigration detention by proxy in the state of California,” a spokesperson for the agency wrote. the GEO Group in an email. . “We also note that certain detainees are taking actions initiated and coordinated by outside immigration advocacy groups, which are simply trying to further their anti-ICE political agendas.”
Thursday’s protest, led by the Mesa Verde-Golden State Annex Strike Support Committee — a group made up of immigrant rights groups and labor unions — drew a crowd of about 40 people, many holding placards with messages like “Stop Sexual Assault! Stop the retaliation!”
Interspersed with some chants, former and current inmates gave reflections on their time in the ICE facilities, with the latter group speaking through a phone held close to a microphone to amplify their voices. An attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union was also invited to speak.
According to Genna Beier, a San Francisco deputy public defender who has represented several inmates at Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex, these facilities have an inmate volunteer program with a wage of $1 a day. However, these programs are far from voluntary, instead incarcerated individuals present what Beier says is a “false choice.”
They can either clean their own room and have a sanitary living environment while being paid less than minimum wage, or choose not to work and live in incredibly dirty conditions, Beier said. Under this program, workers are mistreated, continue to be subjected to appalling conditions, and are not given the necessary safety equipment to work, she said.
On top of these deplorable working conditions described are alleged routine sexually abusive patdowns and violence by detention center staff.
In the summer of 2022, some detainees staged a labor strike in protest against these conditions, but to no avail. In February, some decided to go on a hunger strike, which lasted more than a month.
Jose Ruben Hernandez Gomez, who spoke at the protest, is one of the inmates who led the hunger strike in Mesa Verde. In retaliation for the strike, he says, ICE officials threw him to the ground, dragged and handcuffed him before transferring him to another ICE facility in Texas.
While Beier, who represented Hernandez Gomez, says ICE suggested this transfer was to provide detainees with more medical care, she thinks it was part of an effort to isolate four leaders of the hunger strike.
In Texas, Hernandez Gomez says doctors explained to him in great detail how they would force-feed him if he refused to eat: They would run tubes down his nose and down his throat, where they would pump liquid food down his esophagus.
Terrified by this prospect, the leaders broke their fast. However, Hernandez Gomez asked for vitamins beforehand to make sure he could get used to eating. He says he has been denied these necessities.
Instead, officers gave him two large burgers and a large bowl of fries, which he says were too many calories for his body to handle after 21 days of not eating.
After being fed this way, he said he developed refeeding syndrome, described by the National Institutes of Health as potentially fatal shifts in fluids and electrolytes that can occur in malnourished patients, and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a degenerative brain disorder , which caused him numerous neurological problems, such as confusion, headache, dizziness and lightheadedness. He was hospitalized four times, once for five days, he says. He still suffers from these ailments and relies on a cane for support.
What he experienced in detention, he says, was traumatizing.
“If this happened to me, and I’m still dealing with this, imagine my brothers are still incarcerated. They’ve endured the same violence and they’re still suffering constant violence and sexual abuse,” he said.
Sana Singh, an immigrant rights associate with the ACLU in Northern California, described the measures being taken to address these alleged conditions at Thursday’s protest. With support from the ACLU, she explained, in recent years detainees have filed complaints with the US Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL).
CRCL is currently investigating both facilities for their alleged assault. Last September, she added, members of the California congressional delegation wrote a letter to US Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas advocating for these facilities to be closed.
She ended her speech with a portrait of a dysfunctional grievance system that allows inmates to make complaints to these facilities. Their complaints, she said, are often ruled unfounded as soon as they are filed.
“How can there be justice in a grievance system where GEO becomes the judge and the defendant?” she asked.
Discussing the CRCL investigation into Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex, Beier explained that these kinds of government reports take a long time to produce and even when they are done, they rarely see the light of day.
“I think it is very important to emphasize the voices and believe the people who are being held now because they are speaking the truth about what is going on in these detention centers and in some ways we don’t need five years and an official government .” report to tell us what we already know,” Beier said.
Hernandez Gomez called on San Francisco ICE officials Richard Chang and Moises Becerra to address these alleged abuses as Mesa Verde and Golden State Annex are within their purview.
He also urged state representatives to support detainees in their fight against perceived inhumane conditions.
“We don’t know who to turn to at this point. We need someone to hold these people accountable because they are getting away with it and the way it is that this is all for financial gain on their part and at the cost of our suffering Hernandez Gomez said.
ICE was not immediately available for comment.
While the GEO Group cannot comment on specific cases of individuals detained by ICE, it emphasized their commitment to treating individuals in their facilities with dignity and respect.
“GEO has a long-standing commitment to respecting the human rights of those entrusted to our care and to ethical practices in all aspects of our services,” a GEO Group spokesperson wrote.
The company noted that all of GEO’s ICE processing centers provide 24-hour medical care, three high-quality meals, recreational facilities, religious programs, libraries and access to legal services.