In November, a group of incarcerated women at Baker County Detention Center in Macclenny, Florida, filed a Prison Rape Elimination Act complaint with the ACLU of Florida. The incidents began in May 2022 when Hyacinth Bailey, a 60 year-old woman who immigrated from Jamaica, reported being forced to use the bathroom while an officer watched from the doorway. However, according to Katie Blankenship, deputy legal director at the ACLU of Florida, neither the complaint nor the investigation thereafter addressed the issue of unlawful voyeurism. Since then, incarcerated women at the detention center have come forth with more reports of systemic voyeurism, such as being forced to shower, change, or use the bathroom while officers watch, or waking up to officers taking photos of them in their underwear. In addition to voyeurism, at least five women have also reported their experiences with medical neglect and lack of access to sanitary napkins. As the women await a response from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Blankenship says ICE needs to cancel its contract with the Baker County Sheriff’s Office and release every immigrant detained at the facility.
“As we continued to look into Baker and understand the depth of the problems there, we pretty quickly understood that it needed to become a top priority for the ACLU of Florida’s detention program,” said Blakenship.
For years, immigrants incarcerated at the Baker County Detention Center have reported abhorrent and inhumane living conditions, such as excessive use of force from guards, extreme medical neglect, racist harassment, retaliation, impediments to accessing legal counsel, and lack of adequate hygiene and food. Since 2017, over 160 complaints have been filed out of Baker. Additionally, Baker County has a history of overt white supremacy and nationalism; their county court still has a mural that depicts the KKK, and a former sheriff’s office employee was at the Jan. 6 riots.
In May 2022, around 100 immigrants at the facility began a hunger strike to protest racism, medical abuse, lack of COVID-19 safety measures, use of force, and bug-infested food. In retaliation, Baker guards cut off access to water in some cells. For over 24 hours, immigrants inside Baker had no water to drink, shower, or use the bathroom.
“It was literally a situation where feces was building up in the toilet,” said Blankenship. “That forced them to start eating again.”
After their investigation into the conditions at Baker County, ACLU of Florida activists say the only solution would be for the federal government to end its contract with the county sheriff’s office. There has been a recent push for ICE to end contracts with county-run detention centers due to inhumane conditions and treatment; however, in some cases, the immigrants get transferred to other facilities, or the space gets repurposed for other detention-related purposes.
“They are not able or fit to responsibly help immigrants in ICE detention,” said Blankenship. “It’s the only responsible thing for ICE to do.”
Bailey, who is listed in the original voyeurism complaint, wrote an accompanying letter detailing the abuse and retaliation she faced while at Baker.
“Being the oldest detainee in the dorm, I am always trying to motivate the younger ladies even though I am breaking down inside myself each day,” Bailey wrote in the letter. “[…] Being sixty years old and having officers who could have been my children or even my grandchildren scream at me and slam a door in my face is mentally killing my already weakened and fragile body.”
The Sheriff’s Office’s temporary solution to Bailey’s complaint was to rearrange the women and move them out of the cell visible from the control room. However, that only resulted in overcrowding, with as many as five women squeezed into a cell that previously only held two.
“Whatever ‘solution’—which we should use that term very loosely—has only compounded the abusive conditions for the women inside right now,” said Blankenship.
None of the officers involved have faced repercussions for their actions. Meanwhile, Bailey and the other women who attached their names to the complaint have been met with threats of deportation or being transferred to other facilities. According to Blankenship, Bailey was warned with an example of another woman, Bobbeth Morgan, who was transferred out of the facility and to another one in Texas.
“They will surely try to disappear them into other facilities and get them away from counsel,” said Blankenship. “That’s a tactic we see all the time, and it’s exactly the tactic they’re threatening.”
In response, Blankenship has continued to reach out to the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which has now initiated a federal investigation.
“They have an obligation to step in; this is a dire situation,” said Blankenship. “They are very much suffering and struggling inside right now, and they are fearful of what’s to come, but they remain resolved.”