CW: This story includes descriptions of torture in immigrant detention and mentions of death by suicide
At least three facilities operated by the private prison company CoreCivic systematically use torture as retaliation against immigrants who denounce the conditions of detention, according to advocates, attorneys, researchers, and detainees. Practices such as extreme solitary confinement, medical neglect, forceful transfers, and threats of removal silence immigrants and allow CoreCivic to maintain lucrative government contracts.
Hunger strikes, federal investigations into abuse, and complaints against immigration agencies have made the Biden administration fully aware of the retaliatory practices used at New Mexico’s Torrance County Detention Facility, Georgia’s Stewart Detention Center, and California’s Otay Mesa Detention Center. Still, the federal government maintains more than $100 million in open contracts with CoreCivic to keep immigrants and asylum-seekers in civil detention, often for several years.
These practices—which inflict “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental,” to punish, intimidate, coerce, or obtain information or a confession with “the consent or acquiescence of a public official”—fit the definition of the Convention Against Torture of the UN, of which the U.S. is a state party. The acts are especially egregious as the administrative detention of migrants must be used “as an exceptional measure of last resort,” according to U.N. experts.
To shield themselves from further scrutiny, private contractors use torture to silence people like Welinton, a Dominican man who is using only his first name for fear of further reprisal. Earlier this year, he was detained at the Torrance County Detention Facility for 90 days, 20 of which he spent in isolation. Welinton said that, after he complained of a headache, officials placed him in what are commonly referred to as “cold rooms” or “torture rooms”—rooms with freezing temperatures where detained people are forced to wear only their underwear—for four days. Bright lights are on in the rooms for 24 hours a day, and guards blast their radios every 15 minutes, no matter the time. These conditions, including sensory deprivation, environmental manipulation, and sleep deprivation, echo practices used at Guantanamo Bay.
“[B]lood came out from my nose after being there naked with the air conditioner nonstop,” Welinton told Prism in a phone interview in Spanish from the Dominican Republic. He also noted he was unable to sleep while in the cold room.
As bad as it was, Welinton said it could have been worse. He alleges he saw others locked up in these “torture rooms” for as long as 18 days. Some detained people were even dragged by CoreCivic guards to “blind spots” in the facility where there were no cameras so that they could be beaten.
Compared to others, Welinton wasn’t detained long, but his experience sheds light on how torture and retaliation function in detention.
The 27-year-old said he was fortunate not to be harassed or assaulted by other detained people, who could eavesdrop on credible fear interviews—highly personal interviews between officials and asylum-seekers in which immigrants detail traumatic experiences and explain why they are requesting asylum.
Welinton said he could barely discuss his case during his brief credible fear interview because the officer on the phone constantly interrupted him. His request for asylum was ultimately denied. Credible fear interviews conducted by phone have been called “a disaster” that often violates due process and ends up deporting people in violation of international law. That seemed to be Welinton’s case, who was deported this March to the Dominican Republic, where he received multiple death threats.
The asylum process in Torrance is “fraudulent,” according to a report issued in March by Innovation Law Lab, an immigrant rights organization, based on hundreds of individual and group discussions since the start of 2023. But no matter how unlawful their experience is, people in the detention system say they cannot complain, or they will face retaliation.
“People could feel like dying but had to say they were OK to avoid being punished,” Welinton said. “[While detained at Torrance,] I’d have preferred to be dead here in my country than continue to be tortured there. The great American dream turned into the American nightmare.”
Extreme cruelty for profit
After the American Civil Liberties Union urged the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to close 39 detention centers notorious for serious violations, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas wrote in a memo to then-ICE Acting Director Tae Johnson, “We will not tolerate the mistreatment of individuals in civil immigration detention or substandard conditions of detention.” An open letter published last November by 10 detained people details “the psychological damage that we suffer every day,” at Torrance. This includes allegations that immigrants expressing thoughts of self-harm were punished with solitary confinement. “We have to lie and say that the thoughts of self-harm have passed,” they wrote in the letter. One of the letter’s signatories, Rafael Oliveira, attempted to end his life shortly after the letter was published. Four months before Oliveira’s attempt, a 23-year-old immigrant died by suicide at Torrance.
These tragedies further illustrate Torrance’s mistreatment of detainees, said Ian Philabaum, co-director of anti-carceral legal organizing at Innovation Law Lab. “Not only [has CoreCivic] not changed those practices and conditions inside Torrance, they have doubled down on them,” he said.
“Core Civic and ICE share the same incentive for retaliating against people so they can’t speak up on their own behalf,” Philabaum said. This allows the agency and the company to “continue to use Torrance despite the failures of their contractual obligations and the torturous conditions they put people through.”
Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) reported in 2022 that officials violated contractual obligations at Torrance by not meeting “standards for facility conditions, facility security, medical care, use of force, detainee classification, communication between staff and detainees, and access to legal services.”
CoreCivic has faced no consequences for breaching the contract, according to Philabaum. In fact, CoreCivic currently receives nearly $2 million a month from ICE to detain immigrants in Torrance—an amount based on the facility’s guaranteed minimum of 505 detained people, though Torrance only had six people in custody at the end of 2022.
ICE did not reply to requests for comments for this reporting. CoreCivic denied the accusations made by detained people in this reporting and documented by attorneys, advocates, and researchers.
“These claims are baseless and ignore the high-quality services CoreCivic provides,” Brian Todd, CoreCivic’s public affairs manager, wrote in an email. “The fact that we’ve worked with both Democrat and Republican administrations for four decades is a testament to professional standards we meet every day.” Todd also claimed there is no solitary confinement at the company’s detention facilities and that people in detention can file grievances “without fear of repercussions.”
Detention for civil procedures actually routinely exposes individuals to torture, as evidenced by a 2021 report from The Center for Victims of Torture, an independent nongovernmental organization. A 2022 report from the Government Accountability Office found nearly 15,000 instances of solitary confinement (also known as “segregated housing”) registered in immigrant detention from fiscal years 2017 to 2021.
The report also highlighted the dangers of segregated housing—including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and increased risk for self-harm and suicide—and noted ICE’s failure to comply with its own solitary confinement policies within detention facilities.
Philabaum explained that what is happening at Torrance is an extreme form of solitary confinement, where sleep deprivation is an added form of torture intended to silence people already suffering from trauma and mental health disorders.
“That works just fine for the U.S. government, which wants to use this torture facility to deport as many asylum-seekers as possible,” Philabaum told Prism.
Zero accountability: A business model
Torrance isn’t the only detention center known for torture, retaliation, and unlawful practices. A woman previously detained at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, went public about a male nurse employed by CoreCivic who reportedly sexually assaulted her and at least four other women at the facility from 2021 to 2022. In response, the officials threatened the women with legal action, prison time, and prolonged detention. Officers also withheld food from one survivor to discourage her from participation in an internal investigation, according to an administrative complaint filed by four survivors of Steward and eight immigrant rights organizations in July 2022.
“Although ICE and CoreCivic are aware of the multiple allegations of sexual assault against Nurse [name redacted], he continues to treat individuals at Stewart,” stated the complaint. The assaults were part of a pattern of abuse, retaliation, and impunity.
Internal ICE audits dated May 2022 documented eight allegations of sexual abuse and assault by CoreCivic staff or contractors in the previous 12 months. There has been no accountability.
Stewart also has the highest number of in-custody deaths among all detention centers in the country—nine since 2017. This includes the death of Salvador Vargas, a 61-year-old man who died in April. No one has been held accountable for these deaths, according to Mich González, director of the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project.
Family members have little legal recourse in cases of wrongful death or torturous treatment. They can file a claim under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), which can get them limited monetary compensation, if anything at all. Holding an officer or private contractor criminally liable for the death of a detained immigrant is “so difficult, if not impossible,” González said.
“Regardless of whether any of these families [of the deceased at Stewart] even sought relief under FTCA or some other means, there is no accountability for the wrongful deaths that have been happening since the beginning of ICE’s use of prisons,” he told Prism.
Impunity is rampant at Stewart even though wrongdoings—including improper use of solitary confinement, numerous deaths from suicide, horrific conditions, forced labor, widespread exposure to Covid-19, medical neglect, racial discrimination, and use of force by CoreCivic’s staff—have been thoroughly documented in reports from DHS’ own offices. “There are a bunch of administrative agencies that are in charge of overseeing ICE conditions, but they don’t actually have the power to enforce anything,” said González, noting that these agencies only provide recommendations they cannot enforce.
Immigrants are at the mercy of CoreCivic employees and officials who have strong financial incentives to mistreat them. Detained people often say they are given expired and rotten food. Meanwhile, CoreCivic profits from purchases made at the commissary and forces detained people to work for as little as $1 a day. CoreCivic told Prism in a statement that the foods provided to people in detention “meet or exceed nutritional standards” and that work is always “completely voluntary.”
An ongoing lawsuit claims that detained immigrants at Stewart are forced to work cleaning, cooking, and performing maintenance duties under the threat of punishment, including solitary confinement and loss of basic necessities. CoreCivic “threatens detained immigrants who refuse to work with serious harm,” which includes “the sensory and psychological deprivation of their humanity resulting from solitary confinement,” according to the lawsuit.
This treatment has translated into larger profits for CoreCivic, whose leadership is well aware of this torturous scheme, according to Meredith Stewart, an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Project, which co-filed the lawsuit. “CoreCivic is absolutely aware at the highest level of the allegations made in federal lawsuits pending against them,” she said. “They certainly know what’s happening on the ground level at their facilities.”
Plane transfers as torture
Erik Mercado, who was brought to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 4 years old, has been fighting his deportation for years while speaking out about the conditions of his detention. In several official complaints, an op-ed published in The San Diego Union-Tribune, and media interviews, Mercado claims ICE retaliated against him while he was detained off and on for almost two years at the Otay Mesa Detention Center.
Not only was he subjected to solitary confinement and medical neglect, the 39-year-old said he was also transferred by plane to a different ICE facility. This is another kind of retaliatory punishment because it often removes detained people from their support networks, including their family and legal assistance. This practice has skyrocketed 94% in the last two years, according to a Freedom for Immigrants report issued last February. The report describes inter-detention air transfers as forms of “retaliation, trafficking, and torture” often implemented against those “organizing or speaking out about conditions inside.”
The report documented 676 air transfers from May 2020 to July 2022, 70 of which were “circular.” This means individuals ended up at the same facility where they were initially detained—underlining the arbitrariness and cruelty of the procedure. Transfers involve “severe pain and suffering, both physical and mental,” as detainees are often chained at the wrists and ankles during the sometimes days-long process without access to food, water, and restrooms.
According to advocates, transfers are used as retaliation, punishment, and justification for ICE’s growing budget—even as the number of people currently in detention fluctuates, said Rebecca Merton, who co-authored the report. The agency received a record budget of $8.7 billion for the fiscal year 2023, compared to $8.4 billion for 2020, when there were more people in detention at any given time.
A significant portion of ICE’s budget goes directly to private prison companies like CoreCivic, which depend almost exclusively on government contracts and invest heavily to keep their business going.
CoreCivic spent more than $1.8 million on lobbying efforts in Congress in 2022, the most the company has spent on these efforts since 2007. According to the nonprofit organization OpenSecrets, which tracks money in U.S. politics, CoreCivic’s lobbying efforts have primarily targeted appropriations bills, a strategic move given that the appropriations bills determine the allocation of DHS’ budget and ICE’s detention contracts.
Federal money is instrumental in keeping CoreCivic’s revenue constant after the Biden administration phased out the use of private prison contracts for federal prisons. Biden’s executive order excluded immigrant detention—a significant boon for CoreCivic and the private prison industry.
Medical neglect as retaliation
Equally alarming is private prison companies’ use of medical neglect to retaliate against immigrants in custody.
Take the case of Ms. Q, who is using this moniker to protect against further retaliation. She was re-detained by ICE in December 2022 after accusing officers with the agency of fracturing her ankle the previous year, according to a civil rights complaint filed in March by seven immigrant rights organizations. While detained in the Orange County Correctional Facility, Ms. Q. also alleges officials retaliated against her by denying her access to psychiatric treatment for her mental health issues, which in part are a consequence of childhood sexual abuse.
According to the complaint, medical neglect is routinely used as retaliation and punishment against people detained at the Orange County jail, which is operated by local officials under an ICE contract. The complaint also outlines the cases of two other immigrants, one of whom lost partial vision in his eye after developing a brain cyst, for which he was denied surgical treatment. The allegations follow two similar complaints filed the previous year against retaliatory punishment in the Orange County jail.
Individuals who are detained face retaliation “when they voice any sort of complaint about the medical care, the treatment, the food,” said Michelle Doherty, a lawyer for Brooklyn Defender Services, one of the groups that denounced the Orange County jail. “Something that seems consistent throughout all of these complaints is medical neglect, that requests for medical attention either go ignored or the response is delayed.”
Instead of acknowledging the complaints, ICE works to silence dissent.
“A year after our original complaints, the torturous conditions and abusive treatment of detained immigrants at [the Orange County jail] continue,” said Cynthia Marlene Galaz, senior policy associate with Freedom for Immigrants, in the 2023 complaint.
“Commitment and power”
Using torture to silence detainees is a way to protect a business facing growing pressure from the abolitionist movement, explained Merton, senior visitation and monitoring strategist at Freedom for Immigrants. The civil rights organization has a network of volunteers covering 69 jails and prisons across the U.S.
“I definitely think that ICE and its contractors are threatened by the increased resistance and public awareness around detention abolition,” said Merton. They are torturing individuals in an attempt to “instill fear in the communities that rise up.”
Torrance, Stewart, and Otay Mesa are far from the only detention centers that currently use torture against detained people who speak out. Tortuous treatment has also been documented at New York’s Orange County Jail, and more broadly, ICE has allegedly retaliated against detained immigrants by transferring them thousands of miles in punishing conditions.
ICE and its many private contractors are emboldened because they experience almost no repercussions for torturing immigrants, according to the advocates and attorneys who spoke to Prism. They also say that efforts to silence immigrants show that the movement to abolish immigrant detention poses a real threat to the private prison industry and ICE’s punitive model of immigration enforcement.
The movement has already scored several victories, including a number of states that have passed legislation to terminate contracts with ICE. California, Illinois, Maryland, Oregon, Washington, and New Jersey have approved bills that would end or reduce ICE facility contracts.
Several of these closures have only been temporary, as private companies often repurpose shuttered facilities to incarcerate a different population. Still, these closures demonstrate how organizing can help free people from detention and incarceration.
Currently, New Mexico and Massachusetts legislatures are considering bills that would reduce the use of detention. In New York, advocates are pushing the Dignity Not Detention Act, which would eliminate immigrant prisons.
In spite of the suffering experienced by immigrants and their families, they continue speaking out. Not only do their efforts lead to change, but they also help bring the movement closer to its goal of abolishing detention.
“People in detention are continuing to organize even with the threat of torture hanging over them,” Merton said. “That really shows their commitment and power.”