Inside Adelanto, California’s largest immigration detention facility

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In Adelanto, a city about 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert, there’s a handful of warehouses, a drone manufacturer, a strip club and California’s largest immigration detention facility. The privately-owned Adelanto Detention Facility has been the subject of a number of federal investigations. Four detainees have died while in custody and in at least one case, investigators determined that the death was preventable. Recently, Adelanto has also been under scrutiny for sexual assault complaints.

According to a recent report by Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), Adelanto has the third highest number of sexual assault complaints of all U.S. immigration detention facilities. Adelanto and the other four facilities with the highest number of complaints are all privately owned. Adelanto is operated by GEO group, the second largest privately owned corrections company in America.

Life inside Adelanto. Photos: David Weinberg

On a recent tour of the facility, David Marin, Field Office Director for ICE enforcement and removal operations in Los Angeles, answered questions about some of the concerns raised by immigrants’ rights advocates about the conditions at Adelanto. “If there’s a complaint lodged against a staff member, that staff member is immediately removed from any duties that have anything to do with contact with detainees while the investigation is taking place,” said Marin.

He also highlighted the fact that the facility only had one substantiated instance of sexual assault since it opened. But according to data from the Office of Inspector General, less than one percent of the 33,000 sexual assault complaints against US agencies between 2010 and 2016 were investigated. So it’s possible that the number of sexual assaults is actually much higher.

According to a data analysis by CIVIC:

The OIG received at least 1,016 reports of sexual abuse filed by people in detention between May 2014 and July 2016, meaning that the OIG received on average more than one complaint of sexual abuse from people in detention per day during this time period. CIVIC found that the OIG investigated only 24 of those complaints, or 2.4% of the total.

The findings led the group to file a federal complaint with the office for Civil Rights & Civil Liberties within the department of Homeland Security.

CIVIC director Christina Fialho hopes the complaint leads to an investigation into the reports of sexual assault, and for DHS and ICE to be more transparent, “and particularly we’re calling on Congress to create the second bipartisan National Prison Rape Elimination Commission to investigate the sexual assaults that are occurring in immigration detention,” said Fiahlo.

At Adelanto, complaints against facility staff are collected inside these boxes mounted throughout the facility. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The complaint mentions eight specific incidents involving detainees at several facilities around the country, including Rosanna Santos. Santos claims that a guard sexually assaulted her in 2013, while she was detained in at York County Jail in Pennsylvania. She says a guard took her and another detainee into a room that was not monitored by cameras and threatened them sexual assault if they did not do what he said quickly and without question.

“That same day that happened my lawyer filed a complaint.” said Santos. After she filed her complaint, she was interviewed by an investigator but didn’t hear anything after that. And then not long after the incident, Santos was placed in solitary confinement for 11 days, which she believes was retaliation for her speaking out. “And later on they said that they lost the paperwork,” said Santos. “You shouldn’t be in solitary for so long without seeing somebody to tell what happened.”

ICE officials from the York facility declined an interview request for this story. In a written statement ICE called the CIVIC Report grossly inaccurate, writing “DHS is firmly committed to providing for the safety and welfare of all those in its Custody and that ICE has a zero tolerance policy for all forms of sexual assault.”

A detainee from Adelanto who has chosen to remain anonymous was also included in CIVIC’s complaint. She claimed to have been sexually assaulted by an Adelanto guard and reportedly called 911 from inside the facility. This was one of 408 emergency calls from the Facility made to the San Bernardino Sheriff’s department, according according to data CIVIC received in response to a California Public Record Act request.

Nationwide Immigration arrests are up 38 percent over this time last year and Attorney General Jeff Sessions indicated a willingness to expand the use of private prisons. Since President Trump took office, the publicly traded stock for Geo Group, which runs Adelanto, has nearly tripled in value.

Here in California, lawmakers are pushing back against the expansion of profit prisons. CIVIC co sponsored SB29, a bill with State Senator Ricardo Lara that would ban California cities from contracting with private prisons, though a similar bill was previously vetoed by governor Brown.