BAKER COUNTY, Fla. — This story was originally reported by the Florida-Times Union.
Calling it a facility full of "abhorrent conditions," violent abuse, medical neglect and racial harassment, 16 civil rights groups have filed a federal complaint against the U.S. departments of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement about the Baker County detention center.
The 102-page complaint, filed by groups ranging from the Americans for Immigrant Justice and Freedom for Immigrants to the Florida Policy Institute and Black Alliance for Just Immigration, was done on behalf of 15 people currently or formerly detained at the federally run facility at the Baker County Sheriff's Office.
The complaint states there is "extensive evidence" that Baker County is unable to safely house immigrants in compliance with national detention standards.
The action demands that the Office of the Inspector General and Homeland Security "permanently terminate" its agreement with the county to house the immigrants. It also asks for immediate release of all immigrants "suffering at Baker while closure is considered," with priority to those detained over 180 days and medically vulnerable.
"Ensure protection from retaliation for all complaint participants, including stays of deportation for those remaining in ICE custody at Baker and protection from re-detainment for those living in the community," it said. "Ensure accountability by investigating the abuses at Baker through unannounced inspections; interviews with impacted individuals; and a thorough review of medical records, video surveillance footage and any and all other evidence substantiating the complaints."
Federal customs officials said they were working on a response to Times-Union questions Friday about the complaint but still have not responded.
The Baker County Sheriff's Office could not comment on the complaint. But Undersheriff Randy Crews said the detainees comprise less than half of its jail population, which also includes people arrested by the U.S. Marshals Service.
While his staff runs the ICE facility, it is overseen by the federal agency. Crews said the facility has "inspections upon inspections, including one less than two months ago" with no issues.
ICE in Baker County
The Baker County Sheriff’s Office began detaining immigrants for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2009 under a contract with the federal government, the complaint said.
Illegal immigrants arrested by federal or local law enforcement in Northeast Florida are housed there as investigations and deportation procedures are worked on. The facility is one of dozens ICE operates across the country, some housed in county or city jail centers.
There are four in Florida: Miami, Pompano Beach, Moore Haven and this one at 1 Sheriff's Office Drive in Macclenny.
Conditions violate standards, complaint states
The complaint was filed on behalf of men and women from the Bahamas, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Trinidad, Tobago, Guatemala and El Salvador. The entire complaint, which includes letters from some detainees, can be accessed at bit.ly/3yW2PbX.
It states the immigrant testimony demonstrates that conditions at the Baker detention center place people’s lives in danger. It cites abuses including "excessive use of force," lack of proper hygiene and food, and immigrants' inability to access legal counsel.
Immigrants also faced "beatings and unwarranted use of pepper spray and restraints." And some of these immigrants ended up trying "multiple suicide attempts," while the complaint states there are "unresolved" investigations of death in Baker custody.
The complaint gives some examples like the 2018 case of a Russian man detained there who died of cardiac-related issues and Kellen Dupree's April 26 death still under investigation, the complaint states.
Immigrants who complained of treatment were met with retaliation that the complaint said included shutting off running water, solitary confinement, assault and "seemingly retaliatory deportations." One such incident in May said guards shut off the water after about 100 people launched a hunger strike to protest abusive conditions, a news release from one of the complaint's co-filers states.
"For days Baker staff placed participating units on lockdown and denied people access to both drinking water and toilet water," according to the Freedom for Immigrants. "Some individuals who participated in these strikes are named complainants who have since been deported in alleged retaliation, underscoring the severe consequences for whistleblowers."
The California-based organization works to abolish immigration detention and end what it calls "the isolation of people currently suffering in this profit-driven system."
Further issues in the complaint concern guards who it says discriminate against Spanish speakers, telling them to “learn English or don’t speak at all.”
Issues witnessed by civil rights groups
Andrea Jacoski, a director with Americans for Immigrant Justice, said her team saw abuses during site visits and heard more during interviews with clients detained there.
"We have authored reports and complaint letters throughout the years alerting ICE and the Baker County Sheriff's Office staff, who oversee the detention center, of the egregious human rights violations occurring at the facility,” Jacoski said in the Freedom for Immigrants news release.
“The continued disregard of the rights and welfare of people detained at Baker proves that ICE and Baker County Sheriff's Office are unable and unwilling to address these abuses that have been ongoing for years," she continued. "The only way to protect people from further harm is for ICE to immediately release all detained there.”
Eric Martinez, an organizer with Immigrant Action Alliance who has been deported after being detained at Baker, said it is "a place where nobody should be held.”
“I have witnessed and experienced firsthand how the treatment of people by officials at Baker is beyond inhumane. It's a living hell," he said in the news release. "During my 10 months at Baker, I didn't see the sun."
This story was originally reported by the Florida Times-Union.