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After sewage sickens incarcerated people, senator again asks Biden official to close ICE prison

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After sewage sickens incarcerated people, senator again asks Biden official to close ICE prison

Dec 08, 2023 | 6:15 am ET
By Austin Fisher
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After sewage sickens incarcerated people, senator again asks Biden official to close ICE prison
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U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas testifies before a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, on Capitol Hill on May 04, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

When human waste flooded part of a U.S. immigration prison in central New Mexico last month, guards ordered incarcerated people to clean it up with their bare hands and put them in solitary confinement when they protested, according to a letter from Sen. Martin Heinrich to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

On Wednesday the senator from New Mexico again asked U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to close the Torrance County Detention Facility, an ICE prison in Estancia, and terminate his agency’s contract with CoreCivic, the company running the prison.

Mayorkas during a Congressional hearing on Nov. 9 told Heinrich that he would “look at” Torrance, that conditions in ICE prisons are a “priority” and he has closed five prisons that didn’t comply with “the conditions we insist upon.”

“Since our hearing, the situation at Torrance has grown even more dire,” Heinrich wrote on Wednesday.

On Nov. 14, raw sewage flooded two cell pods inside Torrance, covered half of the cells and much of the common area, and drained out through the dining area, Heinrich wrote. His letter cites a report from legal service advocates.

The flooding impacted about 40 men incarcerated in the same cell pod, according to Heinrich. Guards in the facility twice ordered them to clean it up, but didn’t give them protective gear, except for two pairs of gloves, Heinrich wrote.

About two days later, at least two incarcerated people in the same cell pod “suffered from rashes on the soles of their feet and legs and from respiratory problems,” Heinrich wrote.

Guards retaliated against the incarcerated people who protested their conditions, Heinrich wrote, by putting them in “administrative segregation,” a euphemism for solitary confinement.

While in solitary, the guards gave the incarcerated people spoiled food and refused to give them drinking water, clean clothes, fresh air, sunlight or heat in their cells, Heinrich wrote. They also did not let them speak with attorneys, according to Heinrich’s letter.

“A CoreCivic guard responsible for the night shift in their unit has repeatedly tossed the men’s belongings on the ground and threatened them with discipline, while refusing to give them his name,” Heinrich wrote.

Heinrich quoted from a February 2022 report on conditions at Torrance by the agency’s government watchdog, which found CoreCivic is unable to provide a safe, secure or clean environment for the people incarcerated there and the prison’s workers.

The Office of Inspector General told ICE to move all the incarcerated people out of Torrance until the problems are fixed.

ICE responded by trying to undermine the inspector general’s credibility, and then moving even more people into the prison. The incarcerated people later staged a hunger strike.

During the 2023 state legislative session, Democratic state senators joined Republicans to reject legislation that would have barred local governments from hiring federal immigration police to detain individuals for civil violations of federal immigration law.

On Wednesday, Heinrich wrote over the past two years he raised concerns to ICE about chronic understaffing, inadequate access to legal representation, inadequate medical and mental health care, lack of privacy during credible fear interviews, and “grossly inadequate facility conditions.”

“I am growing exceedingly frustrated that my concerns have not been addressed,” Heinrich wrote.