Federal watchdog blasts New Mexico ICE facility for unsanitary conditions and understaffing

By:  Algernon D'Ammassa

A privately managed migrant detention facility in Estancia, N.M. was drubbed for unsanitary living conditions and poor staffing in a newly released report by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general.

The Torrance County Detention Facility houses detainees in the custody of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, known as ICE. The facility is managed by private corporation CoreCivic, formerly known as the Corrections Corporation of America.

The OIG recommended to ICE that all detainees be transferred elsewhere "unless and until the facility ensures adequate staffing and appropriate living conditions."

A surprise inspection of the facility in early February found 176 male detainees in custody, with a full-time staff of 133 — 54 percent of the required staffing level under its contract with ICE, according to the report.

Despite receiving $2 million per month in federal funds to operate the facility, the OIG found that the majority of 94 unfilled positions pertained to security, and that required security standards were not being met, with a lack of posted officers and poor visibility in control rooms even with surveillance cameras.

Inspectors said they found plumbing issues in more than half of the cells in units housing detainees, leading to clogged or inoperable toilets ridden with mold or steeping in human waste. The report includes photographs of affected toilet facilities and housing units.

The report also detailed faucets with missing buttons for supplying water and a lack of hot water for hygiene. With drinking fountains restricted under COVID-19 protocols, inspectors reported some detainees were getting drinking water from a faucet used to fill mop buckets.

Leaks in occupied areas were also causing mold in housing areas, the inspectors said.

During the surprise inspection, they reported observing "unsupervised detainees in the housing units dumping buckets of water from the second story railing in what appeared to be an attempt to quickly clean the housing area."

Delegation condemns conditions

The Democratic members of New Mexico's congressional delegation pushed for additional oversight of TCDF last December, following complaints that Haitian asylum seekers — who are legally present in the U.S. while their asylum cases are pending yet often detained in prison-like conditions — were encountering barriers to legal counsel and translators for Creole-speaking detainees.

They addressed those complaints in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, as well as acting ICE director Tae Johnson and CoreCivic CEO Damon Hininger.

At that time, the delegation reported detainees had filed 43 grievances in a single year over safety, medical care and food conditions, leading up an ICE-contracted inspection in 2021 that the facility failed despite having been notified of the inspection in advance.

U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján, joined by Reps. Melanie Stansbury and Teresa Leger Fernández, issued a joint statement deploring "inhumane living conditions" at the Estancia facility, which is in Stansbury's congressional district.

The Las Cruces Sun-News also reached out to U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, a Republican representing New Mexico's 2nd congressional district, which includes an ICE detention facility in Chaparral.

"It is clear that CoreCivic continues to fail to meet their responsibilities in managing this facility in a safe and responsible manner," the Democratic delegation said, calling on ICE to follow the OIG's recommendations to transfer detainees and arrive at a "quick and responsible solution" to the findings.

ICE, however, rejected the inspectors' report and, along with CoreCivic, accused OIG staff of faking evidence and other unprofessional conduct.

ICE, CoreCivic push back on findings

ICE rejected the inspector general's findings despite having itself issued notices to CoreCivic as recently as March 1 — a month after the OIG inspection — that "critically short staffing plans are directly responsible for the breakdown in the overall operation capabilities of the (Torrance County facility)."

According to the OIG, ICE complained CoreCivic had repeatedly violated national detention standards.

The OIG report states that the facility remained "severely understaffed" more than a year after ICE had notified it of medical staffing shortages, and was requiring current staff to work a minimum of six overtime shifts per month to cover services.

Yet, in response to the OIG's recommendations, ICE insisted the facility "has only housed a number of detainees that is commensurate with current staffing levels at any given time." Besides overtime shifts, ICE said CoreCivic had "detailed additional staff" to Estancia since the inspection and also completed or begun repairs addressing the living conditions.

ICE said it had taken its own tour of the facility to verify the repairs were being made, but the inspector general said ICE had not provided any documentation of that claim.

In turn, the agency accused the inspector general's office of falsifying or mischaracterizing evidence "in order to achieve preconceived conclusions."

ICE accused OIG staff of unprofessional behavior, failing to allow taps to run long enough for hot water to be supplied and "staging" a photograph of a detainee taking water from a tap designed for filling mop buckets.

CoreCivic also accused inspectors of acting "in a deeply unethical manner," repeating allegations that a photograph featuring a detainee was staged and that pictures of clogged sinks and toilets were captured in facilities that were not used to house detainees.

"This deliberate effort to falsely portray our company and this facility in a negative light is even more disturbing because it was done under the guise of legitimate oversight," the company said in a statement.

Steve Owen, a spokesperson for CoreCivic, said secure facilities around the country were facing staffing challenges, but maintained the Torrance facility was "appropriately staffed" for the population size, and was taking "significant steps" to attract new employees.

Ghost beds in Torrance County facility

"CoreCivic has an egregious track record of neglect and abuse at Torrance, and these disturbing conditions are sadly common at ICE detention facilities in New Mexico," Rebecca Sheff, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of New Mexico, said.

ICE also holds detainees at the Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan (also run by CoreCivic) and the Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, which is operated by the Management and Training Corporation.

Nathan Craig of Advocate Visitors with Immigrants in Detention, a Las Cruces-based migrants' rights advocacy organization that visits immigrant detention centers and studies their finances, said millions of taxpayers of dollars are paid to contractor for unused housing (or "ghost beds"), on top of the reported staffing shortages.

Based on ICE detention data, CoreCivic is guaranteed payment for 505 beds at the Torrance County facility, meaning the contractor was being paid for 329 empty beds at the location when OIG inspectors arrived.

At a daily rate of $89.55 per unit per Homeland Security data, that amounts to more than $29,000 for ghost beds in a single day. Craig estimates the amount of money spent on non-existent detainees exceeds $8.2 million annually, based on daily average populations reported by ICE.

"There are on average 198 persons detained at TCDF," Craig wrote. "Of these, ICE reports 90% are 'noncriminal' and 95% are ranked as 'no threat.' In other words, 95% of the detention population is discretionary and could be released."

The Democratic members of New Mexico's delegation in Washington called on unspecified actions to enforce federal safety standards on all three ICE facilities in New Mexico.

"The Torrance facility is not an outlier," they wrote in their statement. "Our offices have for years monitored and called out legal representation issues, medical care deficiencies and inhumane conditions at the two other ICE detention facilities in New Mexico. ... It is past time for the federal government to take serious actions to hold these facilities accountable.”

Read the OIG report here:

March 2022 OIG report on Torrance County Detention Facility by Algernon D'Ammassa on Scribd