Mentally ill immigrant detainees were pepper-sprayed at Adelanto Detention Center in San Bernardino County, report says
Orange County Register - 3/6/2019
March 06-- Mar. 6--A Nigerian man held last year at Adelanto Detention Center in San Bernardino County was pepper sprayed twice while in custody -- once because he wouldn't stand up, and a second time as he attempted to hang himself in his cell.
"If I say I am going to hurt myself, why pepper spray me?" said the man identified only as Ugo.
"Why not try to help me?"
His story was part of a report on the treatment of mentally ill detainees at the Adelanto facility issued Tuesday by Disability Rights California, a non-profit that serves as a legal watchdog to protect the rights of people with disabilities.
The 64-page report, "There is no safety here," is one of a several recent investigations that have found problems at the Adelanto Detention Center and other California facilities that hold migrant detainees.
Last month, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra issued a report that found immigrant detainees -- people who typically are held for civil, not criminal actions -- are treated like prisoners, kept in their cells up to 22 hours a day, and offered inadequate access to medical care and legal counsel. Other reports, from different groups, have cited the facilities for failing to provide adequate services.
At least one report last year noted that at Adelanto, which can hold nearly 2,000 people at any one time, investigators found nooses made by detainees in as many as 20 cells.
The year-long investigation from Disability Rights California includes these findings:
* GEO Group Inc., a private contractor that owns and operates the Adelanto facility, significantly underreports data on the number of suicide attempts at the facility, using a definition that is too narrow: "serious self-harm intended to cause death." Whereas the Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines it as "a non-fatal self-directed potentially injurious behavior" with an intent to die.
* Adelanto detainees are subjected to "punitive, prison-like conditions that harm people with disabilities" that may be violating their constitutional rights.
* The San Bernardino County facility has an inadequate mental care and medical care system, which turns to harsh institutional responses, like solitary-type confinement, to people facing psychiatric crisis instead of endorsing therapeutic measures.
A spokesperson for the Sacramento-based public relations firm Stutzman Public Affairs, which represents the GEO Group, said Tuesday that their client already has addressed concerns in the report.
"While we always appreciate the opportunity to improve processes and procedures, we strongly dispute the claim that suicide attempts were underreported," the spokesperson said in an e-mail.
"Furthermore, many of the recommendations outlined in the report were already in place... In all of the facilities that we manage on behalf of the federal government, we are deeply committed to delivering high-quality, culturally responsive services in safe and humane environments."
Those who find themselves in immigration detention facilities like Adelanto, which can hold nearly 2,000 people, are somewhere in the immigration process, either awaiting deportation or a court hearing. Some crossed into the United States illegally. Some came into the country legally, seeking asylum. They are considered civil detainees, not criminal inmates.
The report said few detainees, even from third-world countries, are prepared for the conditions they encounter in the facilities, many of which, like Adelanto, are privately run. "The punitive, prison-like conditions disproportionately harm people with mental illness and disabilities."
Since Donald Trump became president, the number of immigrants detained has increased. And a growing number of those detainees are asylum seekers, who say they are fleeing violence and persecution in their homelands: 27 percent of Adelanto's population was seeking asylum, according to the report.
Among recent detainees there is growing population of people with mental health needs and disabilities, a category of asylum seeker that under previous administrations was a lower priority for detention.
The report said that includes detainees like Sofia, an asylum seeker from Russia who was detained at Adelanto with her husband in 2017. Visits with her husband were rare, and her requests to speak with him, or send him a letter, typically were denied, she told Disability Rights California officials.
Although Sofia told investigators she previously had no history of suicidal thoughts before detention, after four and a half months at Adelanto she tried to kill herself.
"I was tired of being here, of being detained," she said. "It was just too stressful."
Meanwhile, her husband, Aleksei, said he too became so distraught that he also attempted suicide. But after stints in a suicide watch cell, which he told investigators were like "torture," he told the medical staff that "everything is fine" because he didn't want to go back there.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reported one suicide attempt in 2016, three in 2017 and none in 2018, according to the report. But the nonprofit, "without conducting anything close to a comprehensive review of all detainees," found more. There was at least one suicide, by hanging, in 2017, and five other deaths, some due to medical neglect, according to the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice.
The report also found that detainees at Adelanto who show signs of mental illness, or request such services, have only "brief" contacts with mental health experts, and that the treatments they do receive are not individualized. The report added that individual and group counseling is nearly non-existent, and there is little opportunity for detainees to engage in activities like reading.
Mario Perez, who lives in San Bernardino County and has lived in the United States since he was 5, said he experienced some of the issues reflected in the report.
Perez, 31, was at the Adelanto facility for six months last year, picked up at his home by immigration agents while he was under house arrest following a conviction for driving under the influence.
At the time, Perez was taking medication for depression. But he went the first week at Adelanto without his medication, even though he asked for it repeatedly. Visits with a psychologist and a psychiatrist ran about 5 to 10 minutes each time, once a month.
"I was able to advocate for myself," said Perez, who now works for the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice, assisting people who leave the Adelanto facility.
"But if you are not bilingual, and can't speak up for yourself, that's a whole different issue."
While he didn't see any nooses mentioned in other reports about Adelanto, Perez said he heard other detainees and inmates talk often about wanting to throw themselves down the stairs or jump off a second floor inside the building.
"They would comment: 'I can't do do this anymore. I can't be here for another day.'"
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