Detainees say they were mistreated
By Greg Moran
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
OTAY MESA – A privately run immigration jail in Otay Mesa that is already the subject of two lawsuits is under fire again for allegedly mistreating female detainees, then retaliating when they complained to lawyers.
One of the women has filed a formal complaint with the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, saying she suffered verbal and physical abuse and poor medical care during her three-week detention this month.
The allegations come about one year after a federal lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in San Diego alleging severe overcrowding and unsafe conditions at the jail, known as the San Diego Correctional Facility.
A second lawsuit alleging poor medical treatment was filed by the ACLU in June. Both are pending in federal court.
The latest allegation arose when lawyers for the ACLU interviewed 18 women at the jail Feb. 11.
All complained about various degrees of mistreatment or poor conditions, such as backed-up toilets, freezing cells without adequate blankets or clothing, and waits of up to two weeks to get medical attention.
One woman complained that her breast implant ruptured and was leaking, but that she was given only ibuprofen by the medical staff, said Andrea Guerrero of the ACLU.
The day after the interviews, the women who had spoken to the lawyers were retaliated against, Guerrero said. The section of the jail they lived in was put on lockdown, their cells were searched and they were questioned by guards, she said.
“Everything we are hearing out of that facility is alarming,” Guerrero said. “We are very concerned and we are currently assessing how we might proceed.”
The jail, about 4½ miles north of the border and adjacent to a county jail, houses Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees caught illegally entering the country, asylum seekers and those challenging deportation orders.
The facility is run by a company called Corrections Corporation of America under a contract with the government. A spokesman for the company, citing the government investigation, declined to comment.
Martina Romero, 34, was held at the jail for nearly three weeks after being caught by the Border Patrol illegally entering the country Feb. 1.
Romero said she complained about difficulty getting medical treatment for a back injury, and the treatment of other female detainees by guards.
But she said that when she or other women asked to file a formal grievance with jail authorities, guards discouraged them from doing so and threatened to put them in segregation cells.
After Romero was released Wednesday, her lawyer, Karla Kraus, filed the complaint with the Homeland Security inspector general.
“I think the government doesn't really know the conditions and what is going on down there,” Romero said during an interview in Kraus' office Thursday.
Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Romero's allegations are under investigation. She said some of Romero's complaints “appear to be blatantly untrue,” but that she could not be more specific because of the investigation.
A maximum of 700 immigration detainees can be held at the jail. Mack said the daily population there ranges from 615 to 670.
The overcrowding lawsuit, filed in January 2007, said the jail at times housed three people in cells designed for two, and that the population sometimes swelled to 1,000.
The lawsuit over medical care, filed in June, alleged that detainees have to wait too long for treatment, do not get the medications they need, and receive substandard dental and mental-health care.
Romero was released on $1,500 bond by an immigration judge. Although she was caught crossing into the United States, she has lived here most of her life and has four children who are U.S. citizens, Kraus said. Romero's husband, who also was arrested, is a construction worker.
Kraus said Romero will try to stay in the country and contest her deportation, hoping to gain legal status.