by Cynthia Galaz

Over 70 people detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center signed a letter protesting medical neglect and safety concerns as advocates are shut out from the facility.

Earlier this month, I received a call from *Valentín, a man who has been detained for over two years at the Otay Mesa Detention Center (OMDC) in San Diego, California. Valentín has faced and witnessed many abuses at Otay, which is operated by the private prison company CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America. In this recent call, he described to me the “systemic abuse” he and other detained immigrants, such as those with the Migrant Caravan, are being subjected to every day.  

U.S. Government Photo

Unfortunately, Valentín’s story is one of many. In fact, in December 2018, he, along with over 70 other individuals, sent Freedom for Immigrants a letter they signed denouncing the intolerable conditions at Otay, which included medical neglect, safety concerns, lack of support and racist comments. The letter described instances of people being sick and their medical concerns being overlooked or plainly ignored. One of the men wrote, “I was the object of indifference and medical negligence. I’m experiencing very bad pain in my left ear and I don’t feel ok because of the deficient attention.” Another person reported that staff called him a “wetback.” Conditions at Otay have long been concerning. Freedom for Immigrants has documented medical neglect, sexual assault and abuses motivated by hate. It is also one of the deadliest immigrant prisons in the country.

This alarming pattern of neglect and abuse thrives in an environment where secrecy and isolation are the status quo, otherwise known as the U.S. immigration detention system.

To make matters worse, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and CoreCivic have tried to shut us out of Otay and silence our voices so the public never learns about Valentín and the thousands of others ensnared in this inhumane system.

For example, Valentín told me that in the past few weeks, he has been increasingly harassed by the facility staff, including medical personnel. His workload in one of their so-called “Voluntary Work Programs” has inexplicably doubled. He’s been assigned unrequested work shifts for the same pay of $1 a day. And while Valentín is being coerced to work for practically nothing, some members of the Migrant Caravan are being exploited for no pay.

He reported that in the past month there has been a mass transfer of people to other immigrant jails and prisons to make space for some of the caravaneros. Many of these individuals, he told me, already come with a deportation order and are encouraged by staff members to work for no pay. This is especially concerning considering the ongoing work exploitation class action lawsuit against CCA/CoreCivic at Otay. According to Valentín, the members of this group are also being denied indigent services such as free phone calls and stamps. Lately, he says, people detained at the facility have been told they have to buy their own toilet paper and soap, essentially forcing people to choose between calling their loved ones or buying toilet paper.

To make matters worse, since last year, Freedom for Immigrants and affiliated advocacy and interfaith groups have experienced multiple access restrictions and denials at Otay, making it harder to connect with people inside the facility and provide them with adequate support.

Every request for a stakeholder tour made to the facility has been denied (which is a violation of ICE’s own guidelines, called the Performance-Based National Detention Standards). This effectively means outside groups, like advocacy organizations, were not allowed into Otay at the height of the family separation crisis and its aftermath to monitor conditions and human rights violations. This is unconscionable.

That’s not all. Last year, the affiliated visitation group SOLACE, which stands for Souls Offering Loving And Compassionate Ears, was barred from visiting Otay even though they had been providing support there since 2014. CCA/CoreCivic stipulated that they would be allowed in only if they signed an agreement essentially forcing them to give up their First Amendment rights and act as representatives of the private prison company. A week after Freedom for Immigrants advocated on their behalf, our free hotline for people in detention, including those at Otay, was shut down.

Freedom for Immigrants was able to successfully advocate for the elimination of restrictive visitation conditions that were in violation of ICE’s standards, but the aforementioned issues remain unresolved.

Now more than ever, we need to listen to the voices of people in detention fighting to make themselves heard through this deliberate attempt to silence them and us. We need to believe people in detention who are resisting targeted attacks and who have the strength to share their stories and needs with us.  

Today, Detainee Allies released a report regarding the role that the U.S. has played in causing instability in Latin America, and thus on people being forced to flee their countries of birth. It also includes a summary of the abuses that CoreCivic has engaged in several facilities they operate, including Otay.

I believe Valentín. I believe in his courage and in his determination to advocate for his rights and the rights of others. I believe him because abuses at Otay have been happening for a long time. And I believe him because he has nothing to gain from exposing these abuses other than the prospect of being treated with dignity and respect in the future. He also believes in those of us on the outside; that we will continue to fight along with him and others detained at Otay. We must document, publicize and seek recourse for these abuses while continuing to work toward the ultimate goal of ending immigration detention once and for all.

*Valentín’s real name was withheld to prevent retaliation or further harassment.

Cynthia Galaz is National Immigration Detention Hotline Coordinator for Freedom for Immigrants