Theo Lacy: feared US jail for undocumented immigrants

Javier TOVAR
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Apprehensions of illegal border crossers into the US in March dropped to 16,600, down 30 percent from February and 64 percent from a year ago

In fluorescent uniforms, dozens of inmates blink in the afternoon sun as they line up in the yard for lunch, the low murmur of their chatter punctuated suddenly by a solitary plaintive cry.

"This is horrible!" the voice cries out, before another quickly follows: "We aren't criminals!"

The two inmates are among 524 undocumented immigrants in the Theo Lacy Facility in the Californian city of Orange, which AFP visited this week on a tour for journalists.

The visit was organized after inspectors found illegal immigrants were being subjected to severe punishment and rotten food.

"We treat them seriously," said head guard Jason Park, underlining the rigid discipline but respectful treatment inmates can expect at the jail, which can house more than 3,000 prisoners.

He ushered journalists into the giant facility stretching over 11 acres (4.5 hectares), where everything was clean, in order and quiet.

Park barred reporters from talking to the inmates, who passed by, hands behind backs, dressed in yellow if they were detained undocumented immigrants, or otherwise in orange.

Theo Lacy, located about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Los Angeles, is named after a 19th century rancher turned sheriff who was the chief lawman when Orange County arrested its first murderer.

Operated by the Sheriff's Department of Orange County, the jail serves as a detention center for the US Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

ICE is set to become more powerful under President Donald Trump, who took office in January after campaigning to deport an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

The Detention Watch Network, a national coalition of watchdogs, slammed Theo Lacy in 2012 for alleged verbal and psychological abuse, medical neglect and racism against immigrants.

DWN's organizing director Danny Cendejas says things haven't changed.

"It's one of the worst jails for immigrants," he told AFP, indicating that the problems are longstanding and feared to be getting worse with Trump's crackdown plan.

- Killers and rapists -

Some of the immigrant detainees -- who are mostly from Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador -- are finishing sentences for non-immigration crimes and hope to be deported. Others have violated US immigration laws.

The prisoners are triaged according to risk, some placed in blocks with no individual cells. The most dangerous are held in cells that lead into a communal locked area, resembling a guarded fishbowl.

AFP witnessed one inmate pressing a sheet of paper on which he had scrawled "HELP" against the window in his door. ICE officers noticed the protest and rushed to his cell.

The average detention for a migration case is 121 days.

Former inmate Jesus -- his family name is concealed for security reasons -- had been in and out of jail before he came to the attention of immigration officials, who decided his record made him a candidate for deportation.

The 33-year-old Mexican spent 100 days in Theo Lacy in 2013 before being released on bail, although he still faces deportation.

Jesus is deaf and, as a result, found himself housed on a wing for the mentally deficient, where he says he was unable to sleep, afraid and plagued by paranoia.

Among his jail mates, he says, were killers and rapists, among them Scott Dekraai, who shot and killed eight people at a beauty salon in Seal Beach, Orange County, in 2011.

Inmates were "banging my glass wall," he said, adding that he experienced panic attacks when he was sleeping, reading or using the bathroom. He remains on medication.

- Tour vs. report -

Theo Lacy's objective for the media visit was to show inconsistencies in the Department of Homeland Security's report, such as the finding that disciplinary action did not comply with ICE detention standards.

Park showed off what appeared to be the exemplary solitary confinement cell -- complete with Bible, comb and a folder containing legal documents -- in a block in which five immigrants without papers were being kept.

He wasn't able to explain what they had done to end up in solitary, but their time there is expected to be more comfortable than the average inmate's.

According to the sheriff's department, undocumented immigrants being punished with solitary confinement should not be subject to further privations meted out to the general prison population, such as withdrawal of leisure facilities and visitation rights.

The DHS report had noted "moldy and mildewed shower stalls" and non-functioning telephones, problems that Theo Lacy insisted were being rapidly addressed.

In the kitchen, the tour highlighted the sanitary standards to which staff adhere, in an attempt to demonstrate that, contrary to the report, no one is served rotten food.

Jesus, who uses sign language but communicated with AFP by text message, recalled witnessing officials punishing prisoners with decomposed food and seeing worms in the water fountain in his cell.