Deaths in custody. Sexual violence. Hunger strikes. What we uncovered inside ICE facilities across the US
(Dec. 20) NEW ORLEANS – At 2:04 p.m. on Oct. 15, a guard at the Richwood Correctional Center noticed an odd smell coming from one of the isolation cells. He opened the door, stepped inside and found the lifeless body of Roylan Hernandez-Diaz hanging from a bedsheet.
The 43-year-old Cuban man had spent five months in immigration detention waiting for a judge to hear his asylum claim. As his time at Richwood dragged on, he barely answered questions from security or medical staff, who noted his “withdrawn emotional state.” He refused to eat for four days.
The day after his death, 20 other detainees carried out what they say was a peaceful protest. They wrote “Justice for Roylan” on their white T-shirts, sat down in the cafeteria and refused to eat. Guards swooped in and attacked, beating one of them so severely he was taken to a hospital, according to letters written by 10 detainees that were obtained by the USA TODAY Network and interviews with two detainees’ relatives.
Before that day, detainees at Richwood had chronicled a pattern of alleged brutality in the Louisiana facility. Detainees complained of beatings, taunts from guards who called them “f—ing dogs” and of landing in isolation cells for minor violations.
The USA TODAY Network uncovered the Richwood episode during an investigation of the rapidly growing network of detention centers used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The investigation revealed more than 400 allegations of sexual assault or abuse, inadequate medical care, regular hunger strikes, frequent use of solitary confinement, more than 800 instances of physical force against detainees, nearly 20,000 grievances filed by detainees and at least 29 fatalities, including seven suicides, since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017 and launched an overhaul of U.S. immigration policies.
Combined with an analysis by a government watchdog, the USA TODAY Network analyzed inspection reports since 2015 and identified 15,821 violations of detention standards. Yet more than 90% of those facilities received passing grades by government inspectors. Network reporters interviewed 35 former and current detainees, some conducted using video chats from inside an ICE detention center. They reviewed hundreds of documents from lawsuits, financial records and government contracts, and toured seven ICE facilities from Colorado to Texas to Florida. Such tours are extremely rare.
At least two detention centers passed inspections despite using a chemical restraint – Freeze +P – that is forbidden for use under ICE rules because it contains tear gas that produces “severe pain,” according to its manufacturer. Other centers received passing marks even after inspectors chronicled widespread use of physical force or solitary confinement. Richwood was one of the centers that passed inspections.
Vicente Raul Orozco Serguera, one of the Richwood detainees who protested after Hernandez-Diaz died, told outsiders that the death and violent confrontation with guards punctuated a terrifying stay at Richwood that began with detention center officials forcing him to sign a document listing who would recover his body if he died in custody.
“The United States has appointed itself the country of liberty, the land of opportunity, the defender of human rights and the refuge for people oppressed by their governments. All that ends once you’re detained,” Orozco Serguera wrote in a letter from Richwood that was delivered to a lawyer in hopes of finding someone to help him. “We want our freedom to fight our cases freely and leave this hell, for Louisiana is a ‘Cemetery of living men.’”
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Authors: Monsy Alvarado, Ashley Balcerzak, Stacey Barchenger, Jon Campbell, Rafael Carranza, Maria Clark, Alan Gomez, Daniel Gonzalez, Trevor Hughes, Rick Jervis, Dan Keemahill, Rebecca Plevin, Jeremy Schwartz, Sarah Taddeo, Lauren Villagran, Dennis Wagner, Elizabeth Weise, Alissa Zhu, USA TODAY Network