By Christopher Zoukis
The Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration crackdown announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in April, calls for referring for criminal prosecution all persons detained for illegal entry into this country.
One highly controversial aspect of the new policy was that it meant separating minor children, who aren’t being charged with crimes, from their parents unless they are deemed eligible for asylum. But a less-noticed problem was what to do with detained adults since the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) lacks enough space in its Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities to house surging numbers of border-crossing detainees.
Thus far, the solution — at least temporarily — has been to send at least 1,600 ICE detainees to facilities belonging to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). On June 7, an ICE spokesperson announced that about 1,600 of its detainees would be transferred to five federal prisons. The most significant number, around 1,000, would be destined for the federal complex in Victorville, California, with groups of 200 or so going to federal prisons in Washington State (SeaTac) and Texas (La Tuna), and 100 or so each traveling to federal prisons in Arizona (Phoenix) and Oregon (Sheridan).
Even before immigration detainees began arriving almost immediately on DHS buses at Victorville – because of its proximity to ICE’s large Adelanto Detention Facility nearby in San Bernardina County — disrupting the federal prison’s routines. Visits to inmates were suspended, and the union representing workers at the Victorville facility – comprised of a high-security facility, two medium-security facilities and an adjacent low-security campus for women – began complaining loudly that the facilities would be unable to cope with the influx of detainees.
The president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 3969 cited inadequate staffing levels (with the addition of 1,000 ICE detainees, the Victorville complex’s population swelled to 4,500, and no new staff had been brought on).
Another major challenge appears to be unmet or otherwise inadequate medical services. Intake medical inspections of the ICE detainees were reportedly rushed. Even so, some ICE detainees – who are being housed in one of the medium-security units and kept separate from the prison’s inmates – were found to be infected with scabies or chickenpox, both highly infectious diseases, and the number of cases soon increased. Detainees exposed to chickenpox are being quarantined in a separate unit for three weeks.
Even before the ICE detainees arrived, Victorville was below BOP standards for medical staffing, with just two physicians (one of whom also serves as clinical director) for the 4,500 inmates and detainees, and vacancies among positions for nurses and physician assistants.
Rep. Mark Takano (D) reported after touring the prison in early July that some detainees informed him that during the more than three weeks they had been there, they had not been able to wash their clothing or bed linens, or use the prison’s recreational facility.
Concern over safety issues has also been exacerbated by the influx of ICE detainees. Worker union officials say they fear detainees could riot in response to inadequate medical services or other problems. They also note that the high-security unit’s guard towers are now unstaffed during the overnight shift, and staff shortages are forcing staff trained for different positions to assist with security-related duties.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.