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Sunday, April 21, 2024

OIG Calls for Immediate Removal of Detainees from Torrance County Facility

The Office of Inspector General has issued a management alert stating that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) must take immediate steps to address the critical staffing shortages that have led to safety risks and unsanitary living conditions at the Torrance County Detention Facility in Estancia, New Mexico.

The Torrance County Detention Facility (Torrance) in Estancia, New Mexico, houses ICE detainees while their immigration cases are reviewed. Based on the contractual requirement from ICE, Torrance receives approximately $2 million a month to house ICE detainees. OIG says Torrance is critically understaffed, which has prevented the facility from meeting contractual requirements that ensure detainees reside in a safe, secure, and humane environment. The watchdog therefore recommends the immediate relocation of all detainees from the facility unless and until the facility ensures adequate staffing and appropriate living conditions.

From February 1, 2022, to February 3, 2022, OIG conducted an unannounced, in-person inspection of Torrance to determine whether it complied with the 2011 Performance Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS). At the start of the inspection, Torrance housed a total of 176 male ICE detainees and was at 54 percent of required staffing, with 133 full-time employees. Torrance has 112 staffing vacancies, with the majority (94 positions) in the area of security. The shortages mean that current staff are working a minimum of six overtime shifts per month to help bridge the gap.

Torrance staff acknowledged the understaffing problem, and one staff member told OIG that a reason for understaffing could be the facility’s remote location, which is approximately a one-hour drive from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

OIG’s inspection found that Torrance exposed staff and detainees to excessive and avoidable unsanitary conditions. OIG reviewed all 157 cells in the 8 housing units holding detainees and found 83 detainee cells (roughly 53 percent) with plumbing issues, including toilets and sinks that were inoperable, clogged, or continuously cycling water. Some cells were without hot water and mold and water leaks were encountered throughout the facility. Work orders showed that most problems OIG observed during the inspection went unresolved for 12 or more days.

The watchdog also found security failings at the facility. Specifically, inspectors identified that Torrance officers did not properly supervise and monitor detainees in the housing units. Primary control rooms are physically separated from detainees by interior walls and windows, providing poor sight lines, and are understaffed, having only one posted officer to supervise and interact with the detainees in four housing units. Blind spots under stairwells and behind barrier walls for showers and telephones further increase the difficulty of viewing detainees in the housing units. Consequently, these control rooms limit staff observation and personal contact between staff and detainees. To compound this issue, OIG observed control rooms that were dark and empty without posted officers. Further, these control rooms had poor visibility of detainees, through multiple sets of barred and dirty windows.

When questioned about these security lapses and the absence of officers at posts in the housing units or in the housing unit control rooms, Torrance management explained officers in the master control room monitor housing units through cameras and electronic door systems when no officers are posted in the primary control rooms. This backup system of monitoring proved to be ineffective when OIG observed the entry door to a housing unit was left ajar. An interviewed detainee corroborated this unsafe and unsecure environment, telling inspectors that he felt he would be unable to get the attention of staff in the event of an emergency. OIG also observed unsupervised detainees in the housing units dumping buckets of water from the second story railing in what appeared to be an attempt to quickly clean the housing area.

ICE did not concur that the detainees should be relocated and disputed the watchdog’s management alert overall, stating that OIG “ignored facts presented to it in order to achieve preconceived conclusions”. ICE also disagreed that the facility is understaffed and claimed that one of the photos used in the OIG report was staged.

ICE said that it believes Torrance is in compliance with relevant detention standards for staffing and sanitary conditions and that OIG’s recommendation is unwarranted. Since the OIG inspection, ICE said Torrance has detailed additional staff to the facility, increasing the number of staff by 29 percent to a current staffing level of 83 percent. OIG disagrees with this statement.

ICE also said that issues raised in the inspection were either rectified by the time of the report or scheduled to be corrected by March 31, 2022.

Despite ICE’s response to the findings, it issued Torrance a contract discrepancy report on March 1, 2022, which stated:

“The Torrance County Detention Facility (TCDF) located in Estancia, NM has been repeatedly in violation of the 2011 Performance Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS) and the signed ICE/ERO IGSA contractual agreement …. The critically short staffing plans are directly responsible for the breakdown in the overall operational capabilities of the TCDF. CoreCivic has not been able to demonstrate the ability to provide a safe environment for staff and noncitizens, provide the necessary security for proper facility security and control measures, and care necessary to ensure proper facility maintenance, overall cleanliness, and personal hygiene needs described in the PBNDS standards. The Performance Requirements Summary areas of work force integrity, safety, security, and care are all at risk, have been on-going violations, and do not meet contractual requirements. These continued violations seriously impact the El Paso Field Office’s ability to support the southwest border security mission.”

OIG said ICE did not provide supporting documentation for its claims and maintains that detainees should be immediately removed from the facility.

U.S. Senators Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and U.S. Representatives Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.) and Teresa Leger Fernández (D-N.M.) have called on the Biden-Harris administration to act swiftly to address the issue.

The lawmakers have previously expressed concerns about the operator – CoreCivic’s – commitment to providing proper healthcare, testing, COVID-19 vaccinations, and hygiene standards for those in its custody to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks. And in December 2021, they wrote to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, ICE Acting Director Tae Johnson, and President and CEO of CoreCivic, calling for increased oversight on CoreCivic’s management of the Torrance Facility (Torrance) after Haitian asylum seekers faced significant barriers to legal counsel.

On March 18, in response to the OIG alert, they wrote: “It is clear that CoreCivic continues to fail to meet their responsibilities in managing this facility in a safe and responsible manner. We are calling on ICE to adhere to the OIG’s recommendations and provide a quick and responsible solution to the issues identified by the OIG.

“It is also important to note that the Torrance facility is not an outlier. Our offices have for years monitored and called out legal representation issues, medical care deficiencies and inhumane conditions at the two other ICE detention facilities in New Mexico, the Otero County Processing Center and the Cibola County Corrections Center. It is past time for the federal government to take serious actions to hold these facilities accountable.

Read the full report at OIG

author avatar
Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.
Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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