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Dear Commissioner Meissner: As part of our continuing efforts to monitor the treatment of detainees in the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), we are now writing to you regarding our recent visits to the San Pedro Service Processing Center and the INS Staging Area at the Federal Building in Downtown Los Angeles. As you know, Human Rights Watch has issued reports regarding the treatment of adult and juvenile INS detainees.

In June 1999, we visited the San Pedro Service Processing Center (SPC), and in August 1999 and June 2000, we visited the INS Staging Area. We would like to express our appreciation for the access provided by the INS to our investigators who toured the San Pedro and downtown centers. INS officials were available for interviews, allowed tours of both facilities, and permitted interviews with many detainees, as well as some of their visitors. We hope to have an opportunity to work with officials at these facilities to improve upon areas of concern described below.

Our visits to San Pedro and the downtown Staging Area were the first ones Human Rights Watch has conducted since the creation of detention standards for SPCs and contract facilities. We were interested in learning more about the new standards' effect on treatment and conditions, and in identifying areas not covered by the new standards that require attention. For example, one of the most pressing problems-severe overcrowding-is not addressed by the new standards, and requires immediate attention. We were also interested in learning more about the effects of the settlement stemming from Central American Refugee Center, et al., v. Attorney General Janet Reno; INS, which addressed issues such as group legal presentations, access to legal materials, visitation policy, and telephone access.

Current situation at San Pedro SPC
We are very concerned about information we have received from San Pedro detainees during the past two months. It is our understanding that detainees engaged in a one-day hunger "protest" on August 16 to protest, among other things, the lack of air-conditioning during much of the summer. Detainees claim that some of those protesting conditions were placed in administrative segregation as punishment for complaining about conditions.

Industrial-strength fans were later installed in the pods, with some detainees now complaining that the noise is deafening - but most preferring the noise to the excessive heat. When we questioned Leonard Kovensky, the Assistant District Director for Detention and Deportation, he confirmed that the air conditioning had not been functioning at San Pedro, and was noncommittal when asked when it would be working again.

Detainees have reported that overcrowding remains a problem at San Pedro. Male and female detainees have told Human Rights Watch that detainees are still sleeping on plastic cots, known as "boats" on the floor. These recent reports do not concur with the information provided by INS officials during our June visit to the Staging Area.

When we contacted Assistant Director Kovensky about the reports we were receiving from detainees, he said that he had received no complaints or petitions from detainees at the time of the August 16 protest, and that officials at the center he had contacted had received no such complaints. Yet detainees reportedly gave their petitions and complaints on the day of the protest to guards to pass on. Either those complaints were not forwarded to the relevant officials, or INS officials were denying knowledge of detainees' complaints.

Findings based on visits-San Pedro SPC

At the time of our visit in June 1999, approximately 550-600 detainees were held at the San Pedro SPC. The facility's maximum capacity is 450. As a result, detainees were forced to sleep on the floor or in "boats," placed on the floor. Detainees slept on the floor in the dormitory units, but also in other areas of the center, including the windowless processing area and in the segregation unit.

According to information provided by INS officials during our June 2000 visit to the downtown Staging Area, the number of detainees at San Pedro had decreased to 447 on the day of our inquiry. But, as noted above, detainees continue to complain that overcrowding remains a problem and that some are still forced to sleep on the floor. Furthermore, 100 percent capacity is not a sufficient goal, since that requires no area to be uninhabitable at any time, for repairs, storage, or other reasons.

Protecting detainees' lives
Our visit to San Pedro in June 1999 followed the April 24 apparent suicide by a Laotian detainee, reportedly named Thanom Posavtoy. We were not investigating this particular incident, but after touring the facility we do have questions about what was alleged to have taken place. The shower area where Posavtoy allegedly hanged himself is exposed to many detainees and, presumably, to guards. How is it that this took place without the pod's guards seeing it taking place? The detainee had been in protective "suicide watch" just before he allegedly hanged himself. It would seem that he should have been closely monitored and not given the opportunity to hurt himself. And if there was foul play, as has been suggested by detainees and others, how did this go unnoticed by guards? Detainees claimed that Posavtoy's body had been cut or slashed, but it was not clear whether this was self?mutilation or the result of an attack.

Detainees also raised questions about the death of a man who was run over by a transport bus at San Pedro in May 1999. Some have alleged that it was not an accident, but that the detainee grew frustrated with untreated medical problems and his transfer daily to the downtown facility and may have been desperate enough to try to escape, hurt himself, or commit suicide.

We have been unable this far to learn basic details or investigative findings regarding these deaths. We have been asked to submit Freedom of Information Act requests with the FBI and INS to learn the outcome of related investigations. We shall pursue these cases until we learn more about the official determinations regarding these deaths.

INS officials claimed that detainees who arrive and appear to have serious mental health problems are sent to Del Amo Hospital. We would like to know how many such detainees have been sent to the hospital during the past two years, either as they arrived or as their mental health deteriorated in detention? We raise this question because several detainees told us that the treatment and conditions in detention made them, and others, become seriously depressed.

Fear of retaliation/reprisals
The INS's detention standards prohibit retaliation or any reprisals against detainees who seek judicial relief. Given detainees' accounts, this standard should be expanded to include retaliation for any detainee's efforts to make a complaint or share information with human rights groups or others. Detainees at San Pedro believe that, if INS officials learn that they have discussed conditions at San Pedro with an outside party, their cases or treatment will be affected negatively as retaliation.

One detainee requested that we not use his name or nationality in this letter because he believed that his friend's immigration case was sabotaged when he spoke up about the conditions. A detainee from whom we have received several letters asked that we not write "Human Rights Watch" on the correspondence that we send him for fear of becoming a "target." He writes, "Things can get nasty if they don't like me giving you the [information] on this place." Another detainee told Human Rights Watch that detainees especially fear that they will become "lost in the system," if the INS decides to retaliate. Through repeated transfers, they will lose their legal representatives and family contacts. One detainee told Human Rights Watch that in August 2000, a San Pedro guard warned her not to file a complaint because a captain who works at the center could make complaining detainees "disappear."

In addition to the retaliatory actions taken against protesters in August 2000, another detainee said that he made a complaint to a supervisor that led to a reprimand of the involved guards. His belongings were then searched and scattered around his pod in what he believes was retaliation for complaining. Other detainees said that guards threaten them with transfer to less desirable pods if they speak out.

It is imperative that detainees know that they do not have to fear speaking out about what they consider unfair treatment or poor conditions. Any INS officials, or those working for the INS, who engage in retaliatory actions should be disciplined.

Medical/dental care
INS officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch stated that it takes no more than three days to see a doctor, but detainees claim it can take weeks. One said it took fourteen days and five sick call request slips. Another detainee reported that another detainee had a painful infection and that he was not treated for a week. Waits for dental care are similar, with a nurse at the facility acknowledging that detainees had to wait for a long time before seeing a dentist, in part, the nurse said, because authorization comes from an INS office in Florida.
Detainees claim that the medical staff have been rude and unresponsive to specific needs. No matter the ailment, detainees report that they are provided with Tylenol or Ibuprofen. One doctor reportedly asks how soon a detainee is to be deported before treating ailments, and if the date is imminent, no treatment is provided. Others claim that some with obvious psychological disorders are ignored, or just heavily-sedated and that they "walk around like zombies."

Guards also fail to respond to medical needs, or respond inappropriately. One detainee had allergies to cleaning fluid fumes, and an INS doctor warned that she should not be near cleaning fluid fumes. Nevertheless, guards refused to move her away from the cleaning fumes in February 1999, and because she is asthmatic she had an attack and then was taken to the hospital for several days. A month later she was correctly removed from the cleaning area, but was placed in a stuffy cell and had trouble breathing. She states that the guards ignored her, but then became angry and pulled her out of the cell and pushed her head into a wall while handcuffing her. Her breathing became more labored and was rushed to a hospital by ambulance. Another detainee with a back problem requested a mattress, and was reportedly noted as uncooperative" in his file.

Detainees at San Pedro also stated that they were forced to take recreation time, even if they were ill. According to INS standards, recreation time is voluntary.

Due to overcrowding at the time of our June 1999 visit, it appeared that the infirmary could not hold all of the sick detainees. Some of the sick detainees were housed in the processing area and may have been in contact with healthy detainees, in violation of INS detention standards regarding isolation for those with possibly contagious diseases.

The general recreation area is adequate, but detainees are only allowed to go out of doors for one hour, five days a week. The INS detention standards call for recreation daily. Furthermore, an hour is unnecessarily limited given the lack of programs or other activities, and the overcrowding indoors. Recreation should be voluntary. Those in administrative segregation have a very small, inferior recreation space.

Administrative and Disciplinary Segregation at San Pedro
According to the INS, detainees held in administrative segregation, for protective custody, gang?separation, or medical reasons, are entitled to the same rights and privileges as the rest of the population. But detainees state that they only get an hour of television daily, not all day as in the rest of the facility. They state that they are handcuffed for showers, have limited phone access, and that their recreation area is inferior. Women in segregation report that they must disrobe in view of male guards. Detainees claim that they can be sent to disciplinary segregation for any reason and feel that guards enforce the rules arbitrarily.

Detainees stated that guards search their belongings while the detainees are outdoors during the recreation period. They stated that the reasons for the searches were not clear, and that the guards often left their belongings strewn about. They also stated that guards read personal letters and legal materials. Items have been lost or damaged as a result. Since detainees are frequently pat?searched and searched after visits and, except for Room and Board detainees (who are strip?searched upon return from the downtown facility), never leave the facility, such searches are difficult to understand.

We have also received reports that strip searches are conducted in a humiliating manner. Detainees who do not understand instructions have been ridiculed and, in one case, one detainee who spoke only Spanish was pulled from the group of detainees, ridiculed, and searched while the others watched. Strip searches are never pleasant for detainees or guards, but there is no need to exacerbate the situation by additional humiliation of those being searched.

Bedding is not cleaned weekly, as the INS standards require. Detainees state that they do not have a change of clothing when they wash their clothes, and are left with nothing to wear while doing laundry.

Detainees are supposed to be allowed visits with family and friends that last for thirty minutes at least, but at San Pedro SPC they are allowed just fifteen minutes. The INS justifies the short visits by noting the overcrowding at the facility, which results in too many visitors coming to the facility to allow thirty minutes for each. But, in fact, it is not individual detainees' fault that the facility is overcrowded and they, and their families, should not have to suffer because of the shortage of detention space. Visiting hours should be expanded and the visits should be better organized. Several detainees and their visitors told us that the guards were very slow in admitting people and that if there were more efficiency, more visitors would be allowed in. We observed the visiting process and agree that it was unnecessarily slow and inefficient. Visitors also said that some guards treated them very rudely. Some families travel long distances to see detainees. Some do not even get in after standing in the rain or other inclement weather for hours and then do not receive preference during the next visiting period.

Law library
The legal service list we observed during our June 1999 visit was out of date . Library materials were adequate, but detainees told us that they had been improved just before our visit. Detainees complained that there is limited access to the library due to the high demand. One described how detainees literally run to get on the list each day because access to the library is "first come, first serve." The INS Standards call for the law library to be "large enough to provide reasonable access to all detainees who request its use." Furthermore, it states that "each detainee who requests to use the law library will be afforded a minimum of five hours of optional law library use per week. Detainees may not be forced to forego their minimal recreation time…in order to use the law library." According to detainees at San Pedro, these minimal standards are not being met.

Long term detainees
We interviewed several long?term detainees whose country of origin would not receive them and who could not be released. Since our visits, new INS guidelines requiring reviews of long?term detainees' cases for possible parole have been issued. We strongly urge the Los Angeles INS district to review immediately the cases of those held indefinitely at San Pedro.

Findings based on visits to downtown INS Staging Area, Los Angeles

Room and Board Detainees
Detainees who are being "processed" and not permanently assigned to any facility, such as San Pedro or to local jails, are known as "Room and Board" detainees. Some Room and Board detainees may never be assigned to a permanent facility if they are quickly deported. Others are shuttled back and forth between the Staging Area downtown and San Pedro or local jails. They spend their days at the Staging Area, and sleep at San Pedro or a local jail.

SPC staff wake these detainees up and transport them downtown during the early morning hours (between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m.) Once at the downtown center, detainees sit in a room for the entire day until late in the evening, when they are sent to San Pedro or a jail until early the next morning.

At the time of our June 1999 visit to the San Pedro SPC, detainees reported poor conditions and treatment at the downtown Staging Area. They stated that while at the crowded Staging Area, the detainees were not allowed to go outside in the fresh air at all, had no activities, and did not receive mail or medical attention. They were transported back to the SPC, sometimes as late as midnight, where they usually slept on plastic cots on the floor. Hours later the shuttling would begin again. INS officials claimed that detainees were processed quickly, but detainees told us that processing could take months.

All of the detainees we interviewed who had been shuttled between facilities told us that the "Room and Board" procedures were exhausting and disrupting. They were often forced to sleep in "boats" in the day areas of the living pods at San Pedro where the television remained on all night. They noted that the sanitary conditions at the Staging Area were abysmal, with one describing the downtown center as "hell." Detainees told Human Rights Watch that, if there was insufficient space at the San Pedro SPC, they slept at the downtown center on the floor with, at most, a sheet to keep them warm. One detainee reportedly contracted pneumonia due to these conditions.

Detainees reported that the downtown center would become severely overcrowded, with some detainees claiming they were forced to stand while detained there. Detainees also stated that the toilets would clog and overflow, leaving them to track human waste on their shoes around the room. Detainees were then forced to sit or sleep on the same floor for sixteen or more hours. One detainee described the smell as "terrible."

When we visited the Staging Area in August 1999, it appeared that some improvements had taken place. The facility was not as crowded as described by detainees in June, and it was more hygienic than was described. Still, detainees there stated that warm meals were not being served, water was not made available and drinking fountains were not working.

When we visited the downtown Staging Area again in June 2000, the number of detainees at the Staging Area reportedly had decreased, thus alleviating the crowding problem described by detainees. Officials provided numbers of detainees held on a typical day ranging from thirty-seven to 135, with one estimating that the average would be sixty. One INS official stated that up to sixty detainees could be held in one tank, but it appeared that approach would lead to serious overcrowding and allow only standing in a tank.

Unfortunately, we requested interviews at the Staging Area with detainees who had been in the "Room and Board" arrangement for the longest time, but the detainees provided by the INS had only been there for a few hours. It was impossible to learn much from these newcomers about the conditions and their treatment in the facility.

The physical condition of the Staging Area seemed improved. The tanks seemed clean and detainees did not complain about unsanitary conditions. We were also pleased that there were two holding tanks for female detainees, allowing the separation of "criminal" and "non-criminal" detainees. We were pleased to learn that warm meals were now being served at the Staging Area.

During our recent visit we noted that the holding tanks were very chilly and that, in June, detainees covered themselves with blankets. It was unclear why the temperature could not be regulated to provide a more comfortable temperature for those spending most of their days sitting in the tanks.

Furthermore, detainees are not allowed to spend time outdoors while held at the Staging Area. No activities are provided, so they are forced to spend their time sitting or standing in a windowless holding area. Regardless of the temporary nature of the detainees' stay at the Staging Area, they should be allowed to go outside for fresh air. The current restrictions
highlight the shortcomings in the INS's recreation standards, which allow no outdoor recreation time for short-term detainees.

Detainees at the Staging Area stated that drinking water was not provided with meals, despite INS officials' assurances that water was being served. Some said they had not been provided with drinking water during their time in detention. The holding tanks did not have functioning drinking fountains, something we noted during our first visit. And while detainees may drink from the sink, no cups were provided unless specifically requested by detainees.

Some detainees were not informed that they were permitted to purchase telephone calling cards. The INS needs to inform all detainees that cards are available.

Legal service providers, consulate, and Office of the Inspector General (OIG) complaint telephone numbers were not posted in each tank, but randomly. Each phone should have a current list of legal service providers, consulate, and OIG telephone numbers. And, while we were pleased that the telephone number for the local OIG office was posted in pod 7, we were dismayed when we dialed the number after our June 2000 visit and found that it was disconnected without a forwarding number.

We were pleased that a nurse inquired about the health of detainees, but believe those inquiries, in front of an entire group of detainees, is misguided. We suggest individualized interviews by the nurse with detainees, even if those take place just outside the holding tanks but out of hearing and visual range of other detainees. Detainees may be inhibited from speaking out about health issues in front of others, so should be interviewed in a more discreet manner.

Some of the detainees we interviewed were confused and agitated because they did not have basic information about their immigration status or why they were being detained. We appreciated the attention provided to two detainees after we reported that they seemed confused about their status and the "next steps" in their cases. Clearly, tours such as ours are atypical, so it should be incumbent upon INS officials to make sure that INS detainees understand the process and how to obtain legal assistance and how to prepare for hearings.

Thank you for your consideration of these important issues. We look forward to your response and to an opportunity to speak with you further about these areas of concern.


Allyson Collins
Senior Researcher

cc:Leonard Kovensky, Assistant District Director, Detention and Deportation
Bob Thompson, Officer in Charge, INS Federal Building
Jan Brooks, Supervisory Detention and Deportation Officer
Jesse Duran, Chief Detention Officer
Frank J. Mendiola, Immigration Enforcement Officer
Anita Maker, Office in Charge, San Pedro Service Processing Center

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