'It's a nightmare inside': Bill would place new restrictions on private immigrant detention centers

Daniel Usman fled his native Pakistan to escape death threats from men upset that he had converted from Islam to Catholicism. Upon arrival at Los Angeles International Airport, the 35-year-old with a college degree in electronics asked for asylum.

What he got instead, he said, was a nearly four-month stay at the Theo Lacy Facility, a detention center run by the Orange County Sheriff's Department that accepts immigration holds on contract with U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement. 

Usman said he was kept in a cold area without a coat, provided poor medical treatment and was mistreated by the staff.

“It’s a nightmare inside,” he said. “They treated us unjustly.”

It is immigrants such as Usman whom state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) and civil rights groups had in mind Friday when they proposed sweeping new standards and restrictions on the immigrant detention facilities in California.

In a political challenge to the use of private, for-profit detention centers, the Democratic legislator is proposing to bar cities from contracting with them on behalf of ICE, and to allow those detained to file civil actions against the facility’s operator if their rights are violated.

The right to bring civil action would also apply to detainees in facilities that are not privately run, such as Theo Lacy.

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“The Dignity not Detention Act takes a stand against the mass incarceration of immigrants in detention facilities and inhumane immigration detention conditions,” Lara said in a statement. “Our state and local governments should not be complicit in this awful practice of profiting off of human suffering.”

The end goal would be to shut down private detention centers in California, said Lara, who was expected to announce his legislation Friday in Los Angeles.

ICE contracts with four privately run detention facilities in California that hold about 3,700 people each day, including immigrants in the country illegally, asylum seekers, green card holders and those awaiting immigration hearings. 

Civil rights groups have filed numerous complaints alleging the privately operated facilities have denied proper medical care, pain medications and meal accommodations for those with illnesses or injuries.

“The sheer number and consistency of violations of ICE’s federal standards in California detention facilities really warrants immediate action by the California Legislature,” said Christina Fialho, executive director of the group Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, or CIVIC.

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The Lara bill would adopt into state law basic health and safety standards approved by ICE in 2011 and allow them to be enforced by the state.

Two of the biggest privately operated lockups, the Adelanto Detention Facility and Mesa Verde Detention Facility, are run by the Geo Group under intergovernmental service agreements with the cities of Adelanto and McFarland, respectively.

The cities contract with the Geo Group to manage facility operations on a day-to-day basis, Geo bills the city, and the city then bills ICE, according to Lori K. Haley, a spokeswoman for ICE.

“Per our agency policy, I am unable to comment on proposed or pending legislation,” she said.

The Geo Group spokesman Pablo Paez said the firm would not comment on the legislation, but he defended its record of care for detainees. The detention centers provide around-the-clock medical services, he said. 

"Geo’s facilities provide high quality services in safe, secure, and humane residential environments, and our company strongly refutes allegations to the contrary," Paez said in a statement. 

The state cannot tell the federal government what to do, but Lara’s bill would block the cities from renewing their contracts, according to Fialho.

“The cities are California cities and California itself is one of the most diverse and immigrant-friendly states in the country,” Fialho said. “What we want to be saying is we want to value dignity over detention.”

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Follow @mcgreevy99 on Twitter

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