Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and a group of House Democrats are demanding the Biden administration quickly shut down a notorious immigration jail in Florida accused of racist violence and rampant abuse of Black immigrants who were transferred there under a federal contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
In a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas this week, the group of 17 lawmakers point to multiple complaints outlining a “systemic pattern of racially based abuse” at the Glades County Detention Center, a local jail in South Florida that contracts with ICE to incarcerate federal immigration defendants. Civil rights and ethics watchdogs also suspect the facility violated federal law by deleting surveillance camera footage of the abuse.
Black immigrants and civil rights groups reported dozens of alleged human rights abuses at the facility over the past year, including medical and sexual abuse, death threats, solitary confinement, physical violence, and exposure to pepper spray and toxic fumes. The rampant anti-Blackness at Glades is evident by the racism described by detainees — including a woman who was called a “monkey” by a guard, and a man who said the facility’s director threatened to put a “noose” in his cell, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“People’s lives continue to be in danger every minute that the Glades Detention Center stays open,” wrote Rep. Wasserman Schultz, who represents parts of Miami-Dade and Broward Counties in Florida.
Since July 2021, ICE has transferred at least 200 people away from their families and communities in states across the country to Glades, according to civil and immigrant rights groups. Most of the ICE detainees are Black and originally hail from Haiti, Somalia, Liberia, and other African and Caribbean nations. About 100 of them staged a mass hunger strike in September, when one Haitian striker told Truthout that he was facing deportation after living with his family in the United States for 43 years.
“The guards treat you however they want because nobody will say anything to them,” said one man who has been released from Glades and wishes to be identified as E.E., in a statement this week. “They treated us like we were less than human. I was a victim of abuse at Glades; I know how hard it can be there.”
In September, E.E. and five other Black men reported that guards subjected them to pepper spray and excessive use of force while withholding medical aid and placing the men in solitary confinement as punishment, according to text messages and civil rights complaints reviewed by Truthout. It’s unclear whether the violence was related to the mass hunger strike, but under extreme duress, two of the men reportedly attempted suicide.
Advocates say many of the people held at Glades qualify for release, but ICE has chosen to incarcerate them as their immigration cases wind through the courts. While federal immigration jails are often run by private prison companies, ICE also signs lucrative contracts with sheriffs in Florida and other states to hold detainees in local jails and prisons, a trend that accelerated during the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown and will continue under President Joe Biden unless policies change.
“The Biden administration has failed immigrant communities when it comes to detention and deportation,” said Rebecca Talbot, who works with the Florida-based Immigrant Action Alliance to support Glades detainees, in a statement.
Last week, the ACLU and the watchdog group Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington notified ICE that the Glades facility violated federal records law by deleting video footage from surveillance cameras that is likely to contain “key evidence” of inhumane conditions. The facility reportedly keeps footage for only three months before deleting it, but under the federal contract with ICE, the jail is required to keep the videos for three years, the groups said.
In August, Black women at the facility filed a complaint alleging sexual and medical abuse, describing guards who watched them in the shower and a psychiatrist who abused his authority to sexually harass women. The woman also reported hearing racist insults and being exposed to a toxic chemical spray used as a disinfectant for COVID. In 2019, the Southern Policy Law Center reported that Glades officers routinely use pepper spray, solitary confinement and deprivation of basic needs like food and clothing to punish people.
Fifteen immigration detainees were incarcerated at Glades as of Monday, but ICE pays the facility to hold up to 300 people under its contract with the Glades County Sheriff’s Office, according to Freedom for Immigrants. The DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties is investigation several complaints filed by advocates and Black immigrants at the Glades facility, according to documents obtained by Truthout.
The DHS could not be reached, and ICE did not provide answers to questions over email. The corrections department at the Glades County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the Glades jail, did not respond to a request for comment by the time this story was published.
The group of House Democrats led by Wasserman Schultz, which includes members from the Congressional Black Caucus, said the Glades County Detention Center’s contract with ICE is up for renewal in March. The lawmakers told Mayorkas that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees ICE, should “immediately” terminate the contract and shut down immigration detention portion of the facility.
“The patterns of abuse and neglect at Glades make it a death trap, and it must be closed immediately and permanently,” Talbot said. “People have died here. Countless others suffer severe long-term health damage from the endless abuse, incompetence and neglect.”