‘A Living Hell’: New Federal Complaint Lodged by Immigrants in Florida Detention Center Exposes Horrid Abuses

For Immediate Release
July 21, 2022
Contact: news@aijustice.org

Citing testimony of physical assault, medical neglect, racist harassment, and ongoing retaliation for public reporting, immigrants and groups call for immediate releases and closure

Baker County, FL – 15 people either currently or formerly detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Baker County Detention Center (Baker) today filed a federal civil rights complaint, calling for releases, an immediate closure of the detention facility and an investigation amid ongoing and rampant human rights abuses including excessive use of force, racism and retaliation.

First-hand testimony included in the more than 40 page complaint details inhumane treatment including the frequent use of physical assault, violent use of force, life-endangering medical neglect, verbal abuse, racist harassment, impediments to legal counsel access, lack of COVID-19 safety measures and retaliation at the Florida detention center. Filed to the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) and other oversight bodies, the complaint was submitted by Americans for Immigrant Justice (AIJ), Freedom for Immigrants (FFI), Immigrant Action Alliance (IAA), and 14 other organizations.

“Baker County Detention Center is a place where nobody should be held,” said Eric Martinez, an organizer with Immigrant Action Alliance who was formerly detained at Baker and has since been deported. “I have witnessed and experienced first-hand how the treatment of people by officials at Baker is beyond inhumane. It’s a living hell. During my 10 months at Baker, I didn’t see the sun. This maximum-security jail is a place where no immigrant should be held, as this is a place where ICE and Baker County try to cover up their abuses. People should not be treated this way.”

ICE and detention center officials regularly infringe on detained people’s rights and endanger their lives, and these incidents fit into a decade-long pattern of abuse at Baker, where multiple deaths remain unresolved.

Despite the constant threat of retaliation, immigrants detained at Baker continue to speak out and shed light on the human rights violations they are subject to. “I’m going to keep calling Washington, and I know I have family who love me who will call them too,” said Marlissa Joseph, a 22-year old woman from the Bahamas currently detained at Baker.

“Leading up to today’s complaint, people in detention have taken extraordinary lengths to expose the grim realities of life inside Baker through repeated petitions and hunger strikes,” said Sofia Casini, director of visitation advocacy strategies at Freedom for Immigrants. “This complaint is a testament to this continued advocacy and a thorough accounting of the abhorrent treatment and violence inflicted daily upon immigrants inside Baker. Today, we join their demands for releases, accountability, and for this detention center to be shut down for good. No one should be treated this way. All people are deserving of justice, safety, and human dignity. The continued detention of human beings at Baker would embody just the opposite.”

Documenting a pattern of racist and xenophobic treatment at Baker, the complaint details several incidents of anti-Black racism, the targeting of Black immigrants and racist verbal harassment, including use of the N-word and references to “whipping.” Guards also discriminate against Spanish speakers, telling them to “learn English or don’t speak at all,” according to the complaint.

“Our team has witnessed firsthand the abuses at Baker through site visits and interviews with clients detained there, and we have authored reports and complaint letters throughout the years alerting ICE and the Baker County Sheriff’s Office staff, who oversee the detention center, of the egregious human rights violations occurring at the facility,” said Andrea Jacoski, director of Detention Program with Americans for Immigrant Justice. “The continued disregard of the rights and welfare of people detained at Baker proves that ICE and Baker County Sheriff’s Office are unable and unwilling to address these abuses that have been ongoing for years. The only way to protect people from further harm is for ICE to immediately release all detained there, including those who bravely came forward in this complaint, and terminate its contract with Baker County.”

The complaint details a pattern of gruesome violence and physical assault against immigrants detained at Baker. In several incidents described in the complaint, beatings resulted in broken or fractured bones. The complaint goes on to reveal how significant retaliatory and punitive measures are often taken by ICE and Baker County officials to stifle detained people’s public advocacy.

“The eyewitness testimonies in this complaint are clear: Baker is a deadly facility,” said Rebecca Talbot, campaign organizer at Immigrant Action Alliance. “It is a place of violent abuse, hunger, thirst, medical neglect, racist harassment and unexplained deaths. It must close immediately. And all those who bravely testified here must be swiftly released to ensure their safety.”

In one retaliatory incident this past May, guards shut off the water after approximately 100 people at Baker launched a hunger strike to peacefully protest the abusive conditions. For days, Baker staff placed participating units on lockdown and denied people access to both drinking and toilet water. Some individuals who participated in these strikes are named complainants who have since been deported in alleged retaliation, underscoring the severe consequences for whistleblowers in ICE detention.

Individuals currently and formerly detained at Baker, along with advocates and community groups, demand the release of all people whose lives are currently being recklessly endangered at Baker and for full closure of the facility, in addition to a rigorous investigation in order to obtain a full and public accounting of the abusive incidents that have transpired.

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