Inside the Sacramento jail’s ‘Guantanamo Bay’
Immigration detainees complain of widespread neglect while in the custody of the sheriff’s department
The handwritten letters, 20 in all, mostly in Spanish, form a pleading chorus from the immigration detainees inside of Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center, on the southern edge of Sacramento County.
Their authors speak with one voice of dismal conditions—10-man cells for a minimum of 22 hours a day, long delays for medical care, no legal assistance, baths with toilet water, clothes that cause rashes and food that makes them ill. They complain about the cold and the squalor. And they ask for mercy.
“We just want to tell them about the things that we can’t put up with anymore,” a 30-year-old detainee wrote in Spanish. “We beg that you give us attention.”
This rare glimpse inside one of the U.S. government’s contract-detention sites for undocumented immigrants comes courtesy of an unlikely whistleblower. Artur Stepanyan is a native of the dismantled Soviet Union, as well as a federally indicted co-conspirator in a pharmaceutical-sales conspiracy. He spent two months inside RCCC as a detainee, but was released September 15, after his attorney sued federal immigration authorities and the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, which operates RCCC on the agrarian outskirts of Elk Grove.
A gregarious sort who boasts that one of his attorneys once represented Michael Jackson, Stepanyan says detainees who spoke up about problems inside RCCC were ignored or intimidated by deputies and the immigration-enforcement agents assigned to the facility. So, before exiting custody and returning to his family in Los Angeles County, the 38-year-old solicited letters from his fellow noncitizens and brought their voices with him to the outside world.
One of his attorneys provided the letters to SN&R and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California. The 18 letters that this paper reviewed create a sharply consistent document of neglect and deprivation, with detainees complaining about everyday indignities—such as having to share one dull pair of nail clippers between more than a hundred men, or not being allowed to shower before immigration court, where most represent themselves—and a culture that treats civil detainees worse than the convicted criminals with whom they share the jail.
“This is like fucking Guantanamo Bay,” Stepanyan said of his experience. “It wasn’t America, I’m telling you.”
Or, as one anonymous letter-writer put it in Spanish: “They treat us like animals.”
“We are not criminals. We just don’t have our papers, but we are still humans.”—unsigned letter. Translated from Spanish.
Here’s what you need to know: The Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, rents space at RCCC to hold male immigrants as they navigate civil-deportation proceedings. Under the profitable arrangement, which nets the sheriff’s department approximately $6 million a year, the RCCC dormitory for detainees is considered ICE jurisdiction. But it is maintained and operated by sheriff’s department personnel, with medical services provided by the county. The same goes for contract detention sites around the country.
“We have a presence at these facilities, but we are not responsible for the day-to-day operations of these sites,” explained an ICE official who was not authorized to speak for attribution.
Sacramento became a contract site in 2000. And, for more than a decade, detainees were housed at the downtown jail. In July 2013, they were relocated to the branch facility when the county and ICE inked a five-year deal worth $30 million for the sheriff’s department.
“There’s a big incentive to the counties to rent out space to ICE,” said Kevin R. Johnson, an immigration law expert and dean at the UC Davis School of Law.
But many local jail facilities weren’t constructed with long-term detention in mind, Johnson and the ICE official say. ICE developed a set of standards that detention sites are supposed to adhere to and sends inspectors in annually to make sure that’s happening. At least in theory.
It took more than two years for inspectors to see the living conditions for detainees at RCCC, records obtained by SN&R show. ICE’s Office of Detention Oversight made its first visit to the occupied units this past January. ODO cited 49 deficiencies in 15 out of the 16 national detention standards that ICE observes. (By comparison, an ODO inspection last year of the Yuba County Jail, another contract facility with a larger detainee population, yielded 10 deficiencies across six standards.)
The preliminary report reflects some of the issues that detainees complain about: unsanitary conditions in the cells, main kitchen and shower facilities. But mostly the report concerns itself with technical violations, like the absence of a fire evacuation plan and orientation video for incoming detainees.
The ICE official defended the agency’s inspection process as “incredibly rigorous.”
“We want these facilities to meet our very, very stringent standards,” she said. “That’s why they do these reports.”
As bad as RCCC’s January inspection was, conditions have actually worsened over the last several months, according to those who work and reside in the jail. In August, detainees were relocated internally to the Roger Bauman Facility, an aging housing unit at the north end of the sprawling compound.
“That’s when all the problems began,” Stepanyan said.
Comprised of four concrete wings totaling 19,150 square feet, the standalone structure was originally built in the 1960s, though it’s been upgraded since. Unlike other housing units that can be managed electronically from a command center switchboard, “RBF,” as it’s known, remains a key-lock facility with heavy metal doors that deputies sometimes struggle to open.
Before the detainees were moved there—from a more spacious unit with 50-bed barracks and unfettered access to shower facilities—RBF was largely inactive, said a deputy with knowledge of the situation and who spoke on the condition of anonymity. And for good reason.
The logistical challenges of separating and choreographing the movement of detainees with different security classifications—for meals, yard time, showers, medical requests and the law library—proved more difficult in RBF. Those frustrations spilled over into bad customer service, the deputy acknowledged. Overwhelmed jail staff sometimes forgot to let detainees out for scheduled activities, or denied those requests out of frustration.
“I’ll be honest with you, I would hate to be inside there,” he said of RBF.
In letters and interviews, several detainees complained about being denied yard time or television privileges over small, sometimes mysterious infractions.
According to Jesus, a 35-year-old detainee who’s been in RCCC for more than six months, the last time deputies cut the television feed, it was because one of the detainees meowed at a passing guard.
“That’s the only excitement we have,” said Jesus, who asked that only his first name be used due to fears of retaliation. “They’ll turn it off over anything.”
For Karen McConville, Stepanyan’s attorney, seeing the same complaints articulated again and again proved upsetting. “They don’t care,” she said of the sheriff’s department. “They’re getting paid what they’re getting paid by ICE.” And the detainees, she added, “they’re being treated as low as anyone can be.”
“It was immoral for the county to ever do business [with ICE],” added Mary Helen Doherty, who coordinates a local program in which volunteers visit the detainees to improve morale. “A number of guys, their families don’t have any idea where they are.”
In response to emailed questions from SN&R, sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Tony Turnbull said RCCC staff was “highly committed to providing a safe environment for all detainees and incarcerated persons.
“Our agency’s motto of ’Service With Concern’ is at the forefront of all staff interactions,” he wrote. “Staff pride themselves on being procedurally just, professional and respectful.”
Even on the best of days inside RBF, the men are confined 10 to a cell, furnished with bunk beds and a center table that restrict their movement. Jesus says they have little to do but play cards or board games, and that it’s getting too cold to go out in the morning during yard time. “This is all they give us,” he said, picking at the thin thermal shirt over his tee.
The open toilet in the corner of the cell doesn’t offer much privacy or relief for the guys trying to eat a couple of feet away, he adds.
The latrine also served another purpose, according to Stepanyan: “We would use the toilet, we would shower in the toilet,” he said. “We call that a bird bath.”
Showers come up again and again as a source of friction. In RBF, the men shower 10 at a time in a room with six showerheads and, until recently, no handrails. In letters and interviews, detainees complain about not being allowed to wash after haircuts that are administered around midnight. On an average night, that’s annoying. But when a detainee knows he will be woken at 3 a.m. to appear before an immigration judge, it’s stressful.
That last complaint has been addressed, according to the deputy. Detainees are now allowed to shower after haircuts. And Jesus says a handrail was added to the shower room. But, he noted with a smirk, it was installed in the back, so detainees have to cross a wet floor to use it.
“I want my liberty and I want to be back home with my family.”—35-year-old male, two years in detention. Translated from Spanish.
Behind the smudged wall of glass that divides the visiting tank, Jesus lifts a telephone receiver to his ear and smiles. He doesn’t get many visitors down this way.
His family lives in Modesto—too far to round-trip at night—and the prohibitive phone rates the sheriff’s department charges its inmates and detainees mean Jesus has been unable to call home. “It adds up quick,” he said.
Jesus has spent more than six months in detention. Convicted of a felony domestic violence charge earlier this year, he was taking court-ordered classes and serving a sentence of probation when his probation officer turned him over to an ICE agent in June. On June 25 at 2:20 p.m., he was booked into RCCC on an “INS” hold, online sheriff’s department records show. As for his domestic-violence case, the one for which he was serving a sentence of probation, online records from the Stanislaus Superior Court show one last update, also on June 25: “PURGE FILE.”
Civil detentions are intended to ensure that noncitizens make their appearances in immigration court pending a possible removal from this country, but can’t be a substitute for a criminal sentence.
The ICE official said the agency considers “a variety of factors” before detaining someone, including an individual’s criminal history, immigration record and community ties. As of December 17, 32,372 noncitizens were in custody around the country. Several hundred thousand more immigrants with open removal cases, “the vast majority of people,” the official said, were being monitored out of custody.
Even as ICE has reformed its detention priorities, UC Davis’ Johnson says the standards are a little murky. Anyone with what ICE calls an “aggravated felony” is fair game, but that term applies to misdemeanor crimes as well, including possession of small amounts of marijuana. “Any drug crimes qualifies,” Johnson explained. “There are very few exceptions.”
Jesus is 35. He says his parents brought him from Mexico to California when he was 1 year old, a common-law citizen without the paperwork to legitimize him. California is where his four children were born, too. He doesn’t know what he’d do if deported to Mexico and worries that his U.S. upbringing would make him a target for a ransom kidnapping. “There’s cartels and stuff,” he said. “They’re going to think I’m wealthy, you know?”
Misconceptions aside, Jesus doesn’t have the money to hire an attorney. He’s representing himself in a plea for amnesty. Approximately 55 percent to 60 percent of detainees in Northern California lack counsel, says Saira Hussain, a staff attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice—Asian Law Caucus. “If you go to immigration court on any given day, you will find that the majority of people are unrepresented,” she said.
Both the Asian Law Caucus and UC Davis conduct monthly legal orientations for detainees at RCCC. Attorneys and law students used to meet individually with detainees afterward, but ICE put a halt to that a few months ago, Hussain says.
With limited access to outside representation, the jail’s law library becomes even more critical. Detainees are supposed to get five hours a week in the library, so that they may research their cases and make copies or toll-free phone calls to private attorneys, for the few who can afford them. The January preliminary audit at RCCC flagged waiting periods of at least a week and noted that some law library materials were outdated.
Though it took years for ICE inspectors to evaluate detainee conditions at RCCC, they’ve made up for lost time. RCCC has been visited a total of four times this year by ICE representatives, an official says, and as recently as December 3. The ICE official says the latest report was still pending, but a sheriff’s deputy with knowledge of the inspection said the jail “got dicked pretty hard” regarding deficiencies with use-of-force procedures and food preparation.
The ICE official also confirmed exclusively to SN&R that the agency stopped sending detainees to RCCC in September as a result of the inspections. But that was temporary. On December 21, ICE notified the sheriff’s department that it would restart housing new detainees at RCCC due to progress made on some deficiencies. “This signifies the confidence ICE has in our efforts to meet their standards,” Sgt. Turnbull wrote.
RCCC averaged 119 detainees per day last year, an ICE report states. A review of RCCC custody logs on December 7 showed 83 men with an ICE classification by their names. On December 28, Turnbull said there were 73 detainees in custody.
Jesus has noticed the drop in population as well. “There’s less now,” he said. “There used to be more. But they haven’t brought any.”
Asked at what point compliance issues would cause ICE to terminate its relationship with a contract facility, the official said it’s happened elsewhere but couldn’t provide specific occasions.
“I think the goal is to work with the facility,” she said. “If a facility cannot adhere to our stringent standards and [is] unable to take appropriate [action], we have terminated contracts and stopped working with jurisdictions. So yes, it does happen.”