By RICK HAYES
— A federal lawsuit has been filed in U.S. District Court on behalf of seven immigrants who were allegedly held at the Jefferson County Justice Center under unsanitary conditions and with inadequate health care.
The lawsuit was filed on Wednesday by Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois Eastern Division. The lawsuit seeks no monetary judgment, but aims to keep ICE from housing detainees at the facility until problems are addressed.
The lawsuit names Immigration and Customs Enforcement Field Office Director Ricardo Wong, Christopher L. McDaniels, ICE Contracting Officer's Technical Representative, John Doe, ICE Detention Service Manager, Sheriff Roger Mulch, and County Board Chairman Robert White as defendants.
The lawsuit follows ICE's evacuation of dozens of immigrants from the facility in in early December when all but one member of the facility's medical staff had resigned or tendered their resignation, including the jail's only doctor, Dr. Robert Parks. NIJC has since documented reports of MRSA, tuberculosis, respiratory infections and skin funguses which occurred among the jail's ICE populations in the weeks leading up to the resignations and evacuation, according to a Heartland news release. The lawsuit contends that detainee requests for medical treatment were routinely ignored. It also alleges that drinking water was brown and putrid, showers and restrooms were mold-encrusted, jail pods were poorly ventilated, jail uniforms were dirty and torn, and detainees had no outdoor recreation or meaningful access to sunlight.
"There is visible mold, dirt and scum in the shower and restroom areas at JCJC. The facility's showers drain so slowly that dirty, standing water remains in the bathroom area for hours after the showers are used," the lawsuit alleges. "Clothes and garbage are strewn throughout JCDC… detainees are provided with 'cleaning supplies' that consist either merely water or water with an ineffectively small amount of cleaning agents, and the paint on several of the walls at JCJC is chipped and falling off in large patches, JCJC inmates "suffer from dehydration as a result of refraining from drinking the water at the JCJC because of its foul taste and dangerous appearance," the suit further alleges.
"I don't know where they're getting the information on the issue of a hygiene problem at the jail," White said on Thursday. "In talking to the sheriff and jail administrator, I am not aware of any hygiene or cleanliness issue. Obviously, we will look into it. When anyone makes an allegation, whether it be a lawsuit or not, we're going to look into it."
White added that while it is understanding that Heartland is seeking to stop the housing of ICE detainees at the JCJC until medical issues are addressed, the County Board has already contracted with Advanced Correctional Health Care to provide medical care.
"They already to that for Tri-County, which has ICE detainees, and I understand they meet all medical requirements. I think they [Advanced Correctional] will ensure that we are meeting ICE standards," White said.
Advanced Correctional is now in the process of recruiting medical personnel for the JCJC, which is expected to take at least 30 days to complete. Once personnel are in place, ICE can re-inspect the facility to see if it is ICE compliant, White said, who previously stated the earliest that Jefferson County could have ICE detainees back in Jefferson County is April 1.
Last year, the ICE contract brought more than $2 million into the county's treasury. The withdrawal of detainees resulted in a number of layoffs that the county hopes to reverse if and when federal detainees are returned.
Sheriff Mulch deferred comment on the lawsuit, directing questions to ICE officials. He said he and ICE officials may have a joint statement to make early next week.
"ICE's contract with Jefferson County contradicts Congress' mandate to detain immigrants in facilities that meet humane standards. ICE's failure to adequately inspect and conduct proper oversight of the jail has set the stage for widespread, deplorable conditions of detention," stated NIJC Associate Director of Litigation Claudia Valenzuela, co-counsel in the case along with Mark Fleming and Chuck Roth. "The government cannot be allowed to confine people in facilities that are unable to provide for basic care and human rights."
About 70 percent of the more than 420,000 men and women detained by ICE in fiscal year 2012 were held at state and local jails like Jefferson County Justice Center.
"The situation at Jefferson County is not isolated, and it is a consequence of ICE's failure to exercise meaningful oversight over its detention system," stated NIJC Director Mary Meg McCarthy. "We see similar egregious conditions and lack of concern for even the most basic health and sanitary measures at ICE-contracted jails throughout the country. ICE must be held accountable for the wellbeing of people in its custody."