A controversial federal prison complex in Victorville, California, that is currently housing roughly 800 immigration detainees despite infectious disease outbreaks and workers’ concerns about inadequate medical care, is now facing another danger: Detainees at risk of dying by suicide.
In the last week, one detainee has tried to kill himself, saying he was terrified he would be deported back to Cuba. Another was put on suicide watch after staffers noticed he couldn’t stop crying, according to multiple staff members who requested anonymity to protect their jobs after employees were told not to speak to the press. This was the first suicide attempt and suicide watch for detainees at Victorville.
Prison workers had been warning since the detainees’ arrival that inadequate staffing and the resulting lack of proper care meant such risks were increasing, as HuffPost has reported.
“You’re going to get more suicide attempts and suicides,” one medical staffer told HuffPost. “We just can’t take care of them, and they’re resorting to self-murder and manipulation. They’re becoming inmates.”
The ACLU filed a lawsuit Tuesday against President Donald Trump, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Bureau of Prisons over the “inhumane conditions” at Victorville, saying they violated the constitutional rights of immigrants detained there. And the Office of Special Counsel has already sent an informal inquiry to the prison bureau to inquire about Victorville’s staffing, John Kostelnik, a case manager for the Victorville prison complex, told HuffPost. Kostelnik is president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3969, representing Victorville staff.
“It’s a ticking time bomb ― it’s going to blow up.”
Staffers at Victorville have been sounding the alarm for months that inadequate medical staffing ― the prison effectively has one doctor for roughly 4,300 inmates and detainees because its second doctor is a clinical director ― was a danger to inmates and workers. And that was before 1,000 detainees showed up June 8.
The influx of detainees ― whose numbers have ebbed and flowed as migrants have been sent back to ICE and new people have been processed in ― has overwhelmed an already overtaxed medical department. Staffers estimate there are currently 800 to 900 immigration detainees at the prison.
“We’re not able to give proper evaluations on time,” another medical staffer told HuffPost, saying that medical care is essentially triaged to emergencies. “Someone needs to have an active seizure disorder, someone needs to have a full-blown fever with an abscess before we get to them. It’s beyond me ― the number of inmates and detainees versus staff is very insufficient.”
Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who toured the Victorville complex at the beginning of July, told HuffPost then that he was worried about the mental health of the detainees he met.
“I do fear for their safety in the sense of their mental health, their human spirit, that the sense of hopelessness and depression could cause some of them to take their own lives,” Takano said.
HuffPost reported last month that infectious disease at the prison was exploding after the government sent an unprecedented number of detainees to the Mojave Desert complex. Over 50 cases of scabies have been documented among the detainees since they arrived, and one staff member caught it, according to Kostelnik. Another six detainees have come down with chicken pox since the arrivals began June 8. Due to a lack of isolation rooms, one of the detainees with chicken pox is locked in his cell.
And while nine congressional inquiries are ongoing, Kostelnik says no new medical staffers have been permanently hired, while seven custody officers have been added. According to the prison bureau’s own guidelines, the medical staffing levels are insufficient for the number of detainees and inmates on hand. However, when Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) inquired about the conditions and inadequate staffing levels, the BOP sent back a letter saying there had been “adequate staffing levels” and 24 medical staffers had been sent to help out. According to current staff, there have been about three medical staffers helping each week that are sent instead to screen incoming detainees ― and even that is not enough to meet prison policy guidelines.
Inadequate medical staffing has long been a problem for the BOP, as was highlighted in a 2016 inspector general’s report. All the while, the Trump administration is attempting to reduce costs by implementing 14 percent cuts nationwide to the Bureau of Prisons staff. In Victorville, that was achieved mostly by cutting vacant positions, Kostelnik told HuffPost.
ICE and BOP did not return requests for comment before publication.
“You call adequate staffing levels one doctor for thousands of inmates [and detainees]?” Eric Young, the national president of the Council of Prison Locals, argued to HuffPost. “If they had sufficient medical staff, then why did you have to send temporary duty there? These letters that they are sending are so lace-filled with lies. It’s really a shame.”
“You’re going to get more suicide attempts and suicides. We just can’t take care of them, and they’re resorting to self-murder and manipulation.”
Staffers have detailed how detainees were not given a change of clothes or shower shoes for weeks in the disarray of their sudden arrival ― worsening conditions for the spread of infectious disease. According to documents shown to HuffPost, in order to get their hair cut, detainees have to sign a waiver that acknowledges they will come in contact with a federal inmate ― the prison barber.
Kostelnik said he could never imagine the conditions he’s seen as the prison has struggled to accommodate the sudden influx of detainees, saying they were told of their arrival just days in advance. Many on staff believe Victorville received the vast majority of the approximately 1,600 detainees sent to federal prisons across the country because it’s close to ICE’s Adelanto Detention Facility northeast of Los Angeles.
“It’s even worse ― I didn’t think it was going to get this bad,” Kostelnik said. “But some things have gotten better. At least now they have clothes.”
While detainees do now have proper laundry and shoes, they have been complaining of a shortage of food, Kostelnik said.
“We don’t even have anyone to watch [solitary confinement] trays [for weapon concealment] anymore ― do you think we have someone to monitor if they’re getting enough food? Not even close,” he said.
Staffers told HuffPost last month they feared that escalating tensions over the lack of food on top of the inadequate medical care was contributing to migrants’ sense of desperation. And they fear that means thoughts of suicide. They fear others could be driven to riot.
Last week, a detainee was thrown to the ground by a swarm of officers, staffers said, after he started riling up the other detainees and moved to push an officer. That’s all it takes to start such a riot, Kostelnik said.
“Something bad is going to happen when it comes to a riot,” he said. “They’re human beings. We keep messing with these people and not giving them the basics of what they need, it’s going to entice them to flip out.”
Considering the conditions at hand, Young echoed his concerns, saying it was only a matter of time before a riot broke out.
“I can almost guarantee you there’s going to be a disturbance. These detainees will take matters into their own hands,” he told HuffPost. “Based on the conditions they’re living in, based on inadequate medical care ― they’ve been known to do that.”
While staffers at the prison were initially told the contract between BOP and ICE to house these detainees would be for 120 days, a copy of the contract obtained by HuffPost says the detainees could be housed for a year or longer. That same contract says ICE is paying the prison bureau $40 million to house these detainees.
And with $40 million to spend, many staffers are wondering why more medical staff hasn’t been hired.
“Daily they’re trying to fix things, and the saddest part is the easiest way to fix this is to hire people,” Kostelnik said. “It’s a ticking time bomb. It’s going to blow up.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.