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September 22, 2022

ESTANCIA, NM – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico and Innovation Law Lab today released more than a hundred pages of documents, obtained through public records requests and litigation, which show dangerous conditions and understaffing at the Torrance County Detention Facility (TCDF) are much more pervasive than previously revealed.   

TDCF has been under intense scrutiny since a February inspection by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (OIG) revealed significant health and safety concerns at TCDF and the OIG called for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to immediately remove everyone detained there from the facility. ICE pushed back on those findings, accusing government investigators of “falsified or mischaracterized evidence.” The documents obtained by the ACLU of New Mexico on behalf of Law Lab, however, confirm that TCDF did indeed have severe facility maintenance issues, as well as understaffing, at the time of the inspection, and that these issues not only existed long before the OIG report, but they have continued since then. The facility is once again under increased scrutiny after a young man from Brazil, Kesley Vial, died on August 24, after months of indefinite detention in inhumane conditions at TCDF.  

Key documents include: 

  • Maintenance orders at TCDF for an 11-month period ending in July 2022, during which 2,063 orders – an average of about 6 per day – were made for issues ranging from “disgusting,” clogged or overflowing toilets, to flooding of entire cells. Dozens of orders indicate cells and housing units were without hot water, including an order for a cell that had not had “hot water for a mont[h].”  On Jan. 13, orders were put in for cold temperatures in four different housing units; on that day ambient temperatures hit a low of 30 degrees. 
  • Maintenance orders that show cell doors were frequently broken, with a Nov. 1 maintenance order stating one “cell door don’t lock,” and on Sept. 22 another cell “only opens with key,” an issue that wasn’t fixed until March, more than 5 months later. 
  • Records showing staffing vacancies continue to plague TCDF. As of July 1, the facility had 46 openings in security positions, including 36 vacancies for detention officers and three vacancies for senior detention officers. Those positions had been open and unfilled for an average of 78 days, according to the documents released. Another 10 positions in medical services were open, including a nurse position that had been vacant for 457 days. 
  • A letter from ICE Acting Director Tae Johnson in July 2022, a mere month before Kesley Vial’s fatal suicide attempt, downplaying serious concerns about access to legal counsel at TCDF and claiming the agency “remains firmly committed to continually enhancing civil detention operations to promote a safe and secure environment for detained noncitizens and for staff.” 

TCDF detains people in ICE custody through a contract between the federal agency and Torrance County. TCDF is operated by the private prison corporation CoreCivic, and also detains people in U.S. Marshals Service and county custody.  

These documents corroborate complaints the ACLU of New Mexico and Law Lab have received from people detained in TCDF, who have said they have been forced to act as unpaid cleaning crews, there are doors that don’t unlock when they’re supposed to presenting a serious danger in the event of an emergency, and much more. They also provide proof for the OIG report’s findings of unsafe conditions in TCDF, which ICE tried to brush aside by accusing inspectors of using “falsified or mischaracterized evidence.”  

The persistence of these serious health and safety issues despite ICE’s reassurances about conditions before and after the OIG report show the agency, CoreCivic and Torrance County cannot be trusted to protect the health and safety of the people in their custody. 

Rebecca Sheff, Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU of New Mexico, issued the following statement: 

“These documents show that the abhorrent conditions at Torrance persisted in the months leading up to Kesley Vial’s tragic death, despite ICE's claims to the contrary. CoreCivic's own records show that these serious health and safety issues have long been well-known. They are well aware that the housing units are freezing cold in the winter, the hot water doesn’t work, the toilets constantly flood and the understaffing puts everyone at risk. Despite that, ICE continues to insist on holding people in this inhumane facility. ICE’s recent efforts to downplay the life-threatening problems at Torrance are an insult to Kesley Vial's memory, to all who have suffered there, and to all New Mexicans who believe people seeking refuge in our state should be treated with dignity and humanity. Everyone detained at Torrance should be immediately released to seek the support and care they need and the contract must be terminated.” 

Ian Philabaum, Co-Director of Anticarceral Legal Organizing at Innovation Law Lab, issued the following statement:  

“These records are the smoking gun that prove not only that ICE and CoreCivic have kept people locked up under the most abhorrent and dangerous of conditions for months at a time, but that they have done so knowingly and they have lied to the public about it. Detained folks filed complaints, and ICE and CoreCivic ignored them. We filed complaints and sounded the alarm, and ICE and CoreCivic ignored us. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a management alert, and ICE and CoreCivic said everything was fine. As far as I’m concerned, ICE and CoreCivic have blood on their hands. They had their chance to deal with this and they chose not to, resulting in the tragic death of a young Brazilian man named Kesley Vial. It’s time to put an end to the abuse and the lies. It’s time to shut down Torrance County Detention Facility.”