California police got hundreds of calls about abuse in private ICE detention centers. Cases were rarely prosecuted

Published on
January 5, 2021

When I started my latest reporting project, I had been covering California’s Inland Empire for several years and during that time, I had reported on suicide attempts, use of force and other incidents at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center in the high desert.

My colleague Andrea Castillo, an immigration reporter at the Los Angeles Times, had also been reporting on and closely tracking similar incidents at Adelanto and other detention facilities around California. We both felt strongly that there was more reporting to do on the conditions that detainees faced while living in these facilities.  

When I pitched the project to the Data Fellowship, I initially hoped to do something broader, exploring suicide attempts and other health care issues at detention facilities in California. 

At the time, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General had issued a scathing report on conditions at Adelanto. The report noted that detainees reported waiting “weeks and months” to see a doctor and that from November 2017 to April 2018, detainees filed 80 medical grievances with the facility for not receiving urgent care, not being seen for months for persistent health conditions and not receiving prescribed medication. 

Looking back, I was overly ambitious in thinking that I would be able to get federal records from the Department of Homeland Security in time to meet my deadline. Instead, Andrea and I eventually focused on what we could get, which were call logs from local police departments. 

The logs showed every time that local authorities had been called about incidents at the private detention facilities. As soon as we saw them, it was clear that they provided a unique glimpse at life inside. There was a wide range of incidents reported, from drug overdoses to suicide attempts to calls about incidents between staff members. In some cases, there were reports about things that had nothing to do with what was going on inside the facilities — like car break-ins in the parking lot. 

But as we spent time looking more closely at the logs, we saw that there were hundreds of calls reporting alleged incidents of abuse and violence. There were calls about sexual assaults, rape and attempted rape, battery and other incidents of violence.

Each one of those calls stood out to us, and we felt that they demanded closer scrutiny. We decided it was important to figure out what had happened after each of these calls was made. Did police investigate? Did any of them lead to prosecutions? What happened to the victims and the suspects?

While the call logs opened the door for us, we faced an additional barrier to this story, which was that California records law makes it incredibly difficult for reporters to get police reports, which outline the details of investigations and document how they were handled by police. Only one law enforcement agency gave us those reports. For the others, we were able to obtain some of the details contained in the police reports, but not the complete reports. 

We learned that persistence is key when it comes to records requests. When we were told we could not get police reports, we pushed to get as much information from those reports as possible. In the end, some agencies gave us detailed narratives about each incident, while others gave us brief summaries. But each bit of information allowed us to get a better understanding of what these reports represented.

We also went to prosecutors to help understand how they approached the possibility of filing charges in incidents that happen in immigration detention. We were unable to get any records from local prosecutors, but they did answer our questions about whether cases had been referred to them by police, whether or not they had filed charges and, in cases where charges were not filed, why they had turned them down.  

Another major challenge for this story was the fact that it’s very difficult to track down former immigration detainees. There is very little information publicly available about people who are detained. In most cases, if reporters want to ask immigration officials about the status of a detainee or former detainee, they must already have that person’s name, date of birth and their A-number, which is used to identify them in detention. At the same time, many former detainees have been deported, making the task of tracking them down all the more challenging. 

Still, Andrea and I both felt it was important to put a face on this story by speaking to the people who were directly involved in the alleged incidents. Without that, we felt it wouldn’t be a complete story. But the process was incredibly time consuming.  

We were only able to obtain the names of detainees involved in incidents in a small number of cases — largely only when charges were filed in court. So, Andrea reached out to dozens of lawyers, advocates and others to try and find people who had reported abuse in immigration detention. 

In the rare cases where we were able to find names and other information in court records, we used that to track people down on social media or using public records. Andrea’s persistence allowed us to include the voices of several victims in our story — but the process of finding them took months.

Ultimately, we were able to tell a story that was unique. We found that since 2017, at least 265 calls were made to police through 911 and nonemergency lines reporting violence and abuse inside California’s four privately run federal immigration detention centers. Half of the calls alleged sex crimes, including rape, sexual assault and abuse against detainees. The rest reported assault, battery and other threats of violence against detainees and staff.

We hope eventually there will be a time when federal records about private immigration detention centers are easier to obtain. For now, the biggest lesson we learned is that when it comes to immigration reporting, it’s worth looking for places where the federal government intersects with local governments, creating local records that might be easier to obtain than federal ones.

By tapping into these records, we can at least start to pierce the veil surrounding private detention and begin painting a picture of life inside these facilities.

Read the fellowship story by Paloma Esquivel and Andrea Castillo here.