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O.C. immigration detention center named among nation's 10 worst

November 15, 2012 |  3:41 pm

Inside the Theo Lacey detention center. Credit: Karen Tapia

A report released today by Detention Watch Network names an Orange County immigration detention facility as one of the 10 worst in the country.

The group, which advocates reforming the U.S. immigration detention system, is calling on President  Obama to close the 10 facilities. In addition to the Theo Lacy Facility in the city of Orange, they include Pinal County Jail in Arizona, two facilities in Texas, two in Georgia, and one each in Florida, Alabama, Illinois and New Jersey.

The report alleges that all 10 facilities provided inadequate medical care, recreation and nutrition.

“The appalling conditions in jails and prisons that house immigrants have reached a tipping point,” said Andrea Black, executive director of Detention Watch Network, in a conference call with reporters. “People continue to suffer in conditions that are an affront to human dignity.”

Cmdr. Steve Kea of the Orange County Sheriff's Department, which runs Theo Lacy, disputes the ranking as largely based on anecdotal evidence. The facility is inspected regularly by federal authorities and receives high marks, Kea said.

The Sheriff's Department houses about 475 male immigration detainees at Theo Lacy and another 320 or so detainees, both male and female, at the James A. Musick Facility. The federal government pays the sheriff $118 a day for each detainee.

According to the report, staff members at Theo Lacy have used racial slurs against detainees and have engaged in abusive behavior, including kicking detainees’ feet to wake them in the morning and throwing detainees' lunches on the ground.

The report alleged that authorities at Theo Lacy punished detainees using solitary confinement. It cites several instances in which detainees allegedly did not receive needed medical care. Detainees are afraid to file grievances, and those who do complain sometimes do not receive a response, the report states. Some meals are described in the report as “moldy," "frozen" and lacking fruits and vegetables.

In 2009, Orange County's troubled jail system became the target of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation amid inmate violence and allegations that guards used Tasers on handcuffed or restrained inmates.

Five former Theo Lacy inmates were recently convicted of beating another inmate to death while the nearest guard watched television and sent text messages. The facility, which has a history of violent episodes, houses nearly 3,000 criminal inmates in addition to the immigration detainees.

Kea said the findings are driven by Detention Watch Network's agenda of reducing the number of immigrants behind bars. All grievances submitted by detainees are investigated and receive a response, he said.

"I'm not saying there's no room for improvement, but the top 10 ranking is not warranted on anything other than their agenda and anecdotal evidence."


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Photo: Inside the Theo Lacey detention center. Credit: Karen Tapia