Detained in solitary confinement and unable to sleep, Carlos Murillo Vega spent his days pacing the cell with walls so close he could almost touch them both with outstretched arms.
Murillo was born in Mexico and raised in Holtville, a California town near the Mexican border. He says he is a US citizen but does not have the necessary documents to prove it. After being detained by immigration authorities in December 2019, he believed the situation would be resolved within weeks. Today, Murillo, 40, is suing the private detention company that kept him in solitary confinement for over a year.
The lawsuit was filed Thursday by the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice and other groups in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California against Management and Training Corp., a Utah-based private prison company. This is the first such case under a new California law that allows individuals to sue operators of private detention centers for failing to meet the standards of care outlined in the facility’s contract.
Upon arriving at the Imperial Regional Detention Center in Calexico, Murillo alleges in his trial that an employee offered him the choice of where he would be housed: general population or preventive detention. The employee warned that the general population was more dangerous. Murillo, grateful for the advice, accepted the offer of protection.
“What followed was a Kafkaesque nightmare of isolation, abuse and callous disregard for Mr. Murillo’s physical and mental health,” the lawsuit says.
When passed in 2020, supporters hailed Assembly Bill 3228 as the first of its kind. Detainees could previously sue the federal government for damages for civil rights violations, but the Federal Tort Claims Act does not apply to private companies. The new legislation has charted a clear course for bringing similar actions against these companies under state tort law and clarified the standard of care that must be provided.
Representatives of Management and Training Corp. did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Last year, after the enactment of AB 3228, spokesperson Issa Arnita said the company is committed to providing the highest level of care as outlined in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Arnita said Thursday he could not comment on the dispute.
“This was the case before the signing of AB 3228, and it continues thereafter,” said Arnita. “There is nothing more important to MTC than to treat the men and women in our care with dignity and respect. “
Murillo seeks damages “in excess of $ 75,000” for his injuries, which he says include physical pain, emotional distress, psychological trauma and mental deterioration.
Lisa Knox, legal director of the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, said the law provides lawyers with a tool to establish a record of abuses in California detention centers.
“The more money companies have to spend to fight these lawsuits, the more their bottom line is impacted,” she said. “We really see this as the first case, hopefully, of many …”
Knox declined to say how or why Murillo was arrested by the ICE, or how he was released. ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Murillo says he is entitled to US citizenship through his US-born military veteran father. Immigration lawyers are fighting his deportation case separately.
In addition to the Imperial installation, Management and Training Corp. has contracts with ICE to operate four other detention centers. It is the third for-profit prison society in the country.
The ICE requires entrepreneurs to follow their own minimum requirements for the treatment of detainees. These standards allow solitary confinement for disciplinary and administrative reasons, for example when a person presents a significant threat to safety or security.
In limited circumstances, institutions may use administrative segregation as a means of protective detention, when “there is documentation and supervision approval” indicating that segregation is necessary “and no reasonable alternative is available. “, according to regulations.
Inmates of the general population live in a dormitory with access to a playground, religious programming, a library and other services. People in isolation spend 23 hours a day alone in a cell. Those detained for immigrants are not charged with a crime but are waiting to see if they will be allowed to stay in the country or if they will be deported.
Even though he was not disciplined, Murillo lived in the same conditions as those who were. Unable to visit the library, he read the Bible several times, he told The Times, frequently returning to Isaiah 43:26: “Remember me. Let’s plead together. State your case, so that you are justified.
Murillo regarded this verse as God answering his prayers for his release.
In October 2020, 10 months after his first detention, Murillo and the other men in pretrial detention were moved to an empty dormitory while their unit underwent maintenance work. For almost two weeks, he was able to socialize, call his family and use the library.
After returning to solitary confinement, Murillo’s mental health declined sharply, the lawsuit says. He could not sleep, often felt desperate, and sometimes considered killing himself. He became paranoid that the staff were playing mind games with him.
Murillo has repeatedly requested to be moved to a dormitory for the general population. But, according to the lawsuit, facility staff rejected the requests, citing their initial choice to be remanded in custody.
Murillo’s lawyers argue that the Management and Training Corp. violated three of the ICE standards of care: requiring that an individualized assessment be made in each case for remand inmates; ensure that inmates in administrative segregation have access to the services available to the general population; and test once a week for the first month of isolation, and every 10 days thereafter.
Immigrant advocates have long complained that private contractors freely violate the federal government’s minimum standards of care. Department of Homeland Security inspectors found in 2019 that ICE often does not hold detention center contractors accountable for failing to meet these standards and has only imposed financial penalties twice in nearly three years. .
Last year, inspectors found the imperial facility in violation of detention standards, including what it called “serious violations” related to its use of administrative segregation.
Inspectors said the facility’s operators “were using administrative segregation as a long-term solution for remand inmates and over-restricted inmates by not offering privileges similar to those offered to inmates on the units. general housing “.
In response to the report, ICE officials said they would work with the facility to comply with detention standards.
“In general, inmates who request custody have concerns about their membership in the general population due to gang affiliation, gang abandonment or criminal conviction involving a minor” an ICE representative said in comments at the end of the report. “IRDF inmates receive isolation exams at appropriate intervals. “
Last January, the California Department of Justice also released a report condemning the imperial establishment for keeping people in administrative segregation “indefinitely.” Three inmates who began voluntary preventive custody reported to California DOJ inspectors that their requests to return to the general population were denied without explanation.
“Imperial treats inmates in administrative segregation as restrictively as those in disciplinary segregation, subjecting remand inmates to harsh and isolating conditions,” the inspectors wrote.
Murillo’s lawyers say none of these reports had any effect on conditions at the imperial establishment before his release in February.
Since Murillo was released, he says he has not fully recovered from the effects of the prolonged isolation. He has trouble concentrating and becomes anxious in small spaces, even in his own bedroom. He often has nightmares and wakes up in a panic.
He considers that bringing the case is a duty which goes beyond justice for himself.
“I’m not the first person to experience this and I won’t be the last,” he said. “When there is money to be made, they will always break the rules.”