Somali "Slave Ship" ICE Detainees Say Florida Guards Are Abusing Them, Ask Congress for Help

Acting ICE Director Thomas Homan
Acting ICE Director Thomas Homan U.S. Department of Homeland Security / Wikimedia Commons
In December, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 92 Somali immigrants — many of them longtime U.S. residents with families, homes, and jobs. The feds loaded them onto an airplane, kept the immigrants chained in the sky for 48 straight hours as the plane took off from Louisiana for Somalia, stopped inexplicably in Senegal, turned around, and landed in Miami. The men say ICE guards beat them and harassed them the entire time, and many say they were denied access to the bathroom and forced to relieve themselves in their seats. (ICE denies the claims.)

Though some of the immigrants have been transferred to detention centers closer to their homes, 52 of them are still housed at the Glades County Detention Center just west of Lake Okeechobee.

But the Somalis say their mistreatment hasn't ended back in U.S. custody. Lawyers for the group filed formal administrative complaints with ICE January 8, which say the detainees have been denied medical care, subjected to racial slurs including the N-word, being illegally thrown into solitary confinement, and even excessively pepper-sprayed.

Yesterday, lawyers for the group — a coalition of human-rights advocates including members of the University of Miami law school's Immigration Clinic, the Broward County Legal Aid Society, and Americans for Immigrant Justice — also sent a letter to five Florida members of Congress, including South Florida's Frederica Wilson, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Alcee Hastings, and Ted Deutch, asking for help and alleging the abuse has not stopped.

In fact, the lawyers say the guards excessively pepper-sprayed two detainees again only three days ago.

"The instances of verbal and physical abuse that our clients are having to endure, excessive force including beatings and pepper-spraying detainees who are already in segregation cells, racial epithets including 'nigger' and 'boy,' the misuse of disciplinary segregation, are all unconscionable and intolerable in a civilized society,' the lawyers wrote yesterday, according to a copy New Times obtained.

The letter also addresses U.S. Rep. Thomas J. Rooney and Florida Sen. Denise Grimsley because the detention center is located in their districts.

"Quite frankly, if these circumstances existed in another country, the Glades County Detention Center would be on a 'watch-list' for humanitarian rights organizations, and yet, this is occurring in your district," the letter says.

The immigrants' stories were already harrowing. ICE has still not explained why the original plane carrying the 92 men was forced to turn around without landing in Somalia. According to the New York Times, which broke news of the flight, the men — 28 of them from Somali communities in Minnesota — were being held at a detention center in Louisiana to await deportation. (Roughly two-thirds of the detainees had criminal records, and a smaller percentage had been convicted of violent crimes, but others were simply parents and business owners living in the States on expired visas or after failed asylum claims.)

But lawyers for the group say no one has explained why the men were roused in the predawn hours of December 7, chained on the plane, and flown overseas, only for the aircraft to land early and turn around for Miami. (ICE admitted the men were kept in shackles but denies they were abused.)

"It's still a big mystery what happened," Lisa Lehner, a lawyer for Americans for Immigrant Justice, told New Times in December. "Just a strange situation."

Fearing they'd be shipped off again, the immigrants filed a federal lawsuit December 18, demanding a judge halt their deportations indefinitely. The suit also mentioned that ICE deported the men without consulting any of their lawyers.

Somalia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, and lawyers for the group argue that sending the immigrants back there would make them targets for kidnappings or robberies and constitute an act of cruel and unusual punishment. On January 30, a federal judge in Miami temporarily blocked ICE from deporting the group again, ruling the immigrants have the right to reopen their asylum cases "based on changed circumstances arising in the country of nationality or in the country to which deportation has been ordered.”

In the meantime, the men say guards at Glades County's ICE detention facility have been regularly beating, berating, and pepper-spraying them whenever they speak up or ask too many questions.

In court filings, ICE has denied that any of the detainees have been abused. Nestor Yglesias, a spokesperson for ICE's Miami office, told Minnesota Public Radio in January that ICE investigates any complaints of abuse in its facilities.

"ICE is firmly committed to the safety and welfare of all those in its custody," Yglesias said. "ICE has a strict zero-tolerance policy for any kind of abusive or inappropriate behavior in its facilities and takes any allegation seriously. ICE ensures facilities operate in compliance with its rigorous national detention standards through an aggressive inspection program."

A 2015 New Times investigation revealed cases of "widespread abuse" at a similar ICE detention center in Miami, the Krome Processing Center. New Times reviewed hundreds of pages of detainee and guard complaint documents — the files revealed similar cases of guards allegedly shoving, beating, and yelling at detainees.

According to the initial complaint from the Somali immigrants, the beatings, body-slammings, and pepper-sprayings are alleged to have been severe. On Christmas Day, one detainee, Said Jamale, says he was pepper-sprayed so excessively that the chemical drenched his clothing and the fumes forced nearby detainees into coughing fits. He says he was denied a shower and forced to live with a soaked, stinging face for two days. The initial complaint also alleges that multiple detainees were intentionally beaten and injured, including one man who says guards used a handcuff to slice his wrist. The complaint alleges men were left bleeding, bruised, and covered in pepper spray and denied medical care. Some men say guards pumped pepper spray into their solitary cells until they vomited.

The complaint also alleges that a University of Miami doctor examined the detainees after the flight landed and noted that multiple deportees had injuries from being shackled for too long or too tightly. The doctor said others showed signs of being beaten, including one man with a broken arm, another with a broken hand, and one who suffered from a "likely" eye abrasion that had not been examined. The complaint also alleged that ICE was denying men basic confidential phone calls with their lawyers.

Another man, Agane Warsame, says that after guards began cursing at him, he demanded that they speak to him with basic decency. The complaint alleges the guard laughed at the idea.

"This is Glades County," the guard allegedly replied. Warsame says a second guard joined in and called him a "nigger" and told him not to speak up.

On January 9, one Minnesota-based lawyer who toured Glades told Minnesota Public Radio that guards stomped on his client Mohamud Hassan's back — intentionally choosing a spot where the man was still healing from back surgery. (ICE has denied these claims in court filings and instead reportedly alleges some men were placed in solitary confinement after assaulting guards.)

The new letter sent to members of Florida's congressional delegation says the abuse has not stopped in the month since the complaint was filed. Lawyers for the group say some men have been trapped in solitary confinement for more than 30 days at a time. Last Tuesday, the lawyers also claim, two men were severely pepper-sprayed once more — including one man who says he was sprayed, began suffocating, and was then sprayed again as punishment for screaming, "I can't breathe!"

"These practices must end," the lawyers wrote yesterday. "We are calling on your offices, and the others that are copied with this letter, for an investigation into the abuse of immigration detainees at the Glades Detention Center."
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.