ICE Detainee Says He Was Stripped Naked, Straitjacketed, and Locked in Solitary

Karamjit Singh
Karamjit Singh photos by Karamjit Singh, Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office
Fifteen days before he was stripped down, forced into a straitjacket, and locked in solitary confinement for 20 hours in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Glades County, 33-year-old Karamjit Singh was on vacation in Tampa, he says. He'd flown in from California in early May and booked a vacation rental for a few days on the eastern side of the city and planned to return home to the United Kingdom soon. That’s when things went terribly wrong.

On May 12, a disagreement with his vacation rental host led to a run-in with Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office deputies that landed Singh in a local jail on felony charges of battery, including battery on an officer. Because Singh had entered the United States on a 90-day visa waiver at the end of September 2018, he was considered illegally present.

At the time, he planned to contest the charges. Now, he says, he’ll do anything he can to leave the country.

"I wanted to fight the charges in court and tell people what they did to me, but then ICE picked me up — and another nightmare began," Singh tells New Times in a phone interview from the Glades County Detention Center.

According to Singh, the entire series of events began when the host of his vacation rental overbooked the room and asked him to leave early without a refund. The situation escalated quickly and ended with Singh arrested on two felony charges — one for pushing an officer, the other for striking an elderly man living at the home — and a misdemeanor charge of nonviolently resisting arrest, according to a criminal affidavit filed in Hillsborough County.

Singh claims he filmed the entire altercation on his cell phone, which was confiscated by officers after his arrest. According to Singh, the video reveals that he did not strike anyone and that officers were the first to get physical by pushing him to the ground and putting a knee in his back while arresting him. Singh, who has asthma, says he couldn’t breathe with the officer on top of him and tried to push himself off the ground, only to be punched in the back of the head several times.

Federal immigration agents scooped him up within 24 hours of his bond being paid and transferred him to the Krome Service Processing Center, an ICE facility in Southwest Miami-Dade County. From Krome, he was taken to the Glades County Detention Center, where he has remained for the past three weeks.

Singh says those three weeks have driven him to the verge of suicide. Sleep is hard to come by — flu has apparently run wild there, and Singh, who claims he hasn’t smelled fresh air since he arrived, says his asthma has become so severe he now needs an oxygen mask every other day to breathe. Worse, though, is the lack of mental-health care: Singh is clinically depressed and requires a daily dosage of Citalopram every evening, but he says he receives his medication only every other morning.

On May 27, Singh told the guard outside his cell that he was depressed, that he didn’t want to be there, and that he wanted to go back to the United Kingdom. The officer placed him on suicide watch.

"I told him I’m not suicidal, really. I’m just depressed. He literally did not care," Singh says.

He says he was taken to another cell, stripped naked, and placed in a Velcro straitjacket. He was kept that way for what he estimates to have been 17 to 20 hours, during which time he says guards jeered and mocked him. Finally, a nurse came in to check his blood pressure, followed by a mental-health expert, who declared Singh wasn’t suicidal and should be returned to his regular cell.

"It’s like a modern-day concentration camp," Singh says. "I didn’t think America would be like this — it feels like a third-world country... I’m experiencing psychological torture."

Although Singh wasn't originally feeling suicidal, he says he certainly is now. He claims he's requested to be transferred to the mental-health ward at Krome several times. He's made repeated complaints about his health and mistreatment to officers in the detention center and to his ICE deportation officer, whom he saw briefly last week, but nothing has been done. His brother, Sarabjit Singh, filed complaints to various government offices, with no response.

"I have warned ICE time and again that my brother could die in detention and if he dies that will be on ICE's head, as you continue to detain him despite all my warnings and the obvious problems he is having with both his mental and physical health. You will not let me book a flight for him myself, so you must book one urgently for the sake of his health," one such complaint to the ICE Miami Field Office reads. Singh's brother said he’s yet to hear back from any of the agencies.

The Glades County Detention Center did not respond to a request for comment from New Times. In statement, an ICE spokesperson said the agency takes allegations of abusive or inappropriate behavior seriously.

"The Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General and ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility investigate all allegations of abuse or other misconduct. Were any such allegation to be substantiated, appropriate action would be taken," the statement says.

The Glades County Detention Center, which came close to closing in 2014 due to a lack of inmates, has seen a startling revival over the past few years under the Trump administration. Detainees allege they've been pepper-strayed, beaten, and refused medical treatment. In February, a group of Somali men filed a lawsuit against the center for religious discrimination by guards at the facility.

Meanwhile, ICE recently came under fire after reports emerged that its agents were increasingly using solitary confinement as their first option rather than a last resort. The United Nations special rapporteur on torture has said solitary confinement should be "absolutely prohibited" in the case of people with mental-health issues.

Singh says he'd be more than happy to be deported or to self-deport if need be — anything to get out of Glades.

This story has been updated to include ICE's statement to New Times.
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Manuel Madrid is a former staff writer for Miami New Times. The child of Venezuelan immigrants, he grew up in Pompano Beach. He studied finance at Virginia Commonwealth University and worked as a writing fellow for the magazine The American Prospect in Washington, D.C.