Shateria Josey was at work on February 10 when she received repeated calls from the Glades County Detention Center, located west of Lake Okeechobee. Her boyfriend, Kevin Brown, a Jamaican national, had been in immigration detention there for about seven months.
She had missed some 15 calls from three different men who shared a pod with Brown. When she answered the phone, someone said urgently: "Call Glades and check on Kevin. Something happened to him."
So Josey, 28, called the detention center and spoke to a staff member. The person on the other end of the line told her that her boyfriend had "acted out" and been taken to the medical unit to be treated for an anger-management issue.
But when she got a call from her boyfriend a week later, he had a different story to tell.
"The guards, I guess they check the dorms every week," Josey recounts. "He had an extra [laundry] bag or extra toilet tissue. A guard took his commissary bag, stepped on it, and crushed everything inside it. His snacks, chips, and candy. He got disappointed and said, 'Hey, you can't do that.' The guards got mad and jumped on him."
Josey says Brown told her that about five officers beat him, pepper-sprayed him, and put him in solitary confinement.
"They took video chat privileges away from him, and they took his tablet away," Josey says. "I haven't seen him. I haven't talked to him much since the incident happened. They're gradually letting him use the phone every now and then. Depends on who the guard is that day. We're praying for him every day, hoping to get him out. Just holding on every day."
Earlier this month, the immigrant-rights organizations Freedom for Immigrants and the Immigrant Action Alliance filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on behalf of Brown and Kemar Williams, another Jamaican national who reported being beaten, maced, and placed in solitary confinement at the detention center. The groups allege the guards used excessive force and placed the men in prolonged solitary confinement.
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson told New Times the agency could not comment on the allegations in the complaint because of an ongoing investigation.
The advocacy groups claim the violence was payback against Brown and Williams, who participated in a civil-rights complaint filed earlier this year with the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. In January, Brown and Williams were among 25 detainees who provided testimonies about alleged medical neglect, physical violence from guards, the spraying of toxic chemicals in dorms, and unsanitary conditions at the detention facility.
Rebecca Talbot of Immigrant Action Alliance says she has seen a pattern at Glades of staff retaliating against people in custody who discuss the conditions and treatment inside the detention center.
"People were pepper-sprayed shortly after some of the first complaints about COVID came out," she says. "People who've spoken to media have been pepper-sprayed. A man appeared by video at a press conference once, and the next day he was pepper-sprayed at Glades. We have seen this before. I can easily think of a half-dozen other people whose access to calls and texts has been cut off. This seems to be a pattern at Glades. They ignore the abuse and punish the survivors and witnesses of the abuse."
According to the most recent complaint, the incidents involving Brown and Williams stemmed from "a dispute over access to hygiene products during which each was alleged to have one extra roll of toilet paper." Brown also reportedly had an extra laundry bag. When the guards checked the men's dorms on February 10, they found extra hygienic items the men weren't supposed to have.
"We believe that the sanitary products incident was a pretext for retaliation [for the civil rights complaint]," Talbot says. "This is part of the pattern and culture at Glades. When people report abuse or neglect publicly or otherwise advocate for themselves, Glades staff finds a pretext to isolate and often physically harm them."
In Brown's case, a guard stepped on his commissary items, and he uttered the comment, "You can't do that."
"He was then told to step outside of the dorm, but because stepping outside would mean stepping away from the cameras, he verbally refused, fearing what would happen to him out of view of the cameras," the complaint says.
Both men were then taken into solitary. The complaint says they were given a disciplinary hearing 15 days after being confined, despite standards that say those hearings should take place no more than four days after an incident is reported. Brown was charged with "conduct that disrupts," which by ICE's own standards is defined as conduct that "interferes with the security or orderly running of the facility." ICE's standards say the conduct must be "of the greatest severity" and that the charge should only be used if another charge is not applicable.
The complaint says Brown was told he would be confined to solitary for 30 days. The results of Williams' disciplinary hearing are unclear. The complaint does not say how long Williams was placed in solitary, but Talbot says that as far as she knows, both men are still in confinement.
"After we submitted the complaint, ICE told us that Kevin and Kemar resisted being taken into solitary by running away," Talbot says. "Running away is a completely understandable response if they feared what would happen to them once they were out of the dorm and could be taken to a location without cameras and without any other detained people who could bear witness. And their fears were justified given the abuse they then experienced."
The complaint says that because of Williams' time in solitary, "he has decided to waive his due process rights to pursue his immigration case and to take voluntary departure instead," meaning he has agreed to stop fighting to remain in the U.S. and plans to return to Jamaica on his own accord. It's not clear when or if Williams will have the option of leaving the country voluntarily.
Williams told Immigrant Action Alliance on March 2: "It's not a hard case to fight, but I am not safe here. This is a racist place. I am in fear for my life." Williams has had his phone privileges taken away and has since been blocked from contacting his attorney, according to the organization. As of now, he remains in detention.
A United Nations report says that solitary confinement should be banned in most cases. Experts say that solitary confinement in excess of 15 days should be "subject to an absolute prohibition" and that studies have shown that just a few days of social isolation causes lasting psychological damage.
Talbot says she and other members of Immigrant Action Alliance are concerned for Brown and Williams' safety and well-being, especially while the pandemic continues to rage. Brown has bronchitis, Williams has asthma, and both men have a "documented history" of depression. Citing those conditions, the Immigrant Action Alliance has petitioned a judge to release them from the detention facility.
"We hope they will be immediately released from solitary and hope their request for medical release will be thoroughly considered," Talbot says. "We hope they'll be reunited with their families. And we hope the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties will investigate the excessive force and isolation to which Kevin and Kemar were subjected."
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