Private prison company CoreCivic, formerly Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), will no longer require approved visitor lists as a condition for visiting detained immigrants at the Otay Mesa Detention Center (OMDC) in San Diego, CA. The move marks a significant victory for visitation access at the privately operated facility, which houses more than 1,000 people, many of whom are recent asylum seekers.
In October, Freedom for Immigrants sent U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) a letter regarding CCA/CoreCivic’s visitation policy at Otay. The policy has prevented countless families from visiting their loved ones if they are not on a limited approved visitor list, which has to be set up by the person in detention with the private prison staff. It also has prevented community volunteers from visiting people who ask for a visitor. The policy, we noted, was in direct violation of ICE’s 2011 Performance-Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS), with which Otay is supposed to comply. The PBNDS 2011 states clearly: “Facilities shall not require approved visitor lists from ICE/ERO detainees.”
On Monday, CRCL responded saying that “Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Otay Mesa Detention Center (OMDC) contacted CoreCivic regarding the approved visitation list set forth in this matter. CoreCivic agreed to remove its requirement for approved visitor lists as a condition of visitation for detainees within the Otay Mesa Detention Center. ICE has also requested CoreCivic to revise its written policies to reflect such change. CoreCivic has agreed to make this revision and will provide ICE an update on this matter soon.”
“This is a key victory for government transparency because it enables community volunteers to visit people in immigration detention and monitor detention conditions without undue barriers,” said Christina Fialho, co-founder/executive director of Freedom for Immigrants. “We must fight to end any and all barriers that further separate families and keep advocates, lawmakers and the public in the dark about conditions inside immigrant prisons.”
CCA/CoreCivic’s prior policy of requiring approved visitor lists posed significant issues for detained individuals, especially people seeking asylum. They make up a large percentage of the facility’s population and may not have prior relationships with people within visiting distance or elsewhere in the country. Even those who do have loved ones near the detention facility faced barriers in adding to or changing their approved visitation lists due to language difficulties or lack of orientation regarding visitation policy.
It is important to note that all other ICE-contracted prisons and county jails in California do not require an approved visitor list and are in compliance with this provision of the PBNDS 2011.
“This victory is especially important right now as asylum seekers with the migrant caravan are being arrested at the border and then imprisoned in Otay and other immigrant prisons,” said Rebecca Merton, the national director of visitation and independent monitoring with Freedom for Immigrants. “While we are glad CCA/CoreCivic is implementing this reasonable change, after years of our advocacy, we must continue to hold them accountable.”
Freedom for Immigrants has documented widespread abuse at CCA/CoreCivic’s Otay Detention Facility over the years. In April 2017, Freedom for Immigrants (formerly CIVIC) documented how Otay is among the top five detention facilities nationwide with the highest number of complaints related to sexual and/or physical abuse incidents. This summer, Freedom for Immigrants reported incidents of hate or bias motivated by xenophobia at Otay, such as when an individual was denied pain medication and an X-ray as a result of the prison’s medical staff stated dislike of “illegals [that] only come to the US to steal jobs from White people.”
And currently, Freedom for Immigrants is working to rectify the termination of our hotline at Otay and the suspension of visitation group SOLACE, which stands for Souls Offering Loving And Compassionate Ears. SOLACE had been visiting people detained at Otay Mesa since 2012. Earlier this year, ICE and CCA/CoreCivic demanded that the visitor volunteers sign a non-disclosure agreement that would prevent them from speaking out about conditions inside Otay as part of their volunteering efforts.