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US immigration

Lawsuit by young immigrants detained in Virginia centre alleges abuse by guards

Federal suit contends teenagers, held for crossing border illegally, were stripped, beaten and placed in solitary confinement

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 June, 2018, 3:41am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 June, 2018, 3:41am

Immigrant children as young as 14 housed at a juvenile detention centre in Virginia say they were beaten while handcuffed and locked up for long periods in solitary confinement, left nude and shivering in concrete cells.

The abuse claims against the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center near Staunton, Virginia, are detailed in federal court filings that include a half-dozen sworn statements from Latino teenagers jailed there for months or years. Multiple detainees say the guards stripped them of their clothes and strapped them to chairs with bags placed over their heads.

“Whenever they used to restrain me and put me in the chair, they would handcuff me,” said a Honduran immigrant who was sent to the facility when he was 15 years old. “Strapped me down all the way, from your feet all the way to your chest, you couldn’t really move.

“They have total control over you. They also put a bag over your head. It has little holes; you can see through it. But you feel suffocated with the bag on.”

In addition to the youths’ first-hand, translated accounts in court filings, a former child-development specialist who worked inside the facility independently told Associated Press this week that she saw detainees there with bruises and broken bones they attributed to actions by guards. The specialist spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorised to publicly discuss the cases.

In court filings, lawyers for the detention facility have denied all allegations of physical abuse.

On Thursday, Governor Ralph Northam ordered an inquiry into the abuse claims after the publication of this report by the AP.

Many of the teenagers were sent to the Shenandoah facility after US immigration authorities accused them of belonging to violent gangs, including MS-13.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly cited gang activity as justification for his crackdown on illegal immigration.

But a manager at the Shenandoah centre said during a recent congressional hearing that the detainees did not appear to be gang members and that they were suffering from mental health issues resulting from trauma that happened in their home countries – problems the detention facility was ill-equipped to treat.

“The youth were being screened as gang-involved individuals. And then when they came into our care, and they were assessed by our clinical and case management staff … they weren’t necessarily identified as gang-involved individuals,” Kelsey Wong, a programme director at the facility, said.

Wong testified April 26 before a Senate subcommittee reviewing the treatment of immigrant children apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security.

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Most children held in the Shenandoah facility who were the focus of the abuse lawsuit were caught crossing the border illegally alone. They were not children who were separated from their families under the Trump administration’s recent policy and are now in the government’s care.

But the Shenandoah facility operates under the same programme run by the US Office of Refugee Resettlement. It was not immediately clear whether any separated children have been sent to Shenandoah Valley since the Trump administration announced its “zero tolerance” policy toward immigrant families in April – after the lawsuit was filed.

The Shenandoah lock-up is one of only three juvenile detention facilities in the United States with federal contracts to provide “secure placement” for children who had problems at less-restrictive housing.

 

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The Shenandoah detention centre was built by a coalition of seven nearby towns and counties to lock up local kids charged with serious crimes. Since 2007, about half the 58 beds are occupied by both male and female immigrants between the ages of 12 and 17 facing deportation proceedings or awaiting rulings on asylum claims. Though incarcerated in a facility similar to a prison, the children detained on administrative immigration charges have not yet been convicted of any crime.

Virginia ranks among the worst states in the nation for wait times in federal immigration courts, with an average of 806 days before a ruling.

On average, 92 immigrant children each year cycle through Shenandoah, most of them from Mexico and Central America.

Wong said that many of the 30 or so youths housed there on any given day have mental health needs that would be better served in a residential treatment unit. But such facilities are often unwilling to accept children with significant behavioural issues, she said.

Wong and other managers at the Shenandoah centre, including Executive Director Timothy J. Smith, did not respond to phone and email messages seeking comment this week. A city manager on the local commission that oversees the facility referred questions to an official at the Refugee Resettlement agency, who did not respond to a phone message.

Financial statements reviewed by the AP show the local government commission that operates the centre received nearly $4.2 million in federal funds last year to house the immigrant children – enough to cover about two-thirds of the total operating expenses.

The lawsuit, filed by the non-profit Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, against Shenandoah contends that young Latino immigrants held there “are subjected to unconstitutional conditions that shock the conscience, including violence by staff, abusive and excessive use of seclusion and restraints, and the denial of necessary mental health care.”

A hearing in the case is set for July 3 before a federal judge in the Western District of Virginia.

Lawyers on both sides in the lawsuit either did not respond to messages or declined to comment, citing strict confidentiality requirements in the case involving children.

The child development specialist who worked with teenagers at Shenandoah told AP that many developed severe psychological problems after experiencing abuse from guards.

She said she never witnessed staff abuse teenagers first-hand, but that the detainees would complain to her of injuries from being tackled by guards and reveal bruises. The specialist encouraged them to file a formal complaint.