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US immigration

‘They stripped me so I was naked’: Honduran teenager tells of beatings, starvation and solitary confinement in US immigrant camp

The teen’s experience echoes claims by others whose accounts are included in a lawsuit charging that guards at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Centre beat them, locked them up for long periods in solitary confinement

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 June, 2018, 6:20am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 June, 2018, 6:35am

The stretches in solitary confinement inside a detention centre in the mountains of Virginia were what broke him, the Honduran teenager said. The guards stopped bringing food, he said. One time they let him out, and a group of them came at him. So many guards were kicking him in the gut, he said, he couldn’t breathe.

“I was just crying and praying to see my mother one more time,” said the 18-year-old immigrant, who gave his first-hand account on condition of anonymity because he feared the government might retaliate against him for speaking publicly. “I ended up getting put in solitary confinement for no reason.”

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The teen’s experience echoes abuse claims by other children whose accounts are included in a federal civil rights lawsuit charging that guards at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Centre in Staunton, Virginia, beat them, locked them up for long periods in solitary confinement and left them nude and shivering in concrete cells.

He arrived at Shenandoah in the summer of 2016 when he was 16 years old – during part of the time period covered by allegations in the lawsuit, which spans both the Obama and Trump administrations.

[Guards] started tying up my ankles and wrists … they took me into the bathroom and stripped me down so I was naked

The centre’s director has denied that children were abused at the facility. The facility did not immediately respond to a request for details about the teen’s case on Wednesday.

The Honduran teen said he began his journey to the United States with his brother after he and his family received death threats from drug traffickers in his rural region of Honduras.

He was 15 when he hopped a goods train known as the beast, or La Bestia, on a frightening journey through Mexico. He turned himself in to US authorities in the spring of 2016 at the US-Mexico border, he said.

Because he entered the country illegally and without relatives, he was routed to a few shelters run by the US Department of Health and Human Services meant for unaccompanied immigrant children.

Later that summer, after he got in a couple of fights with other detained teens who he said had taunted him and taken his things, he was put on a plane that would take him to Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Centre.

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That’s where his real troubles began, he said.

“I got to the airport and two men came and started tying up my ankles and wrists,” the teen said. “When we got there, they took me into the bathroom and stripped me down so I was naked.”

Sometime later, after he was locked away by himself in a cell, guards temporarily papered over the cell’s small windows to keep him from looking out, he said.

Guards also would withhold food and eat in front of him at times, he said. Breakfast, when it was provided, consisted of an apple and crackers.

When the guards got aggressive he sometimes fought back, the teen said, and once he was once charged with a misdemeanour for assaulting a guard.

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Associated Press confirmed the basic outlines of the teen’s account through documents and corroborating accounts from someone familiar with his case who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the centre’s inner workings.

The Honduran teen was released from the facility last year. He is now living in Oakland and said he hopes to go back to school sometime down the road.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam last Thursday ordered two state agencies to open investigations into the facility, hours after Associated Press first published allegations of severe abuse at the centre.

The AP report also cited a child development specialist who previously worked with teens at Shenandoah and said she saw bruises and broken bones the children said were caused by guards.

Virginia Democratic Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine have sent a list of questions about the case to the head of the US Office of Refugee Resettlement, which oversees the care of immigrant children held in federal custody.

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On Tuesday, 77 Democratic lawmakers signed a letter from Representative Don Beyer of Virginia seeking answers about the allegations of abuses at the lock-up.

Shenandoah’s executive director, Timothy J. Smith, said Friday that an internal investigation had concluded that the incidents described in the lawsuit against his facility were unfounded and “can be readily dispelled”.

Smith said his staff will cooperate with state and federal investigations.

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

Since 2007, about half the 58 beds are occupied by 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.

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Many of the children were sent there after US immigration authorities under both the Obama and Trump administrations accused them of belonging to violent gangs, including MS-13.

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

A top manager at Shenandoah said at a recent congressional hearing that the children did not appear to be gang members and many were suffering from mental health issues tied to trauma in their home countries.