Florida migrant detention center subject of federal complaint

Sixteen immigrant rights organizations filed a complaint against the facility.

August 6, 2022, 10:04 AM

A former U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainee in Florida said a group of officers threatened to take him to solitary confinement, then assaulted him, according to a federal complaint filed by several immigration groups.

The allegation is part of a 102-page complaint against the Baker County Detention Center in Macclenny by a group of 15 current and former immigration detainees who allege a "pattern of abuse."

The complaint includes allegations that the guards threatened detainees with solitary confinement and retaliated against them when they filed internal complaints. One petition signed by 130 immigrants at the facility accuses officers of putting detainees in cells without cameras so they can mistreat them.

Other allegations describe unsanitary conditions caused by inadequate clothing, underwear, bedding, and toilets. One incident described in the complaint alleges that five detainees were placed in a holding cell with "one toilet with no privacy, no sink for hand washing, no soap, no toilet paper, and no ability to social distance at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic."

In addition, the complaint alleges that one officer at Baker County Detention Center in Macclenny punched him and broke Eric Martinez's nose while he was restrained and another placed a spit guard over his face as he bled.

"I thought I was going to pass out," Martinez told ABC News.

Martinez claims before the alleged assault in January 2019, he had previously filed a grievance about officers not giving him time in the library to work on his immigration court case, his complaint said.

The complaint against the detention center, which is operated by the Baker County Sheriff's Office and overseen by ICE alleges "officers rushed him and assaulted him" and one sergeant "punched him in the face with a closed fist, breaking his nose."

The guards placed Martinez in solitary confinement for several weeks, where he initiated a hunger strike to protest the conditions, the complaint alleges.

In a disciplinary report of the incident involving Martinez, Baker County Sheriff's Office accused Martinez of becoming combative with officers during a dispute over the TV volume in a dorm and of unruly behavior by detainees in the dorm. According to that report, Martinez refused to let deputies restrain him, causing him to strike a wall at one point.

FILE PHOTO: A migrant who was previously detained gets off a van coming from Waco while U.S. ICE agents wait for everyone to get down so that their handcuffs can be removed to then be escorted to Mexico, in Laredo, Texas, U.S. June 15, 2022.
FILE PHOTO: A migrant who was previously detained gets off a van coming from Waco while U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents wait for everyone to get down so that their handcuffs can be removed to then be escorted to Mexico, in Laredo, Texas, U.S. June 15, 2022. Picture taken June 15, 2022.
Veronica Cardenas/Reuters

Baker County Undersheriff Randy Crews told ABC News the allegations against the facility are "not true" and are "distortions."

"I can emphatically say there's no inmates or detainees at our facility being treated inhumanely," he said.

Crews also said that none of the 16 organizations that filed the complaint ever spoke to his staff about the allegations when they visited the facility and that he has never been told by any inspector that detainees are being treated inhumanely.

A spokesperson for ICE told ABC News that the facility underwent an inspection in May 2022, and received an “acceptable rating.”

“ICE takes very seriously the health, safety, and welfare of those in our care. ICE is committed to ensuring the welfare of all those in the agency’s custody, including providing access to necessary and appropriate medical care,” the ICE spokesperson said.

That inspection was conducted by a third-party contractor, the Nakamoto Group Inc., which said there were no “areas of concern” and that the facility met ICE standards. The complaint claims the inspection was not properly carried out and that it took place during a hunger strike.

“Because it was a pre-planned inspection, Baker staff were able to select detained people they thought would speak well of the jail, while others who had signed up to speak with inspectors were not permitted to do so,” the complaint said

PHOTO: An undated aerial view shows the Baker County Detention Center in Macclenny, Fla.
An undated aerial view shows the Baker County Detention Center in Macclenny, Fla.
Google Maps

In 2019, a Department of Homeland Security inspector general report found that living conditions at Baker and two other facilities across the country "not only violate ICE detention standards, but, in some instances, may also pose a health and safety risk to detainees." The report also stated that detainees at four facilities, including Baker County, "had difficulties resolving issues through the grievance and communication system."

The report said ICE took corrective action to fix the issues that were found in the report.

"The things they talked about were really horrific conditions and abusive treatment. There were some incidents detailed in the complaint that include racist harassment, excessive use of force, instances of physical assault, including the frequent use of pepper spray and physical constraints," Layla Razavi, co-executive director of Freedom For Immigrants, one of the groups that filed the complaint, told ABC News. "Also, retaliation and intimidation as punishment for people who are inside and advocating for themselves."

Andrea Jacoski, director of the Detention Program at Americans for Immigrant Justice, said the allegations at Baker also mirror ones raised at a different facility in Florida. Her organization joined the complaint regarding Baker and was also part of a broader coalition that successfully advocated for ICE to scale back its usage of the Glades County Detention Center after several migrants raised the alarm about allegations of abusive conditions.

Jacoski told ABC News that some former detainees at Glades were transferred to Baker, so they already knew how to advocate for themselves and stage hunger strikes. ABC News spoke to Jacoski on July 28, a week after the complaint was filed, and she said one detainee had already reported that

“One caller said he was experiencing retaliation for reporting and talking about ICE. He said there have been three shakedowns in the last two weeks,” she said.

Martinez had surgery to repair his nose before he was deported to Colombia in October 2019. With the help of a lawyer, he continues to try to obtain footage of what he says happened at the detention center. He said the images will prove that he was attacked.

"If I'm a liar, the video will show that, but I'm telling the truth and it will prove my innocence," he said.

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