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A female detainee is escorted to the intake section of the Otay Mesa Detention Center. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The number of sexual assault complaints at the Otay Mesa Detention Center surged by 158 percent last year, according to a report by CoreCivic, the private company that runs the facility.

That was the largest increase of all the facilities audited by the company in 2018. Otay Mesa also saw the second largest raw number of complaints in 2018 – 49 – of the 41 facilities in the report.

According to data Voice of San Diego obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, there were also 10 complaints filed from the beginning of 2019 through March 24, 2019.

Most of the complaints were unsubstantiated, meaning investigators didn’t find enough evidence to prove or disprove an assault. Nine of 49 cases in 2018 were substantiated, according to the report.

A database of several years’ worth of sexual assault complaints from the facility received by Voice of San Diego showed that most of the complaints involved unwanted touching and grabbing. Most of the complaints, according to data and the CoreCivic report, were detainee-on-detainee sexual assaults. But the number of complaints involving employee-on-detainee assaults or harassment doubled from 7 to 14 complaints between 2017 and 2018.

The Otay Mesa Detention Facility had an average daily population of more than 1,400 people in 2018. It houses people detained by both the U.S. Marshals Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The facility has come under fire before for having a large number of sexual assault complaints. In 2017, a Freedom for Immigrants report detailed the prevalence of sexual assaults in immigration detention facilities. The advocacy group analyzed calls made to the ICE Detention Reporting and Information Line between October 2012 and March 2016 and found Otay Mesa was in the top five when it came to the volume of calls reporting sexual or physical assaults.

It’s not clear what’s behind the sharp increase in complaints. Neither ICE, CoreCivic nor the U.S. Marshals Service would respond specifically to questions about the increase.

“ICE is committed to ensuring the welfare of all those in the agency’s custody,” ICE spokeswoman Lauren Mack said in a statement. “ICE ensures that detainees in custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement.”

Deputy U.S. Marshal Ben Walker said the agency has a zero-tolerance standard against sexual abuse of prisoners in its custody, and coordinates with local authorities to ensure complaints are properly investigated – the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department investigates complaints at Otay Mesa. The agency said it requires each facility that houses U.S. Marshals Service prisoners have policies in place to prevent abuse, treat victims and investigate potential perpetrators.

CoreCivic similarly provided a statement describing how the company complies with the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

“We are committed to the safety and dignity of every detainee entrusted to our care,” said CoreCivic spokeswoman Amanda Gilchrist. “We have a zero-tolerance policy for all forms of sexual abuse and sexual harassment, and every allegation of this nature is reported to our government partner and investigated fully.”

Gilchrist said there are multiple options to report assault allegations, including calling the hotline numbers posted in facilities, notifying a staff member or contacting CoreCivic’s Ethics and Compliance hotline or website. Most detainee complaints are processed through ICE’s ERO Detention Reporting and Information Line, she said.

[infogram id=”e416d1f0-a032-4008-8a90-72fea00c9d4a” prefix=”f2f” format=”interactive” title=”Sexual Assault & Harassment at Otay Mesa Detention Center”]

The Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General’s number is also posted in the residential rooms, Gilchrist said. But a records request by Freedom for Immigrants and The Intercept found that while 1,224 reports of sexual abuse were filed with the OIG’s office between January 2010 and September 2017, only 43 of those were investigated.

A far higher rate of those complaints involved allegations against federal officers or private employees at the detention facility – over half of the total complaints.

While the number of complaints drastically increased at Otay Mesa last year, former detainees who filed reports in 2018 told Voice of San Diego that lodging the complaints was not easy and often led to repercussions while they were still in detention, both from staff and other detainees.

Reporting Sexual Assaults Is Still Difficult

There was a man housed with Manny in his pod at the Otay Mesa Detention Center who would always make him uncomfortable. The harassment started in December 2017.

The detainee would touch Manny’s shoulders and arms without his consent. He would make inappropriate sexual comments and touch himself as Manny would walk by his cell.

“Once I walked by the shower and he called my name and as I looked over, he was masturbating in the shower,” said Manny, who is 48, in a declaration submitted as part of his U-Visa application. U-visas are given to people who’ve been victims of crimes in the U.S. and cooperate with authorities to investigate those crimes. Manny was born in Mexico, but grew up in the United States. (Voice of San Diego is withholding Manny’s full name since he was a victim of sexual assault.)

Manny said he made numerous attempts to file a complaint to staff at the detention center, but nothing happened. Meanwhile, he continued to be housed with the man. After nearly a month of inaction, things escalated.

One day in January 2018, as Manny was standing next to the microwave in a shared area, the man approached him. According to the declaration, the man rubbed his erect penis against Manny’s hip and waist area and said, “Want to play with me? Come to my cell.”

Manny said he complained again to officers at the detention facility, but that nothing was done, so he sent a letter to CoreCivic headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee.

Manny said it was the letter that made something happen. Someone from CoreCivic came to speak with him, so his complaint would be taken seriously. It was only then – at the end of February – that the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department was notified and came to investigate. Manny had spent weeks forced to live in the same pod as the man who was harassing him.

“It was all very difficult, unpleasant and unfair,” Manny told me.

Manny said he was in U.S. Marshals custody at the time of the abuse. He was sentenced to time served for misusing a passport for trying to use his sister’s passport card to enter the United States. He spent months in U.S. Marshal custody while his criminal proceedings played out, and was then transferred to ICE custody, but remained in the Otay Mesa Detention Center.

He told me he faced further abuse from staff for trying to report the abuse.

Emails between two of Manny’s younger sisters, Macrina Miller and Angelica Benitez, sent in April 2018, describe what Manny told them he had experienced while trying to report the sexual assault. The e-mails were provided to VOSD by Miller.

“He was then mistreated and punished for speaking out,” Benitez wrote to Miller. “Then soon enough the actual assault took place. He once again reported what happened and persisted to press charges. He again was mistreated, disregarded and punished. One of his punishment was a heavy door was slammed on his leg. … He was also sent to solitary.”

Manny was just released from Otay Mesa last week, after roughly two years in custody.

“I feel always on guard and ready to defend myself against any kind of verbal and physical attack,” he wrote in his U-visa declaration while still in custody. “Honestly, I feel safest when the doors are locked down in the facility and I’m alone in my cell. Going to eat meals or going to court make me incredibly nervous. I always try to be the first or last person in or out because I’m just terrified that something else might happen again to me.”

Natou, an asylum-seeker from Guinea, said he chose not to report many incidents to authorities because he didn’t want to cause problems. (Voice of San Diego is using Natou’s nickname instead of his full name because he was a victim of a sexual assault.)

Natou was 18 when he was first detained. He’s religious. When other male detainees would start discussing women and sex, he would stay quiet. The men would harass him for being a virgin, and call him homosexual, Natou told me.

“I had come to ask for asylum,” he told me. “You don’t want to talk and get someone in trouble. You’ll have problems.”

But one day in November 2018, things went too far. As Natou was cleaning tables, a man touched his penis over his clothes, according to the Sheriff’s Department report on the incident. Natou reported it. His claim was substantiated after an investigation by CoreCivic staff.

Natou faced retaliation from other detainees after reporting the incident. In the months between the complaint and his release from custody, detainees would insult him and exclude him from activities because he’d gotten a fellow detainee in trouble.

He even lost one of his jobs at the facility from the harassment, he said. Detainees can work in the facility, like in the kitchen, for roughly a dollar a day (CoreCivic is being sued over this labor practice).

“I went five months like that,” Natou said. “Five months, I can’t talk to anyone. Go to bed, go to eat and go back to bed. From the day I filed the report, no one liked me. … I don’t want to have that stigma again in my life.”

Maya Srikrishnan

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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