Detainees make their way through the Otay Mesa Detention Center. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The Otay Mesa Detention Center – the only ICE detention facility in San Diego County – has existed for more than two decades. But with the Trump administration’s ramped up immigration enforcement and border crackdown, the facility has drawn attention like never before.

That was driven home once again last week when a 37-year-old Cameroonian man being held at the facility, who’d come to the San Ysidro Port of Entry seeking asylum, died after suffering a brain hemorrhage.

Immigrant advocates saw the timing of the death as particularly telling: It happened on the first day of the new fiscal year, meaning the facility didn’t even go a single day into the new year without a death on the books.

In the past few years, the facility has been a local embodiment of outrage over federal immigration policies, drawing protesters at the height of family separations last summer and yet again this July.

Some of that outrage has been channeled into efforts to crack down on immigration detention facilities, including a bill awaiting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature that seeks to not only end private prison companies’ involvement in California corrections, but also their presence in the state as partners of federal agencies like ICE.

Occasional glimpses shed some light on what things are like inside the facility, like reports on who is held there and accounts of conditions – like alleged forced-labor practices – through lawsuits, letters from detainees and investigative journalism, like this Union-Tribune story revealing how a woman who had attempted suicide was kept in solitary confinement for three months.

But much remains a mystery. The facility is tucked away in a largely uninhabited corner of the county and its public-private nature means its operations are less transparent than those that are solely run by the government. Last year, immigration officials even tried to stop volunteers from visiting detainees, unless they agreed to not discuss conditions inside the facility with media or other groups.

Here’s what we do know about the facility.

The detention center is a glaring example of the country’s vast expansion of immigration detention over the past couple of decades.

San Diego County didn’t even have an immigration detention facility until the late 1990s, when CoreCivic – then known as the Corrections Corporation of America – entered into a contract with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department that allowed the company to construct the first immigration detention facility in the county. The company leased land and constructed its facility in the complex with the George Bailey Detention Facility and East Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility.

On the national level, the use of private detention for immigrants really only began a decade earlier. CoreCivic, then known as CCA, entered into its first federal contract for an immigration detention facility in Texas in the 1980s. The Marshall Project recently delved into the history and evolution of the U.S. mass immigration detention system, which is now the largest in the world.

Several local and state changes happened just as the Sheriff’s Department had to consider renewing the lease, which made the department decide it needed that space for other purposes. The first was realignment, the statewide push to reduce prison overcrowding that included shifting some prisoners to local jails.

The Sheriff’s Department also planned to expand its mental health services, educational services and re-entry services and having the additional facility — close to its other facilities and more modern than the other buildings in the complex — made sense, Capt. Daniel Pena of the Sheriff’s Detention Bureau told me in 2018.

CoreCivic purchased the nearly 40-acre property where the detention facility now sits for $10.3 million in 2010. The property was formerly owned by Rocky de la Fuente, a San Diego businessman who ran for president (and virtually every other political office imaginable) in 2016. The property, with the detention center built, is now worth more than $123 million.

The facility has expanded recently to accommodate the influx of ICE detainees. Because CoreCivic contracts directly with ICE on property it owns, it’s been largely exempt from state efforts to quell the use of immigration detention by federal agencies in California.

The quality of medical care provided to detainees has long been a source of criticism.

ICE said it is undertaking a comprehensive review of what happened to the Cameroonian detainee who died last week.

But his is not the first death at Otay, and follows years’ worth of complaints about the quality of medical care given to detainees.

Last month, Otay was specifically highlighted in a class action lawsuit alleging officials delay and deny medical care in federal immigration detention facilities. The complaint highlights the case of Igor Zyazin, who died of a heart attack while detained at Otay Mesa on May 1, 2016. Two medical experts who reviewed Zyazin’s case on behalf of Human Rights Watch found that his death was likely preventable.

The complaint also highlights 2018 testimony from a wrongful death suit brought by the family of another individual who died in custody at Otay Mesa, in which a former CoreCivic training officer said that the facility was so short-staffed, it hindered officers’ ability to notice when detained individuals required medical care and a referral to the medical unit.

The facility has racked up other medical complaints and reports of inadequate care. In 2017, as ICE began detaining people for longer periods of time, the Union-Tribune detailed several complaints about medical treatment in the facility, and in February 2018, more than 70 detainees signed a letter condemning conditions. Back in 2007, the ACLU filed a lawsuit, which was settled years later, that alleged detainees were “routinely subjected to long delays before treatment, denied necessary medication for chronic illnesses and refused essential referrals prescribed by medical staff.”

Sexual assault complaints inside the facility have been surging.

The number of sexual assault complaints at the Otay Mesa Detention Center surged by 158 percent last year. That was the largest increase of all the facilities audited by CoreCivic in 2018. Otay Mesa also saw the second largest raw number of complaints in 2018 – 49 – of the 41 facilities.

Despite the increase in complaints, two detainees who were assaulted in custody told me they faced obstacles while trying to report their assaults and retaliation for reporting the incidences.

The facility has come under fire before for having large numbers 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.

The facility’s future is unclear.

It’s not clear what impact the state bill to ban private prisons would have on Otay Mesa and other federal facilities in California.

CoreCivic’s contract with ICE for Otay Mesa will expire in June 2020, according to the California attorney general. The facility had been exempt from past state legislation intended to quell the use of private immigration detention facilities, since CoreCivic owns the property where the facility stands and contracts directly with ICE without any state or local intermediaries.

The legal question would come down to the concept of pre-emption – basically whether the federal government’s authority should trump the state’s.

Some advocates are also concerned that closing the facility may simply mean that immigrant detainees from California will be held out of state, farther from their families and other resources.

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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