Throwing Hundreds of Asylum Seekers Into Federal Prisons Turned Out to Be a Terrible Idea

Screenshot: CBS2
Screenshot: CBS2

Back in June, Reuters reported that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency was preparing to transfer up to 1,600 immigrant detainees to five federal prisons across the country, with the largest number (up to a thousand) going to the federal prison in Victorville, CA. Pretty much everyone with a brain, including a former ICE official under Obama and the president of a local union for prison employees, said at the time that this was a very bad idea. It turns out that it was.


The number reportedly fluctuates daily, but as of Wednesday afternoon, according to HuffPost, 460 asylum seekers were still at the Federal Correctional Complex in Victorville. Congressman Mark Takano, one of eight members of Congress who visited the facility on Wednesday, told the site that conditions at the prison are “marginally better,” but this is apparently what “marginally better” looks like, per HuffPost:

Takano said a large percentage of the immigrants he met Wednesday are Sikh or Hindu and were initially being served sandwiches containing lunch meat. Many of these immigrants are practicing vegetarians, so they were effectively subsisting almost entirely on bread.

The food has since improved, as have other religious sensitivities like permitting detainees to wear traditional Sikh head coverings.


John Kostelnik, the union representative for prison employees, told HuffPost that so far, two migrant detainees have attempted suicide and another is on suicide watch. There’s also apparently been an outbreak of chickenpox and scabies; HuffPost reports that there have been 11 new cases of chickenpox in “recent weeks.”

And when these new chickenpox cases come up, Kostelnik told HuffPost, the whole unit goes on quarantine for three straight weeks. “21 days they sit in their cells, basically locked and confined into their cells all day long. They’re fed in their cells,” Kostelnik told HuffPost. “One of the guys [who attempted suicide] had literally been quarantined three times.”

Who could have seen this disaster coming, you ask? Here’s a quote from Kostelnik from the Reuters story back in June:

At Victorville, the prison getting the largest number of people, workers are moving about 500 inmates in a medium-security facility to make space, said John Kostelnik, local president for the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals union.

“There is so much movement going on,” said Kostelnik. “Everyone is running around like a chicken without their head.”


The fault for this lies solely with the Trump administration; under former president Barack Obama, as Reuters noted back in June, most immigrants who didn’t have serious criminal records were allowed to wait for their court dates outside of prison, and those who weren’t were usually detained in ICE holding facilities or local prisons. But those have been stretched thin by the Trump administration’s frenzy to arrest any immigrant it can get its grubby paws on. As DocumentedNY reported earlier this month, one jail in Bergen County, NJ, with a capacity for 128 ICE detainees, held an average of 336 per day from October to November 2018.

A Bureau of Prisons spokesperson told HuffPost that the agency has a contract with ICE to jail up to 1,672 migrants in five prisons. ICE spokesperson Lori Haley admitted to the site that the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy has created the need for “additional immigrant detention space.”


Takano posted a video to Twitter last night following his visit:


“The president’s excessive zero-tolerance policies are driving the unnecessary incarceration of people who do not really pose a danger to society,” Takano said in the video. “I think this needs to end. This is an insane use of taxpayer resources.”

News editor, Splinter

Share This Story

Get our newsletter