“We are living in prison, inside of a prison.” – Turkish asylum seeker incarcerated in Torrance County Detention Facility in March 2022

Innovation Law Lab’s Anticarceral Legal Organizing program works together with the El Paso Immigration Collaborative (EPIC) to support people in ICE custody in detention centers in New Mexico & West Texas. One of those detention centers is the Torrance County Detention Facility (Torrance), located in a remote part of New Mexico east of the Manzano Mountains and near a flat, dry expanse known as Laguna del Perro. Torrance is run by the private, for-profit prison company CoreCivic. Three different government agencies use the facility to detain people in their custody: Torrance County, the U.S. Marshals Service and ICE.

At Torrance, we work in partnership with EPIC “to assist persons who are eligible for bond, parole, or persons who have received a negative fear decision and want to fight to reverse it.” We do this work by using a clearinghouse that we organized for people detained in ICE custody in New Mexico and West Texas who have been unable to receive other legal services. The clearinghouse is a case management database with digital infrastructure to receive, organize, process and delegate casework and information between coalition member groups, increasing our collective capacity to fight for detained migrants’ release. We receive referrals, and we manage a weekly telephone hotline from Torrance that people use to call us so we can provide legal consultations, gather data and review and refer cases. 

Through the clearinghouse we gain a general understanding of both the situation at Torrance and the cases of people who may be eligible for legal representation through EPIC. In some cases we are the ones who provide legal representation for the purposes of release from detention. Since August of 2019, when we began providing services to people at Torrance, we have screened over 800 referrals for people detained there, and we have provided legal services to nearly 200 of those individuals. We also organize and review data from the clearinghouse and are able to learn about what is going on in Torrance and use that information in our advocacy efforts.

Torrance, like other ICE detention centers, is plagued with a host of human rights abuses including lack of access to potable water, mold throughout the facility, forced labor, poor food quality, inoperable toilets, lack of access to counsel, lack of due process, and denial of adequate medical care. Last year the facility failed an inspection by Nakamoto, a private company subcontracted by ICE to provide rubber-stamp approval of conditions at its detention centers. Even for horrible facilities it is extraordinarily uncommon for Nakamoto–which has a financial incentive to overlook deficiencies and abuse–to give a failing assessment. In March of 2022, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General released a management alert calling for ICE to remove all detained individuals from Torrance due to severe problems with the facility’s conditions, including extreme staffing shortages. 

Conditions highlighted in the OIG alert included:

  • Torrance is incapable of ensuring sufficient staffing to provide for the safety and security of individuals detained in Torrance
  • ICE chose to contract with a facility that is too remote to be able to provide the resources necessary to ensure safety, security, and humane treatment
  • The majority of cells had plumbing issues, including inoperable sinks and toilets
  • Broken water faucets forced people to drink from showers and utility sinks
  • Mold and water leaks throughout the facility can cause respiratory problems
  • Security lapses and unsecured environments throughout the facility

In the wake of these revelations, we joined a group of organizations to call for ICE to free everyone from Torrance and for the detention center to terminate its contract with ICE. 

“This is a terrible place – there is racism towards us and no one communicates to us in a way that we can understand in our language. Torrance is not a place that a refugee should ever have to stay. They don’t give us air, I am losing hair because of stress. We can’t see outside. Some days they don’t even take us outside. I keep telling them that we need to be outside and see outside. We are in a box. We do not have any fresh air.”  Turkish asylum seeker incarcerated at TCDF

In September of 2021, thousands of Haitian refugees arrived at a single point along the US-Mexico border to seek asylum in the United States. The images that emerged from Del Rio exposed terrible abuse, racism and violence by U.S. border patrol officers on horseback against the Haitians. Many were expelled to danger in Haiti under Title 42, and many were sent to U.S. immigration detention centers in ICE custody. 73 of those Haitians were sent to Torrance, where ICE systematically sought to deny them access to legal services. Alongside local immigration attorney Allegra Love, we worked with partners at EPIC as well as the Haitian Bridge Alliance, the ACLU of New Mexico, the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, and the American Immigration Council to demand the Haitians have access to legal support–as well as better conditions–and eventually all 73 were freed from Torrance. Unfortunately, however, these abuses and due process barriers continue to take place at Torrance.

“When the lawyers come to visit us the guards often take us outside so we can’t go talk to them. We want to go outside so badly we go and then we miss the lawyers. One time when the lawyers came they had put us in quarantine so we couldn’t go talk to them.”  Turkish asylum seeker incarcerated at TCDF

Despite these challenges, our legal work at Torrance continues. In April of 2022, we represented three individuals detained at Torrance for their bond hearings before immigration judges, and they all secured the minimum bond amount, allowing them to free themselves from the awful immigration detention center and pursue their immigration case in freedom. Overall, in the first five months of 2022, Law Lab and EPIC have provided legal services and advocacy to over 60 people who have successfully won their release from Torrance.

Our staff are occasionally able to conduct legal visits in person at the detention center, though its remote location limits the frequency of our visits. The remoteness, in fact, is a common characteristic of ICE detention centers that keeps these abusive facilities out of sight and creates a barrier to access to all forms of support–community, family and legal–for the people detained there.

We continue to draw motivation and inspiration from the strength and struggle of the people detained at Torrance. After a recent visit to the facility, during which some detained people seeking asylum documented some of the terrible conditions they are surviving under, Innovation Law Lab’s Co-Director of Anticarceral Legal Organizing saw a Turkish gentleman writing and spoke to him, later reflecting on the moment:

“Why did you write all of this down?” I asked him. And he looked at me and he said something, and I didn’t understand it, and so I waited for the interpreter to translate. And she told me that he had written those four pages because he felt it was important to get his voice out there. It was important to tell people the truth, and then see what they would do with it. [laughs] And that’s all it took. Everyone at the table kinda looked at him, and they looked at the men who had been saying it was hopeless, and the men who had been saying it was hopeless, looked around the table, and they all kinda grinned at each other and they picked their pencils up and they started to write. That was a pretty cool moment.”

We continue working with people detained at Torrance to fight for their release and to push to improve conditions at the facility, with the ultimate goal of shutting the detention center down and abolishing immigration detention altogether. Most recently we filed federal and state information requests to access records about conditions and inspections at Torrance, because we know that ICE and the private prison company CoreCivic have a long history of hiding poor conditions and abuse. By demanding transparency can we discover the reality of conditions there and advocate for an end to this dehumanizing detention center. It is our belief that every human being deserves to be treated with dignity, equity and justice. Immigration detention has no place in an equitable, just society.

p.s. – Check out this video where Ariel Prado, AcLO Co-Director, speaks about a visit to Torrance.