U.S. immigration authorities are paying nearly $2 million a month to detain 15 migrants in Torrance County Detention Facility, a privately-held jail better known for its egregious conditions, including a foul stench and leaky walls.

This undertaking’s annual cost is more than enough to buy each of these migrants a $1.28 million house, and the spending has continued despite a scathing report by the federal government, prompting  a “management alert.” The alert — the first ever by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General — urged the immediate relocation of every single migrant detained in the facility, which is located an hour southeast of Albuquerque.

In addition to the litany of unsafe and unsanitary conditions, the government’s 50-page report included a series of nauseating photos: a moldy sink, a clogged toilet full of excrement, an inmate filling a drinking cup with water from a mop sink, and a ceiling covered in mold. The federal inspectors also noted that they found housing units with no guards present, and warned that the understaffed medical unit “impacted the level of care detainees received for suicide watch.”

Nevertheless, records reviewed by Searchlight New Mexico show that Immigration and Customs Enforcement has continued paying CoreCivic, the facility’s corporate operator, a total of $19.2 million a year.

Inside, detainees have also alleged horrific conditions. According to a complaint filed in August, with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberty, inmates were routinely deprived of access to drinking water and treated “like animals.” The conditions, according to inmates and attorneys alike, helped drive one migrant, 23-year-old Kesley Vial of Brazil, to commit suicide in late August.

Orlando de los Santos came to the U.S. seeking asylum but was detained in the Torrance County Detention Facility in July. He took part in a September inmate hunger strike protesting the facility’s conditions and was deported back to the Dominican Republic in November. Courtesy of Orlando de los Santos.

“It’s simply not apt for humans,” said Orlando de los Santos, a migrant who was detained in Torrance before being deported back to the Dominican Republic earlier this month. In a phone call with Searchlight, he described the conditions as “extremely inhumane.” He recalled the facility smelling “like feces,” the walls leaking when it rained, and a near-complete absence of medical care.

A construction worker, de los Santos said he fled a wave of violent crime in the Dominican Republic and headed to America in July. His intent was to land a job that paid enough to allow his son and daughter to join him here. When he arrived at the border in Ciudad Juárez, he declared himself as an asylum seeker.

“I turned myself in because that was the intention I had: get work, pay taxes, get legalized. I didn’t want to be in hiding,” de los Santos said. “I left because I wanted to feel safe.”

Unlike convicted prisoners, detained migrants typically are not accused of any crime; they are held in federal custody until the government decides whether or not they can remain in the U.S. Attorneys for the 15 migrants — all of whom are seeking asylum — acknowledge that immigration officials are no longer sending inmates to Torrance.

Despite the nosedive in population, critics say conditions inside the facility haven’t changed. Casey Mangan, an El Paso attorney who represents 10 migrants in Torrance, has described stark conditions: toilets that routinely overflow and send raw sewage seeping into migrants’ cells, running water that gives inmates rashes, and punitive discipline that includes throwing inmates in solitary confinement if they complain about the lack of mental health care.

“We have to stop torturing people with large amounts of taxpayer money that benefits large corporations outside New Mexico,” said Mangan. “The understaffing means that CoreCivic is paying people less and they’re getting an even larger portion of the $2 million a month. They’re actually incentivized to understaff the place.”

Federal inspectors documented an inmate who filled a “drinking cup” with water from a mop sink at the Torrance County Detention Facility. Credit: U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General.

A federal inspection

When DHS officials conducted an unannounced inspection of the facility back in February, they found conditions “that compromised the health, safety and rights of detainees.”

Like other prisons and jails across New Mexico, the inmate population at this facility has plunged; while it can hold up to 842 people, it averaged 152 in 2021, according to the government’s September report. Now it’s down to 15.

The inspectors identified more than a dozen recommendations to correct the problems, including:

–   Allowing detainees access to legal phone calls.

–   Making sure detainees have access to water and restrooms if they’re in the medical waiting area.

–   Retaining video records of use-of-force incidents.

CoreCivic in a lengthy statement defended its operations, claiming that the federal report “intentionally misrepresented evidence to negatively portray the facility.” The company said it “provides three nutritious meals a day that staff members also often eat.” And in a separate email, spokesman Ryan Gustin said CoreCivic “will continue to work directly with ICE on the recommendations provided.”

Federal inspectors also found broken “moldy” sinks in the Torrance County Detention Facility. Credit: U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General.

Calls to close it down

Since the report came out in September, there has been mounting pressure to free or transfer the detained migrants. Both of New Mexico’s U.S. senators, Democrats Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján, signed an October letter to ICE Acting Director Tae D. Johnson, calling on him to cancel the agency’s contract with CoreCivic.

“Grievous living conditions, critical staffing shortages and lack of access to detainee services at TCDF have been consistently documented and shown to be widespread, despite your agency’s assurances to the contrary,” the letter, which was co-signed by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Elizabeth Warren, Edward J. Markey and Alex Padilla, read. “We write to urge the transfer or release of eligible detainees … and immediate termination of ICE’s Torrance County Detention Facility contract with CoreCivic.”

Such allegations are nothing new for this facility. In 2020, a coalition of migrants mounted a lawsuit against CoreCivic, alleging that guards pepper-sprayed them when they staged a hunger strike to protest the facility’s food and COVID-19 protocols. One migrant at the time told Searchlight that it felt like being “burned with gasoline.”

A coalition of civil rights groups in August filed a 66-page complaint with the federal government, alleging “a long history of abuse and mistreatment” of migrants.

In 2021, a year after the pepper spray incident, the facility failed an inspection conducted by an ICE contractor, according to the complaint. That inspection found sanitation issues with the facility’s food and violations of visitation policies. Later that year, the complaint said, 73 Haitian asylum seekers were transferred here and, despite their pleas, were not given counsel or legal resources in their native language.

Rebecca Sheff, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, questioned why ICE hasn’t released the inmates despite the federal inspectors’ recommendation eight months ago.

“It’s clear from the government’s own investigation that Torrance is not safe,” said Sheff, who is representing the family of Vial, the Brazilian migrant who committed suicide last year. “It’s staggering the amount of money they’re pocketing from taxpayer dollars.”

In New Mexico prisons, empty beds spell big bucks for private companies

Elsewhere in New Mexico, the state has sought to wrest back control of private prisons. But that’s come at a steep cost that analysts say is only making CoreCivic richer.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has halved New Mexico’s historically high reliance on private prisons. Only two continue to operate. In the last three years, the state has taken over operations of private prisons in Clayton, Grants and Santa Rosa. But it has not bought the properties, opting instead to lease them from CoreCivic and Florida-based GEO Group Inc., with long-term agreements that could cost the state as much as $217 million over the next 20 years.

Joshua Bowling, Searchlight's criminal justice reporter, spent nearly six years covering local government, the environment and other issues at the Arizona Republic. His accountability reporting exposed...