ACLU Secures End To Overcrowding At San Diego Correctional Facility

June 4, 2008 12:00 am

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SAN DIEGO – The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) agreed today to keep the number of immigration detainees housed at the San Diego Correctional Facility (SDCF) within the facility’s design capacity.

The agreement, submitted to the United States District Court for the Southern District of California for final approval, would settle a class action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU Foundation of San Diego and Imperial Counties and the law firm of Cooley Godward Kronish LLP. The lawsuit charged that chronically severe overcrowding at the facility was unconstitutional and placed detainees’ health and safety at risk.

“The constitutional guarantee of due process applies to all people in this country, not just U.S. citizens,” said Gouri Bhat, a senior counsel with the ACLU National Prison Project. “This agreement will ensure that both DHS and CCA abide by their constitutional obligations to provide safe and humane living conditions.”

The lawsuit, filed in January 2007, addressed the practice of long-term overcrowding at the San Diego facility. When the lawsuit was filed, more than 650 immigration detainees at the facility were living three-to-a-cell – resulting in one of them having to sleep on a plastic slab on the floor by the toilet. Additional detainees slept on bunk beds in the recreation area, driving the population of some housing units to more than 50 percent over design capacity.

After the ACLU appeared in the case, DHS transferred more than 100 immigration detainees out of the facility, resulting in an end to triple-celling.

Today’s agreement, if approved by the court, will help ensure that the population at SDCF will not again exceed capacity by requiring CCA to demonstrate three times between now and January of 2009 that it is keeping the facility’s population within design capacity.

“This agreement is a step toward justice for a particularly vulnerable constituency of people who have no right to appointed counsel,” said David Blair-Loy, Legal Director of the ACLU Foundation of San Diego and Imperial Counties. “Detaining these people in crowded, unsafe conditions for months or years on end is perverse and inhumane and should never be acceptable.”

SDCF is one of the largest immigration detention facilities in the country and at one point housed about 1,000 detainees under the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). CCA, the nation’s largest for-profit prison company, manages the facility under a contract with ICE. The ACLU’s complaint charged that both ICE and CCA were responsible for the widespread practice of packing three detainees into cells designed for two.

Overcrowding at SDCF led to incidents of violence at the facility, including a September 2006 disturbance in which detainees who peacefully waited to speak with ICE officials about the new triple-celling policy were abruptly tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed by CCA officers. The policy of triple-celling also resulted in delays in medical and mental health treatment, physical and psychological suffering, the spread of infectious diseases, lack of adequate exercise, and poor sanitation.

“Some detainees at the facility are held for relatively short periods, but hundreds live in these overcrowded, intolerable conditions for many months or years as their immigration cases work their way through the system,” said Anthony M. Stiegler, litigation partner at Cooley Godward Kronish LLP. “These conditions are particularly unjust given that more than half of the detainees in ICE custody have never been convicted of a crime and all detainees are only in custody awaiting civil proceedings related to their immigration status.”

“While this is indeed a step toward justice for the thousands of immigration detainees held at SDCF each year, the overuse of detention nationwide continues to be a serious problem,” said Tom Jawetz, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project. “More than anything else, DHS needs to get serious about prioritizing the release of the most vulnerable populations, like families in detention and people with serious medical and mental health problems.”

The ACLU joined a lawsuit initiated by detainee Isaac Kigondu Kiniti, who had been representing himself since May 2005 in a challenge to overcrowding at SDCF. Kiniti was taken into ICE custody in May 2004 and sent to SDCF in November 2004. Since 2004, he has been awaiting proceedings to determine whether he will have to return to Kenya, where he fears he will be subjected to persecution and torture.

SDCF detainees are represented by Bhat and Jawetz of the ACLU National Prison Project, Judy Rabinovitz and M?nica Ramírez of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, Blair-Loy of the ACLU Foundation of San Diego and Imperial Counties, and Stiegler, Mary Kathryn Kelley, Ryan Blair and Peter Adams of Cooley Godward Kronish LLP.

A full copy of the proposed settlement is available online at:

A copy of the complaint, Kiniti v. Wagner is available online at:

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