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Four people detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Clay County Jail in Indiana filed a federal lawsuit today exposing how the county’s government has illegally used revenue from its ICE contract to award raises to county employees and pay for operations and capital improvements at unrelated county facilities, while leaving immigrants to suffer in the jail’s inhumane conditions. The lawsuit also details how the federal government’s immigration inspections system has turned a blind eye to unsanitary conditions and human suffering inside the jail.

The plaintiffs, who filed Herrera Cardenas et al. v. ICE et al. in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, describe being deprived of adequate medical care, cleaning supplies, clean clothing, working toilets and showers, and sufficient food. Their complaint also cites repeated public comments by local officials about the ways the county’s agreement to hold immigrants for ICE has become a revenue stream and that more than half of the funds in the last calendar year went to pay for other county services — a violation of the county’s federal detention contract, which requires the funds to be used for the “housing, safekeeping, and subsistence” of people detained by ICE.

“I wanted to help with this case because of the way they’re treating people here,” said Baijebo Toe, a plaintiff in the case. “I don’t want what is happening to me to happen to other people: the neglect with the medical care, the clothing, and the overall living situation is not right. I am stuck here trying to help out the best way I can, and I hope that people don’t experience this in the future.”

The lawsuit further alleges that ICE and the Department of Homeland Security, which rely on local jails like Clay County to sustain the massive U.S. immigration detention system, have unlawfully evaded congressional contracting requirements by relying on a discredited jail inspections system. Inspections are pre-announced at least 30 days in advance, and inspectors — some of whom are remote and never set foot in the facility — often rely entirely on uncorroborated statements from jail staff that the facility is compliant. In addition, ICE continues to rely on inspections by a private contractor, The Nakamoto Group, even though Congress instructed ICE not to use Nakamoto after a 2018 report criticized the company’s inspections as “very, very, very difficult to fail” and “useless.”

In Clay County, that meant inspectors allowed the jail to pass an inspection in December 2021 even though it had failed another inspection only months earlier and still had not addressed numerous ongoing violations of ICE detention standards. The two inspections coincided with the county board’s discussions about expanding the jail’s capacity to detain immigrants. ICE officials had expressed support for the expansion and county officials projected that it could increase the county’s annual payout to $7 million. Local community members and advocates with the Communities Not Cages Coalition working closely with people formerly and currently detained at the jail have mounted vehement opposition against the county’s efforts to expand ICE detention in Clay County.

Attorneys providing pro bono counsel in the case shared the following statements:

“What’s appalling about this situation is not just that Mr. Herrera Cardenas, Ms. Xirum, Mr. Jaimes Jaimes, Mr. Toe, and their peers are being held in grossly inadequate conditions, but also that those conditions exist because federal money that is intended to improve the level of care at the jail is being deliberately siphoned away to be spent elsewhere — publicly so,” said Gregory Cui, managing associate, Sidley Austin LLP. “This is an openly acknowledged system for making money off of people’s confinement. And to make matters worse, ICE and the County plan to expand this money grab in the coming years.”

“It has been an open secret for far too long that ICE does not hold facilities accountable for violations of its own detention standards,” said Mark Feldman, senior attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Center. “Yet conditions in Clay County Jail are so blatantly substandard that in May 2021, they failed even this minimal process. At the follow-up inspection in December, which Clay needed to pass in order to continue its contract, the lead inspector still found that sanitation levels and conditions of confinement were ‘unacceptable.’ And there are numerous other violations that people detained by ICE in Clay County Jail experience that the inspectors either did not investigate, or did not document. ICE's failure to hold detention facilities accountable for egregiously substandard conditions is not new, and is not unique to Clay County. It is endemic across the ICE detention system.”

The plaintiffs in the case are:

Cristhian Herrera Cardenas is a 38-year old man seeking protection from persecution in his native Honduras. He first moved to the United States in 2006 and his wife and daughter are both U.S. citizens. He was first detained at Clay County Jail in January 2022. At Clay he has received old, stained clothing with holes in it, and he has not received adequate bedding or hygiene supplies. The jail doesn’t provide enough food, so Mr. Herrera Cardenas has had to supplement meals with expensive purchases from the commissary. He lives in a freezing cold cell that at one point had a broken toilet for more than a week. And he has been unable to participate in outdoor recreation, use a law library, or visit with a clergy member.

Baijebo Toe is a 37-year-old Liberian man. He entered the United States in 1994 as a refugee, when he was nine years old. Among other issues, he has been severely affected by the Jail’s inadequate mental health services. He has been struggling with symptoms of depression and requested to speak with a therapist several months ago. Instead, the Jail has only offered him medication and has yet to allow him to speak with a therapist. Mr. Toe believes that his depression has been exacerbated by the lack of outdoor recreation or even windows.

Maribel Xirum is a 46-year-old Mexican woman who has lived in the United States since she was four years old and has multiple U.S. citizen children. Throughout her detention at Clay County Jail, she has been shocked by the conditions, particularly the inadequate and delayed medical care she has received. For instance, although Ms. Xirum complained of severe tooth pain to medical staff, she had to wait three weeks before they finally took her to a dentist. The dentist had to extract her tooth, which at that point had become infected. On top of delayed medical care, Ms. Xirum has witnessed sexual harassment in the women’s unit.

Javier Jaimes Jaimes is a 32-year-old man from Mexico. He moved to the United States when he was 18, and he has a six-year-old U.S.-citizen daughter. He was previously deported to Mexico but has returned to the United States in search of protection after being kidnapped and tortured by cartels in that country. Since his arrival at Clay County Jail in January 2022, he has received inadequate medical care. Guards have provided him with pills that were different in color and form from his prescribed medication. With no Spanish-speaking staff at the jail, he has had to rely on other detained immigrants to explain these sorts of issues. His four-person cell often has extra people sleeping on the floor in “boat beds.” When the cell toilet stopped working and spilled wastewater into the cell, the jail delayed its repair.