By Michael Kaufman and Carmen Iguina
In 2009, the Obama administration announced plans to transform the immigration detention system to make it “truly civil” – a recognition that detainees are being held for civil immigration violations, not as punishment for a crime.

Nonetheless, nearly four years later, the federal government continues to detain hundreds of thousands of people each year in a patchwork of local jails, privately run and federal facilities that have been roundly criticized for substandard conditions, poor medical care and abusive treatment. The Detention Watch Network’s Expose and Close campaign has called on the Obama administration to put an end to these shameful practices by closing the 10worst immigration detention centers, and the ACLU has sent a letter to the president urging him to take steps to reform the detention system.
Among the 10 worst is the Theo Lacy facility in Orange County, Calif. Operated by the county sheriff’s office, it was designed as a “maximum-security jail” to house individuals in the criminal justice system. But the jail has now been partitioned, with one section housing up to 408 minimum security and 64 medium or maximum security immigration detainees.
That partition has not masked the reality that Theo Lacy is an extraordinarily harsh and punitive environment unfit to house immigration detainees. The DWN report details a widespread pattern of abuse and substandard conditions at Theo Lacy, including staff who kick and shove detainees, staff who subject detainees to racial epithets including "nigger" and "camel," and staff who neglect detainees’ medical needs. The report also documents overuse of solitary confinement for minor rule infractions, a punishment that can cause permanent damage to mental health.
Rodolfo Garcia-Santos is one of many detainees who have received shockingly poor medical care at Theo Lacy. Garcia-Santos had a painful, and potentially life-threatening, kidney condition that doctors had told him would require surgery. However, , the medical staff at Theo Lacy treated him with nothing more than pain medication, despite three different consultations at which Garcia-Santos pleaded for adequate care. The staff permitted Garcia-Santos to continue to use a temporary drainage tube for his kidney – which was intended to last a week – for months until he suffered a painful infection. Only after the ACLU intervened on his behalf did ICE officials arrange for Garcia-Santos to finally have the surgery.
No one should have to suffer woefully inadequate care medical care or Theo Lacy’s other deplorable conditions. The time has come for the Obama administration to live up to its promise of establishing a “truly civil” detention system by terminating its contract at Theo Lacy and other worst-offending facilities. Ending the reliance on mass immigration lockup is not only the right thing to do from a human rights perspective: doing so would save taxpayers more than $1.6 billion a year, a key benefit in this time of fiscal crisis.
This post was originally published on December 2, 2012, and republished on International Human Rights Day.