NEW YORK, N.Y. – Today, immigrant and civil rights groups resolved a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) following a federal court ruling that required disclosure of portions of a memo from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security describing the deplorable conditions in the infamous Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama.
Adelante Alabama Worker Center, a community organization in Birmingham, Alabama—along with several other immigrant and civil rights groups— submitted a FOIA request in September 2016, seeking a “super-recommendations memo” issued by the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL). The memo details the findings of an investigation warranted by 50 complaints that alleged “inadequate conditions of detention.” Initially, DHS refused to produce a single word of the memo, claiming that the entire memo was exempt from disclosure under FOIA.
In December 2017, Adelante and other requesters filed suit in the U.S. District for the Southern District of New York, represented by attorneys from Adelante and Public Citizen. After the suit was filed, DHS disclosed more than 100 pages of the memo and attached expert reports with redactions. The plaintiffs challenged several of DHS’ redactions, and on March 26, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on several bases, forcing DHS to disclose additional information.
Today, following DHS’ release of additional information as required by the court and DHS’ agreement to pay attorneys’ fees and costs to plaintiffs, the FOIA case is being closed.
“The withholding of these records in full was plainly unlawful, and it is unfortunate that a lawsuit and court order were required for DHS to comply with its FOIA obligations,” said Patrick Llewellyn, an attorney with Public Citizen and lead counsel for the plaintiffs.
In the records obtained through the lawsuit, experts in corrections, medical care, mental health, and environmental health and safety investigate complaints from detainees and make recommendations for improvements. These complaints include one that states that a detainee was “forced to defecate in the back of a bus without a restroom” during transport to another facility.
Etowah County Detention Center has been repeatedly criticized in both local and national news outlets for its abysmal conditions, many citing inadequate food, medical care and recreational time as some of the main issues. The document also calls out Etowah County Detention Center’s underqualified staff, specifically referencing the facility’s mental health officer at the time, an unlicensed radiology technician who “functions as the only designated mental health staff person at the facility.” The memo goes on to note that this staff member, along with her predecessor, helped to conduct “all of the mental health assessments and interventions at the facility.”
In 2016, several immigrant and civil rights groups coalesced to form Shut Down Etowah, a campaign that advocates for closing the entire Etowah County Detention Center, which also houses the county jail.
The release of these previously withheld records is a victory for immigrant and civil rights, and for open government. “These records reveal what many detained persons and advocates on the ground already know—U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been placed on high alert about the abysmal conditions and systemic civil rights violations at the Etowah jail, and has utterly failed to address them,” said Jessica Vosburgh, executive and legal director of Adelante. “We originally learned about this ‘super-memo’ in a DHS report to Congress. Now we call on Congress to exercise its oversight and appropriations authority to conduct a searching investigation of the jail and the federal contract dollars paid to Etowah County.”
Although the expert recommendations in the document are from 2012, this 2015 memo reflects that the DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties had not “received a response from ICE on whether it will implement our suggested changes” and that there were no known changes to the facility between 2012 and 2015.
Awot Negash, recently released from Etowah after filing a habeas petition, remarks, “Etowah is the worst facility I’ve ever been at. During my time there I stayed in a urine scented, eight-person cell, where we all shared one toilet. The people in charge at Etowah are not fit to run a jail and they don’t care about the people detained or our complaints. Nothing changes there.”
The complete FOIA documents and a summary are available at: shutdownetowah.org/resources/super-memo.
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