Lawsuit Reveals Information About Civil Rights Abuses at Alabama Detention Center

  • 50 The number of complaints that alleged “inadequate findings of detention” in the Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama detailed in a memo released under the Freedom of Information Act
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. Patrick Llewellyn, Public Citizen attorney who served as lead counsel for the plaintiffs.

In 2015, DHS’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties completed a memo that detailed the findings of an investigation into the conditions of the Etowah County Detention Center in Birmingham, Ala., prompted by 50 complaints. Run by the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the Etowah County Detention Center has long been criticized by national and local news outlets for its abysmal conditions, including inadequate food, medical care, and recreational time.

In September 2016, Adelante Alabama Worker Center alongside several other immigrant and civil rights groups – including Detention Watch Network, Greater Birmingham Ministries, Immigrant Defense Project, and Southerners on New Ground – submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the memo. DHS refused to produce the memo, claiming that it was exempt entirely from disclosure under FOIA.

In December 2017, Public Citizen represented some of the requesters in a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. After the lawsuit was filed, DHS disclosed more than 100 pages of the memo but redacted parts of the pages. The groups challenged several of the redactions, and in March 2019, the court ordered DHS to disclose additional information

The memo obtained through the lawsuit called out Etowah County Detention Center’s underqualified staff. For example,  an unlicensed radiology technician was functioning as the only designated mental health staff person at the facility. In the memo, experts in corrections, medical care, mental health, and environmental health and safety made recommendations for improvements.

The success of the lawsuit assisted the requesters in advocacy for better conditions and better oversight.

 

Highlights

  • In September 2016, several immigrant and civil rights groups submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties for a copy of a “super recommendations” memo detailing the findings of an investigation into the deplorable conditions in the Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama.
  • In December 2017, after DHS refused to produce this memo in response to the FOIA request, Public Citizen represented the requesters in a lawsuit to challenge the withholding. In response to the lawsuit, DHS released the memo with redactions. Public Citizen then challenged the redactions, and the court ordered DHS to disclose additional information.
  • The information obtained through the lawsuit revealed that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had been made aware of horrible conditions in the detention center and neglected to address them.