Civil-rights attorneys investigating the conditions under which mentally ill immigration detainees are being housed at Alvarado Parkway Institute (API), a La Mesa psychiatric hospital, knew anecdotally that dozens of detainees had spent time at the facility, but getting an exact number from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities proved difficult.
Reports obtained last week by CityBeat under the California Public Records Act indicate that during the last five years, the number of ICE detainees transferred to API has grown exponentially.
“Denial of Rights / Seclusion and Restraint” reports, which licensed psychiatric facilities must submit quarterly to county health departments, show that at least 33 people in federal custody were transferred to API in 2004. Two years later, that number jumped to 63, and then more than doubled to 157 a year later. So far this year, at least 221 detainees—close to a 700-percent increase since 2004—have spent time at the hospital (the final numbers for 2009 won't be available until after June 30).
No one's been able to explain the increase, save for speculation that it mirrors a nationwide increase in the number of people being held in immigrant-detention facilities. An ICE spokesperson was unable to get an answer by press time and API CEO Patrick Ziemer didn't respond to e-mailed questions from CityBeat.
Regardless, “these numbers make it more imperative that this practice be swiftly put to an end,” said Ann Menasche, an attorney for Disability Rights California who's been investigating conditions at API.
The “practice” Menasche refers to includes detainees being shackled to their beds—both ankles—24 hours a day, except to use the bathroom or take a shower. Each detainee is monitored by two armed guards but otherwise kept in isolation, forbidden from sending or receiving mail or having access to a phone or writing materials. One detainee begged Menasche to contact family members who had no idea of the detainee's whereabouts. Detainees, who are being held on civil, not criminal charges, aren't allowed to watch TV—because it can be used as a weapon, Menasche was told—or read a newspaper.
ICE officials told Menasche that security concerns drive these practices, though the shackling appears to be unique to San Diego County, said Ellen Satkin, the program director for the L.A. County Department of Mental Health's Office of Patient Rights. Satkin said two hospitals in L.A. County agreed to stop admitting ICE detainees after she informed them that they were violating state and federal laws. State law requires psychiatric hospitals to show good cause for denying patient rights and mandates that a specific procedure be followed if a patient is restrained. Menasche said that ICE applies a blanket denial-of-rights rather than the case-by-case basis that the law requires. And, under federal law, anyone committed to a psychiatric hospital for more than 72 hours involuntarily is entitled to a judicial hearing.
Ziemer told Menasche last month that API would stop admitting detainees; he later said that ICE threatened to fine API if it refused patients. (CityBeat asked an ICE spokesperson about the threat but never received an answer.)
Thomas Christensen, a spokesperson with the county's Health and Human Services Agency, said the county reviews the “Denial of Rights / Seclusion and Restraint” reports, though he didn't answer a follow-up question about whether the jump in the numbers API was reporting raised any red flags. Christensen previously told CityBeat that county officials were unaware of the conditions at API until Menasche sent a letter on May 5.
California Department of Public Health spokesperson Al Lundeen said his department opened an investigation of API's handling of ICE detainees last month.
'A little Guantanamo,' May 19, 2009
Alvarado hospital done with ICE, May 26, 2009
ICE invoking federal law, May 28, 2009