Restraint Chairs and Spit Masks: Migrant Detainees Claim Abuse at Detention Centers

Via NY Times |Jess Bidgood, Manny Fernandez and Richard Fausset

The Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center in Virginia houses young migrants with emotional, behavioral and psychological issues.CreditZachary Wajsgras/Associated Press

VERONA, Va. — Guards at a juvenile detention center for troubled immigrant teenagers had many ways of handling serious problems. At times, they resorted to the chair. Other times, the mask.

According to migrant teenagers and a former worker, the high, hard-backed metal chair had wheels so it could be tilted and moved like a dolly through the halls of the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center, a northwest Virginia facility that houses American and undocumented migrant youths who have emotional, behavioral and psychological issues.

Teenagers as young as 14 were strapped to the chair — some stripped down to their underwear — with their feet, arms and waist restrained by cushioned leather straps and loops, they said.

Those who guards feared might spit on staff, said one former worker, got the mask — a mesh hood that covered their entire faces and heads. Sometimes, the detainees said, they were forced to wear it while in the chair.

Uses of the chair and mask are among the more extreme examples of complaints that have emerged from inside a handful of detention centers that house teenage migrants with a history of violence, mental health problems or, in some cases, gang affiliation. A few hundred a year are held in this separate network of jail-like facilities that also hold American juveniles who have been sent there for a range of behavioral issues and crimes, including assault and murder.

The centers have tougher security measures than the immigrant-only shelters where the vast majority of the migrant teenagers are sent after entering the country illegally, either on their own or with their families.

For years, the government has sent the most troubled migrant youths to these more restrictive facilities, and many complaints about these sites came well before the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration. Others, though, have been lodged in the wake of the recent surge of detained immigrant children and teenagers, accusations that include use of the restraint devices, injections of psychotropic drugs and long periods in solitary confinement.

In sworn statements at the center of a class-action lawsuit against the Shenandoah Valley facility and the government commission that receives millions of federal dollars to run it, six former detainees paint a hellish portrait of daily life inside.

“They locked me in a room that was 8×10, or maybe 8×16, for 23 hours a day, all by myself,” said one detainee identified only as R.B. in the suit. Originally from Guatemala and now 18 and living with his mother in Texas, he had a pre-existing mental illness and was transferred to the Shenandoah Valley facility because of “behavioral problems,” according to the lawsuit. He said he often got into fights with other detainees and guards because he felt so isolated and angry over his fate. Punishment was the chair and mask, he said.

The Pattern of Allegations

Every year, according to federal figures, between 25,000 and 60,000 immigrant children who are without a parent or guardian are apprehended at the southwest border. The vast majority, including those separated from their families, are sent to federally financed shelters across the country, while a smaller number are found to have emotional disorders or other mental health and behavioral issues and are sent to more specialized facilities, such as the Shenandoah Valley center.

An 18-year old Honduran who says he suffered abuse inside a Virginia detention center.CreditEric Risberg/Associated Press

Of the more than 100 migrant youth sites overseen by federal officials in 17 states, about 15 are known as residential treatment centers, staff-secure facilities and secure facilities. The local, state and federal standards and policies by which they must abide vary by state.

Most of the centers existed long before unaccompanied migrant youths began flooding the border: They originally were opened to hold emotionally disturbed and convicted American juveniles brought to them by the criminal justice system. But as the number expanded beginning about six years ago, many won federal contracts to also treat immigrant children, and have done so while continuing to hold local teenagers.

These restrictive detention centers are challenging to run in the best of circumstances and can present dangers to the detainees and employees. One former Shenandoah employee said in an interview that fights between detainees in rival gangs were common, and another former worker said he was jumped and struck repeatedly by several juveniles at once.

At the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Center near Sacramento, the population has been so difficult to supervise that earlier this year, the county probation chief recommended the county end its $2.9 million federal contract to house migrant teenagers. Instead, it received an additional $2.2 million in federal funding through January 2019 to bulk up its staff. There is now one guard for every four inmates, he said, one case manager for every six, and one licensed therapist for every eight.

“They were hitting our officers, spitting, throwing urine on them, they were head butting, we had a lot of assaults on officers,” said Brent Cardall, the probation chief, adding that the center uses spit masks and pepper spray but not a chair to restrain detainees.

Over all, the facility can house up to 24 immigrant inmates. It usually holds about half that number of local youths sentenced there for crimes like murder, assault or “extreme drug use,” Mr. Cardell said.

Kenneth J. Wolfe, a spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families, which oversees the Office of Refugee Resettlement — the agency responsible for the care and housing of migrant youths — said in a statement that federal officials take appropriate action when there are allegations of abuse.

“Our office also conducts federal monitoring visits and medical reviews, and takes seriously the responsibility of caring for each child,” Mr. Wolfe said.

‘They Had Me In That Chair’

Far north of the border where they were first apprehended, behind the walls of a taupe building with tidy landscaping in the verdant Shenandoah Valley west of Charlottesville, detainees at the center of the lawsuit described being beaten while handcuffed, slammed against walls, stabbed with pens, subjected to anti-Latino and other racist remarks, and forced to spend hours strapped to the restraint chair.

[Read the detainees’ sworn statements.]

One 15-year-old from Mexico, identified by the initials J.A., said that staff members, who never told him why he was transferred there, pushed him to the floor, handcuffed him, took off his clothes, put a spit mask over his head and strapped him to the restraining chair — all because he did not want to go to his room.

In interviews, two former employees of the Shenandoah Valley facility, which has received $31.4 million in federal contracts since 2009, said the use of the chair and the mask was carefully monitored, and they were used only as a last resort. They disputed any suggestion that their treatment of the migrant youths was abusive, cruel or unlawful.

Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services, has defended the work of the agency and its contractors.CreditTom Brenner/The New York Times

But detainees in the lawsuit said that the chair was used often on them and other children, and that they were tied to it for varying lengths of time, from 30 minutes to — in at least one case — two and a half days. One detainee, an 18-year-old Guatemalan who immigrated with his mom at a young age and was sent to the detention center after running away from home and being caught by immigration authorities, said he and other migrants were not allowed to take bathroom breaks, so they urinated on themselves while strapped in the chair.

“They had me in that chair for a good hour, but they don’t check the time,” said another former detainee identified by the initials of D.M., a Honduran who was apprehended after he illegally crossed the southwest border when he was 15, and has bipolar disorder and other mental health issues. He was detained at the Shenandoah Valley site starting in 2014 and said he was there at least 11 months.

“When you’re in a crisis, the bag is the least helpful thing,” said D.M., now 20, referring to the spit mask. “They just grab the left side of your head and they force it over you. You can’t move to resist. The first thing that came to my head when they put it on me was, ‘They are going to suffocate me.’”

The class-action lawsuit was filed late last year by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs on behalf of three plaintiffs who were asking for quality treatment and mental health care for all detainees. Since then, two plaintiffs were returned to their home countries and a third decided not to proceed. A fourth migrant teenager who has been detained at the center since December — a 17-year-old boy who he said left Honduras after a gang threatened to kill him if he didn’t join it — was recently added to continue the suit. Three former detainees, including D.M., gave sworn statements about their treatment at the Shenandoah Valley center, but are not plaintiffs.

After news reports in late June about abuse allegations, Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, ordered officials at two state agencies to investigate the claims in the lawsuit. Officials and a child protective services worker interviewed all detained migrants and reviewed their case files.

The detention center — operated by the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center Commission, a three-county, four-city agency — said in a statement that it “takes all allegations of misconduct very seriously, including the complaints of abuse described in the pending federal lawsuit.” The center concluded, after a thorough investigation, that the allegations lacked merit.

As of late June, 22 of the facility’s 58 beds were occupied by immigrant youths. In congressional testimony earlier this year, Kelsey Wong, a program director, said the center serves an average of 92 migrants every year, and about 300 youths in total.

Interviews with the former employees echoed some of the accusations made by the young migrants, including that staff members punished the children with extensive periods in isolation. One of them said staff members often put juveniles in a restraining hold that occasionally left both the detainees and the workers with bruises.

They described the center as a tense place where they feared for their own safety and defended its handling of the migrants, saying nothing they witnessed amounted to excessive force.

One of the former employees, a youth worker who spent about three years there several years ago, said use of the restraint chair required approval from a top manager, and was used only when a detainee was believed capable of hurting himself or herself. Once, he said, the chair was used on an immigrant detainee who hit a window with his fist so hard that it cracked, and threatened to jump off his bunk to injure himself.

“Personally, I don’t agree with the chair, I think it’s too much,” said the former youth worker, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the center and did not want to endanger his job prospects elsewhere. “But when I think, ‘What would be the other way to do it?’ I can’t come up with a different way.”

The Shiloh Treatment Center in Manvel, Tex. The center has received about $30 million in federal contracts for migrant youth services since 2009.CreditScott Dalton for The New York Times

Critics have called it the “Devil’s Chair,” and a 2009 report prepared for the Annie E. Casey Foundation began by showing the visual similarities between a restraint chair at a juvenile detention center and one used at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. A guidebook that is widely used as a best practices manual by juvenile detention administrators states that devices like restraint chairs can lead to injuries and cardiac arrest, can traumatize teenagers with histories of abuse, and often appeared to be used as punishment or for convenience rather than as part of a response to an emergency.

“It’s not something that has any place at all, in our view, in a well-run juvenile facility,” said Jason Szanyi, deputy director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, who has worked with officials in more than 100 juvenile detention centers around the country.

A Call to Close a Texas Facility

On a two-lane road south of Houston, where the sprawling metropolis peters out into the Brazoria County countryside, the Shiloh Treatment Center makes its headquarters in a small complex of white trailer-like structures set amid a landscape of cattle and horses grazing in the heat.

Allegations of abuse have persisted over the years at Shiloh, which has received about $30 million in federal contracts for migrant youth services since 2009. It remains part of the federal migrant youth shelter system, even after Representative Pete Olson, a Republican from Texas, called for it to be closed, citing years of troubling reports.

Jeri Yenne, the longtime Republican district attorney for Brazoria County, has said three deaths of local youths from 2001 to 2010 at Shiloh and its nonprofit sister facility Daystar were “attributable to restraint holds” used by staff members. After the third death in 2010, state child welfare officials investigated, resulting in one child abuse finding and two child neglect findings against two Daystar employees. Texas officials revoked Daystar’s license.

Because of the deaths, as well as other incidents, Ms. Yenne contacted federal officials in 2011 and asked them to consider reducing the number of immigrant children they place at Shiloh.

With a licensed capacity to hold 44 children, Shiloh had about 25 undocumented teenagers in July. In legal filings from earlier this year in an ongoing class-action lawsuit, young migrants allege that staff members have engaged in physical and verbal abuse, forced them to take medication and, in some cases, overmedicated them.

In a statement posted recently to its website, the center said it has been investigated, but “the children have been found to be properly cared for and treated.”

United States District Judge Dolly Gee last week disagreed, finding that the government violated parts of the 1997 Flores settlement, a federal agreement that limits the time and conditions under which immigrant children can be detained, when it placed certain migrants at Shiloh. Under the terms of her ruling, migrants must be transferred from Shiloh unless a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist has determined the detainee is a threat to himself or others, and they cannot be drugged unless a legal guardian or emergency court order authorizes it.

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Judge Gee also ordered that migrants be told why they were sent to Shiloh, or any of the other more restrictive facilities, and that they be given access to drinking water, as many claimed they were not.

One boy, identified as Julio Z., attested that a staff member at Shiloh “often refused to allow Julio and other class members to leave their living quarters to obtain drinking water,” the July 30 order states. On one occasion, the boy tried to leave and a staff member threw him to the ground, injuring one of his elbows.

The government has until Aug. 10 to work out the details of the transfers.

Jess Bidgood reported from Verona, Va., and Manny Fernandez and Richard Fausset from Houston. Katie Benner contributed reporting from Washington. Alain Delaquérière contributed research from New York.

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