Multiple inadequacies and a lack of oversight at the Mesa Verde ICE Detention Facility in Bakersfield were found by state agencies and detailed in two reports released Tuesday.
Both the California State Auditor and the Attorney General investigated the 10 detention facilities in the state that house immigrants for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The agencies reported that local governments had fallen short of their oversight responsibilities, and detainees experienced prolonged periods of confinement without breaks and difficulties with access to medical care.
“The report highlights what advocates and legal providers have been speaking about for many years now,” said Ambar Tovar, an attorney with the United Farm Workers Foundation that represents multiple clients held at Mesa Verde. “As a whole, I’m sure I join other advocates and other legal representatives in that we’re condemning this to the highest level.”
The Attorney General’s report found that during ICE’s most recent inspection of the facility, which occurred in 2016, Mesa Verde was not in compliance with 12 of 16 standards set by the federal department.
Deficiencies were found in areas including food service, medical care, telephone access, and sexual abuse and assault prevention.
Geo Group Inc., a private company that runs Mesa Verde, pushed back against the characterization.
“On a daily basis, members of The GEO Group team strive to treat all those entrusted to our care with compassion, dignity, and respect,” Geo said in a statement. “We will continue to work with our government partners, as we always have, to ensure that the facilities we manage meet or exceed the strict standards set by the federal government and adhere to guidelines set by leading third-party accreditation agencies.”
Although the last ICE inspection of Mesa Verde appears to have taken place as late as 2016, an ICE spokesperson said the agency was committed to upholding its standards.
“All facilities that house ICE detainees must meet rigorous performance standards, which specify detailed requirements for virtually every facet of the detention environment,” ICE spokesperson Richard Rocha said in a statement. “The safety, rights and health of detainees in ICE’s care are of paramount concern and all ICE detention facilities are subject to stringent, regular inspections.”
Mesa Verde, which first opened in 2015 on Golden State Avenue, houses around 400 detainees, mostly from Mexico, although others come from places as far-flung as China and Cameroon.
Some of the detainees are in the process of requesting asylum, and many are in the midst of complex legal cases.
Even though the facility is in Bakersfield, ICE entered into an intergovernmental services agreement with the city of McFarland to house detainees at Mesa Verde. McFarland in turn contracted Geo Group to run the facility, taking little role in its day-to-day functions.
The agreement earned the city $35,000 per year, but McFarland pulled out of its agreement with ICE in December 2018, forcing ICE to find another partner to keep the detention center open.
Now, nobody seems to know whether Mesa Verde will continue to be open past March 19, the date at which McFarland’s agreement with ICE is set to end.
In the meantime, the California Auditor’s report said that ICE had paid Geo Group $49.8 million in the past three fiscal years to operate Mesa Verde.
The report also called out McFarland officials for not providing adequate oversight of the facility.
“We found that three cities — Adelanto, McFarland, and Holtville — subcontracted to private operators nearly all of their responsibilities under their ICE contracts,” the report stated. “The cities provide little or no oversight of the private operators and simply passed federal payments from ICE to these subcontractors despite the fact that federal inspections have found serious health and safety problems at these private detention facilities.”
McFarland City Manager John Wooner did not respond to requests for comment.
Those that visit Mesa Verde say detainees are housed in four large dorm rooms that house about 100 people, and must stay in those rooms for 22 hours per day, with few activities except an occasional art therapy class.
The reports could be the first step in a long process. The Attorney General’s office said its review of California detention facilities was ongoing.
“We’re committed to upholding the welfare of all people in California, including those in local detention facilities pending immigration proceedings,” Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “At the California Department of Justice, we will continue to review detention facilities in our state and shine much-needed light on civil detention conditions.”