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'A living hell': Migrant detainees detail alleged mistreatment in a Florida ICE facility as groups file federal complaint

Amid allegations of beatings and racism, 16 organizations have filed a complaint with several government and immigration agencies.
Baker County Sheriff's Complex in Macclenny, Fla.
Baker County Sheriff's Complex in Macclenny, Fla.Google Maps

Guillermo De León Serrabi, a 22-year-old Salvadoran who was held at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Baker County Detention Center, alleges he has lost part of his hearing because of beatings he received at the hands of guards at the facility.

"To this day, I always have a sharp pain in my head,” he said to Noticias Telemundo Investiga.

His allegations are part of a federal complaint filed by 16 civil rights organizations against practices at the detention center, which is located in Macclenny, Florida. The complaint was sent to several Department of Homeland Security agencies and the Miami ICE office.  

The groups cite "inhumane conditions," including excessive use of force and physical assault, verbal abuse, "racialized harassment" and medical neglect.

The federal complaint is calling for ICE to terminate the contract with Baker County, which runs the facility. It is also asking for an investigation, the release of some of the detainees -- especially those held over 120 days -- and a halt to any scheduled deportations.

Noticias Telemundo Investiga interviewed several immigrant detainees including De León Serrabi, whose allegations are included in the federal complaint. According to his testimony, the alleged abuse against him took place after "refusing a COVID-19 test required for his deportation," according to the complaint.

De León said that a beating in December 2021, when a guard "unloaded all his anger with his right hand," caused his ear to bleed and impacted his hearing.

Sofia Casini, director of visitation advocacy strategy at Freedom for Immigrants, one of the groups that filed the complaint, said De León Serrabi was put in solitary detention and had not been able to contact his family or contact his lawyer.

An investigation by the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security in 2019 reported irregularities in four facilities, including Baker: “Detainees in the four facilities had difficulty resolving problems through the complaint and communication systems, including reports of verbal abuse by part of the staff." It also identified "serious issues with the administrative and disciplinary segregation" at Baker and two other facilities.

In an email to Noticias Telemundo Investiga, an ICE spokesperson did not directly address any of the specific detainees’ allegations described to reporters and detailed in the federal complaint.

The ICE spokesperson stated via email: "In May 2022, the Baker County Detention Center underwent their Annual Detention Inspection to ensure compliance with National Detention Standards. The facility received an acceptable rating."

The statement also stated that "ICE is committed to ensuring the welfare of all those in the agency’s custody, including providing access to necessary and appropriate medical care." According to the statement, the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) "vigilantly" manages ICE’s security programs, "conducts independent reviews of ICE programs and operations, and impartially investigating allegations of serious employee and contractor misconduct." 

‘A living hell’

“I felt like dying,” said Eric Martinez about his experience at the detention center. The Colombian immigrant, who's 39, had been in the United States for 28 years when he was taken into ICE custody.

Speaking from Colombia following his deportation, he told Noticias Telemundo Investiga that he suffered from physical and verbal abuse at the Baker County Detention Center.

His account is also detailed in the complaint. "Mr. Martinez felt like he was going to pass out and tried to yell that he could not breathe" after an officer allegedly put his knee on his stomach, the complaint reads. "While Mr. Martinez was restrained, Sergeant Griffiths punched him in the face with a closed fist, breaking his nose."

Martinez has been working with an attorney seeking video footage of the alleged assault. "Remembering his time at Baker," the federal complaint states, 'it was a living hell.'"

Despite everything, Martinez told Noticias Telemundo Investiga he hopes to return to the U.S., where he has a family and a life that he left behind.

“He never got justice,” Casini said about Martinez. 

Other immigrant detainees have described incidents of racism against Latino and Black migrant detainees, including racist slurs, saying they were told to speaking English.

“The people who work there demonstrate a culture of racism and discrimination against immigrants,” says Andrea Jacoski, director of the Americans for Justice Detention Program. 

Casini said the center has had these problems for 10 years, when Baker County's contract with ICE started. 

Cosme Alfredo Frías alleges that he was denied medical treatment that he needed when he was at the Baker facility.
Cosme Alfredo Frías alleges that he was denied medical treatment that he needed when he was at the Baker facility.Noticias Telemundo Investiga

Cosme Alfredo Frías, a 57-year-old Dominican, was deported from Baker after spending months requesting a colonoscopy prescribed by a doctor at another detention center due to blood found in his stool. Fearing a serious illness, he contacted pro-immigrant organizations who filed a complaint on his behalf, though Frías and the groups allege that only resulted in threats from the guards.

Casini said that the ICE office in Miami should take responsibility for the surveillance and monitoring of these centers. 

An earlier version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.

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