The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is threatening to sue the federal government over jail conditions for immigrant detainees at the Pinal County Jail in Florence, Ariz., calling them "unconstitutional."
Victoria Lopez, program director for the ACLU of Arizona, said the complaint about the conditions specifically applies to a separate wing of the facility that has 625 beds set aside for immigrants detained by ICE. The group says those detainees have no access to outdoor exercise, no face-to-face contact with loved ones, and an unsanitary environment.
"The ACLU has been looking at the conditions of the jail for a number of years now, and our office regularly receives complaints from immigrants that are held in that jail," Lopez told the Monitor.
The ACLU's letter reportedly refers to several specific complaints such as food served on dirty trays, food served with worms, verbal abuse from guards and limited availability of hygiene items. Lopez argues that the detainees have not been formally charged with a crime as they are awaiting a hearing where a judge will determine whether or not they will be deported.
The Pinal County Sheriff's Office runs the jail. Sheriff Paul Babeu in a statement Friday said the union is dead wrong in its assessment.
"We have the best run adult detention center in Arizona, as evidenced by being the first in the state to receive a national accreditation and only the second in the nation," he said in the release. "We also obtained the national accreditation with a perfect score when evaluated on 594 legal-based guidelines."
But that wasn't enough to satisfy Lopez and the ACLU.
"Those audits do not necessarily mean those jails are meeting constitutional standards," she said.
Lopez went on to say that illegal immigrant detainees were forced to suffer through "regular lockdowns" where cells were searched. They were also "yelled at" and "just treated in a very abusive manner."
More from the Maricopa Monitor:
In May 2011, ICE sent a letter to the ACLU that countered some of the complaints the ACLU made in a letter to ICE in March 2011. The ICE letter said the jail had undergone two independent reviews since the beginning of 2011. In one of those reviews, conducted by ICE’s Office of Detention Oversight in January 2011, it said 20 randomly-selected detainees were interviewed about the conditions.
“The ODO found that the detainees expressed no concerns that would indicate [the jail] was not in compliance with ICE’s National Detention Standards,” the letter stated.
The letter also described a second review conducted just two weeks later by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties; it claims both reviews came to the same conclusion — the Pinal County Jail meets or exceeds ICE National Detention Standards.
The ACLU does not appear to agree with those assessments of the jail.
The letter sent to the federal government Tuesday claims much of its observations are based upon a visit to the jail on March 7 of this year by ACLU representatives, along with extensive meetings with ACLU legal staff and detainees at the jail for the past three years.
Lopez said some of the statements by detention officers were, “What do you expect, this is Pinal County” and “You should just go back to your country” in addition to other abusive language. She added it was “particularly disturbing” to hear jail staff say the immigrants were treated exactly the same as the county inmates.
“Failure to remedy these legal violations — whether by promptly removing all immigration detainees from [the jail] or by dramatically overhauling conditions of confinement at the facility — would constitute an open invitation to bring suit,” the letter states.
The ACLU says civil detainees are supposed to be given better treatment than prisoners in accordance with federal government policy.
However, Babeu doesn't appear to be in any rush to comply with the ACLU's repeated demands, in fact, he sounds like he may battle the group if it comes down to it. The sheriff took to Facebook and made his feelings on the matter known.
“Often times, the ACLU files lawsuits everywhere they can in hopes of (a) huge financial settlement/windfall to pay their staff and advance their extreme agenda,” he said. “Instead of adding value in our world, they file lawsuits and attack those that make a difference in America. The ACLU is part of the problem in America," Babeu wrote on his Facebook page.
"The ACLU loves to attack the great work our staff does to keep our Pinal families safe," he also posted.
Babeu maintains that the jail employs talented staff members and provides a safe and sanitary environment for detainees.
The ACLU's feud with Babeu and the Pinal County Jail goes back to 2011 when the organization released a series of scathing reports on the conditions in the immigration detention centers in Pinal County – they ranked Babeu's jail the worst.
In response, the Pinal County Jail invited KSAZ in Phoenix to tour the facility. The conditions certainly didn't line up with the ACLU's claims, at least according to the video that was captured. Watch the report here:
The Associated Press contributed to this report.