ACLU, civil rights groups, allege abuses against immigrant detainees in North Florida jail

By: - September 13, 2022 6:01 pm

Then-Congressman Al Lawson addresses a crowd who gathered to protest Trump administration immigration policies in front of the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee in 2019. Photo by Mitch Perry

A coalition of civil-rights groups that includes the ACLU of Florida have filed an administrative complaint alleging a pattern of “horrific” mistreatment of immigration detainees being held at the Baker County Detention Center in North Florida.

Florida Sheriff Scotty Rhoden. Credit: Baker County Sheriff’s Office

The 22-page complaint, addressed to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and related government departments including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), seeks cancellation of an intergovernmental agreement through the Baker County Sheriff Office, calling the department “an unfit partner by every metric.”

Scotty Rhoden is the elected Sheriff of Baker County.

The complaint, which follows a similar submission in July, alleges 130 detainee allegations. They include that guards beat one detainee severely enough to damage his ear, pepper sprayed someone while kneeling on the person’s body, sent someone into a diabetic coma from medical neglect, denied women sanitary products, and more.

It also alleges that guards denied water to detainees who attempted to protest conditions through a hunger strike.

“In addition to retaliating against the individuals who have come forward, Baker appears to be taking steps to stop those communications altogether. Baker has reportedly blocked the phone numbers of federal government help lines and advocacy organizations that detained individuals had previously contacted to report complaints about the facility,” the complaint continues.

Participants in the complaint include Americans for Immigrant Justice, the American Friends Service Committee, Detention Watch Network, Immigrant Action Alliance, Florida Immigration Coalition, Freedom for Immigrants, Gainesville’s Interfaith Alliance for Immigrant Justice, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, Poor People’s Campaign Florida, and the University of Miami Immigration Clinic.

“We further urge your offices to recommend the immediate release — not transfer — of all of the individuals detained in abusive conditions at Baker. At minimum, we ask that your offices conduct a comprehensive investigation of the abuses at Baker through unannounced inspections, interviews with detained individuals, and a thorough review of medical records, video surveillance footage, and any other evidence relevant to the complaints raised in this letter,” the organizations wrote.

“We have known for years that immigrants at Baker have been subjected to horrific abuses, but with the little to no transparency offered by these facilities, officials are not held accountable,” Katie Blankenship, deputy legal director at the ACLU of Florida, said in a written statement.

“ICE and the sheriff’s office have no right to strip people, who are seeking protection and safety in this country, of their dignity and humanity. Their attempts to block access to counsel and retaliate against those going public with the rampant abuses at Baker is blatantly illegal. It’s time for ICE to permanently end its relationship with the Baker County Sheriff’s Office.”

The Phoenix left a request for comment with the sheriff’s office but hasn’t heard back yet. In August, in an interview with News4Jax, Sheriff Rhoden denied any abuse. “Those are just lies because we take it seriously here at the Baker County Sheriff’s Office to treat people the way they should be treated at all times,” he was quoted as saying.

The facility is located in Macclenny, some 30 miles west of Jacksonville.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.