Lawsuit alleges Baker County detention center denied lawyers access to immigration detainees

ACLU has been fighting with sheriff over a range of abuses at the North Florida facility

By: - September 26, 2022 3:14 pm

Baker County Sheriff’s Complex. Source: Google Maps

The ACLU of Florida, which has been accusing the Baker County Sheriff’s Office of “egregious” conditions for immigrants being held at the county detention center, filed a lawsuit Monday alleging officials there have blocked lawyers from accessing their clients within the facility.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Jacksonville, names the sheriff’s office, Sheriff Scotty Rhoden, and two top aides and alleges violation of the office’s responsibility under a custodial agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to allow access to clients.

The complaint asserts violation of the ACLU’s First Amendment right to speak to its clients and potential witnesses, plus the clients’ right to confer with the organization; retaliation against the organization and its clients; and denial of its clients’ Fourteenth Amendment right to access the courts, to counsel, and to due process.

It seeks a declaration that the sheriff in North Florida has violated the Constitution and a prohibition against doing so in the future, plus “appropriate compensatory, punitive and nominal damages,” attorney fees and costs, and “any other relief the court deems just and proper.”

The ACLU alleges that officials at the Baker County Detention Center cancelled, with two days’ notice, a planned Sept. 9 visit to the facility by ACLU attorneys and students in law school immigration clinics to lecture immigrants on their legal rights and to confer with individual clients on their cases.

Attorney who showed up anyway were turned away at the facility’s entrance. The jail is located in Macclenny, some 30 miles west of Jacksonville.

The ACLU is worried that additional attorney-client meetings planned for this Friday will be cancelled, too, even though the sheriff’s office and federal immigration authorities had authorized these visits, according to the document.

“A central aspect of the ACLU of Florida’s work is protecting and defending the rights of individuals detained in immigration custody,” the complaint asserts.

“Defendants’ denial of access to the ACLU of Florida’s clients and prospective clients at Baker impedes the organization’s ability to achieve that mission. The ACLU of Florida must have the ability to meet confidentially with individuals who report abusive or inhumane conditions while in ICE custody in order to investigate their complaints, advocate for their rights, and pursue legal action.”

Previous complaints

The lawsuit follows an administrative complaint the ACLU filed with the Department of Homeland Security on Sept. 14 alleging mistreatment of immigration detainees, including physical assault, retaliation, and denial of basic medical care.

The ACLU also accuses the office of withholding water from participants in a hunger strike over conditions and denial of access to help lines operated by the federal government and immigrant-rights groups.

The organization suggested the visit cancellation had to do with a separate administrative complaint filed against Baker in July.

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 ACLU launched the Baker Legal Assistance Program with law school immigration clinics at the University of Florida, Florida State University, and the University of Miami, according to a press release.

“According to the Florida Detention Database, there have been 86 complaints citing barriers to accessing legal assistance at Baker since 2017. For over a decade, multiple complaints from the Baker County Detention Center have been filed, exposing a deep-rooted pattern of rampant human rights abuses and inhuman living conditions,” the organization said.

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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.