SAN DIEGO — Severe overcrowding at a federal immigration detention facility here places detainees' health and safety at risk, the American Civil Liberties Union alleged in court documents filed this week.
The San Diego Correctional Facility's 6-by-12-foot cells are designed for two people but in many cases house three, forcing some detainees to sleep on the floor near toilets, the ACLU said in its complaint. Because the population in some units has swelled to 50% above capacity, some detainees sleep on bunk beds in recreational areas, the ACLU said.
The 9-year-old facility houses about 1,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees, including asylum seekers, immigration violators and people waiting to be deported. It is operated by Corrections Corp. of America Inc., a for-profit prison company.
A customs agency spokeswoman declined to comment because of the pending litigation. Corrections Corp. did not return calls seeking comment.
The legal action is the first to address long-standing overcrowding at federal immigration detention centers, according to Tom Jawetz, a litigation specialist with the ACLU's national prison project. The San Diego facility, about five miles from the border, is one of the largest in the country.
The average stay for detainees is 30 days, according to federal authorities, but some have been in the facility for several years.
The ACLU joined a lawsuit filed in 2005 by a longtime detainee. The organization is seeking to expand the legal action to class-action status.
The overcrowding leads to unsanitary living conditions, with as many 118 detainees forced to share only two showers in some units, according to the lawsuit. The situation also has increased tensions between detainees and guards, the ACLU said.
In a 2006 incident, guards tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed detainees protesting overcrowded conditions, according to the lawsuit. It also contends that crowded cells have led to fights between detainees, delays in medical and mental health treatment, and physical and psychological suffering.