New complaint alleges sex assault, medical neglect, abuse of detainee at Louisiana ICE facility
This story contains descriptions of alleged sexual assault and painful medical procedures. It also mentions suicide. It may not be safe for all readers.
A man in immigration detention in Jena, Louisiana says he has been abused and neglected while in detention and under medical care. The details of his allegations are in a new complaint filed to the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General and Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
The complaint, filed by advocacy organizations Freedom for Immigrants, RFK Human Rights, and several others, includes allegations that Daniel Cortes De La Valle, 33, was subjected to medical neglect and verbal abuse by detention center staff, and questionable care at two hospitals — sexual assault at one and a potentially unnecessary painful procedure at another.
Cortes De La Valle has been at the Central Louisiana ICE Processing Center — which is operated by GEO Group — since mid-December.
“The job is to help people and to make sure they're okay, not to abuse and not to discriminate,” Cortes De La Valle said in an interview. “It doesn't matter what situation you're in. It doesn't matter if you're in jail. It doesn't matter if you're on the street. It doesn't matter if you're an immigrant. It doesn't matter if you're Black, if you're white. That's been the contrary for me and a lot of people here.”
In an email, a spokesperson from ICE did not address questions about Cortes De La Valle’s complaint specifically but said that the agency continually reviews immigration detention centers and monitors “the quality of life and treatment of detained individuals.”
The complaint to DHS asked, among other things, that Cortes De La Valle be released to his family immediately. He is married to a U.S. citizen and has two children who are also citizens. He has lived in the U.S. for 25 years, emigrating from Colombia with his mother and brother when he was 8 years old.
At least three times since 2013, he has been convicted of violating Florida law. He was picked up by ICE after the most recent conviction when he served roughly four months in jail for trespassing, corrupt moral decency and battery of an officer or firefighter.
A criminal conviction can trigger ICE detention and possible deportation for immigrants who have not become U.S. Citizens, even if they are residing legally in the country.
The complaint includes a detailed timeline of abuses that Cortes De La Valle has allegedly suffered since his detention began on December 13.
Cortes De La Valle has seizures, which he said got more severe during his time in detention. According to the complaint when he was transferred to the facility, he lost access to his seizure medications for more than 48 hours. He was taken to the hospital multiple times and said his experiences there traumatized him.
“I'm getting chills right now because I'm getting ready to start speaking about it,” he said. “My face is getting hot because that's how bad it is. That's how much fear I've grown about it.”
He spoke about two instances in particular that are also detailed in the complaint.
According to the complaint, he was placed in solitary confinement on February 3. Later that day, he had five seizures and was taken to Rapides Regional Medical Center in Alexandria, Louisiana.
During the ambulance ride, he heard a GEO officer say, “Hey, guess which ones are fake,” referring to his seizures, according to the complaint.
At the hospital, he said he woke up with his hands and feet chained to the bed, and, according to the complaint, he remained restrained to the bed for five days.
During that time, Cortes De La Valle said he was not allowed to get up and use the bathroom. According to the complaint, when he asked GEO Group officers stationed at the hospital with him if he could use the bathroom, one officer said, “No, captain’s orders.”
“They're watching another human struggle to eat. Two of them are watching another human urinate on himself. Two of them are watching another human poop on himself,” Cortes De La Valle said. “It's painful. And the only thing they have to say to me is ‘These are the captain's orders. We can't do anything about it.’”
According to the complaint, after Cortes De La Valle soiled himself a hospital technician said, “We have to clean you grandma-style.” He asked the technician if he could clean himself, according to the complaint, but the technician refused and then allegedly lifted and touched his genitals and touched and inserted a finger into his anus.
Cortes De La Valle said he attempted suicide while he was hospitalized.
Rapides Regional Medical Center did not reply to repeated phone calls inquiring about his hospitalization there and the complaint.
He was released from the hospital on February 8. And, according to the complaint he continued to submit grievances to personnel at the detention facility. He also began engaging in hunger strikes, including one that approximately 300 detainees attempted in February. In late February, a GEO officer approached him to say, “Keep your mouth shut and stop complaining,” according to the complaint.
Another series of seizures led to another hospital visit, this time at LaSalle General Hospital in Jena, according to the complaint. There, he alleges that he underwent a painful and possibly unnecessary procedure when medical staff drilled into a bone in his leg to create an IV line to administer fluids or medications. According to the complaint the procedure was done without his consent and without anesthesia or pain medication.
“It's a horrible feeling. To the point where I screamed, I screamed, I screamed, I screamed,” Cortes De La Valle said.
Sarah Decker, a staff attorney at RFK Human Rights, questioned the intent of the procedure and said that her understanding is that it is to be used as a last resort when an IV port cannot be accessed. But Decker said Cortes De La Valle has had IVs in his arm multiple times in the past.
LaSalle General Hospital also did not respond to phone calls and emails about Cortes De La Valle’s hospitalization.
According to the complaint, between December and early February, Cortes De La Valle filed grievances with ICE and GEO Group related to the lack of access to his seizure medication and violations of the conditions of confinement. The complaint said he also called the Freedom for Immigrants Hotline to report, among other things, a lack of access to a neurologist and to ask for a complaint to be submitted on his behalf. After making these grievances, he met with an ICE officer and, according to the complaint, the officer repeatedly told him that he could get deported.
“It's very clear that the facility is completely incapable of providing the medical care and specialist care that he needs and is actually required by law and by ICE's own standards,” Decker said.
ICE’s Performance Based National Detention Standards identifies touching of the genitals, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh or buttocks by a staff member or contractor — which the hospital is accused of in the complaint — as sexual abuse and assault. Decker said the incidents when Cortes De La Valle has been placed in solitary confinement after filing complaints or participating in hunger strikes are clear violations of his First Amendment rights.
In an emailed statement Christopher Ferreira, GEO Group’s corporate relations manager, said that the Central Louisiana ICE Processing Center provides “around-the-clock” access to medical care. He also did not respond to questions about Cortes De La Valle’s case specifically but did note that the center is accredited by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care.
Ferreira said GEO does not tolerate staff misconduct and that the company has a grievance process.
“Any alleged misconduct by GEO staff is promptly investigated and addressed,” Ferreira said.
Cortes De La Valle said his multiple grievances to GEO and to ICE have not been resolved to his satisfaction.
In an email, a spokesperson for ICE said the agency is, ”committed to ensuring that all those [in] its custody reside in safe, secure, and humane environments under appropriate conditions of confinement.”
The ICE detention center in Jena, however, has a troubled history.
The facility caught the attention of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties after four detainees died between January 2016 and March 2017. The DHS Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties investigated “suicide prevention, medical conditions and conditions of confinement.”
It has also investigated the New Orleans ICE Field Office, which oversees immigration detention in five states — including Louisiana.
“Many Americans are shocked to learn that the U.S. government systematically deprives people of liberty and enables this,” said Freedom for Immigrants Director of Monitoring and Community Advocacy Sofia Casini. “We have seen time and again that the oversight bodies and those in ICE leadership are well aware of what's taking place and they are absolutely not taking the steps necessary to prevent deaths.”
She said part of the reason her organization and others are submitting the complaint is to raise awareness about the fact that issues within the New Orleans ICE field office still remain.
According to the complaint, in recent weeks, Cortes De La Valle has again been denied medication and he’s repeatedly been met with mocking or skepticism about his seizures. According to the complaint, GEO officers began imitating Cortes De La Valle while he was seizing in late March, saying they were “doing the Dan Shuffle-Truffle — the dance you do when you’re having your seizures.” According to the complaint, he was seizing for 40 minutes before paramedics were called.
A volunteer translator withimmigrant rights groups that regularly visit Louisiana’s detention centers recently met with Cortes De La Valle and witnessed staff’s lack of urgency in response to his seizures firsthand.
Monica Cornejo, a researcher and assistant professor at Cornell University, said when she and a colleague saw Cortes De La Valle seizing, they alerted GEO staff, who she said moved about as if there was not a medical emergency.
“The nurses were just casually walking, [with] no sense of hurrying,” Cornejo said. “One of the nurses really mocked Daniel. He made a face. He was smiling. Everyone in the room was either laughing or talking nonchalantly in the background.”
Monica and a Southern Poverty Law Center attorney tried to obtain more information about his health status and were eventually forced to leave.
Cortes De La Valle said other detainees who recognize his condition have been giving him support, for which he is grateful. He said they stand next to the shower and toilet stalls when he’s in there if he feels like he’s experiencing symptoms associated with the onset of a seizure.
Cortes De La Valle said he hopes to be reunited with his family while he awaits immigration proceedings.
“I want to watch my son grow. I tell my wife all the time when we go to family parties with her family [and] you see the old people dancing to Bachata, I tell her, ‘I want this to be us when we’re 80 years old,’” Cortes De La Valle said in an interview. “I love my daughter [and] my son to death. I just want to grow my family [and] make sure I leave them something.”
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