What It Looks Like When the President Asks People to Snitch on Neighbors

By Daniel Rivero and Brendan O’Connor

In April, the Trump Administration launched what it called the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) hotline, with a stated mission to “provide proactive, timely, adequate, and professional services to victims of crimes committed by removable aliens.” But internal logs of calls to VOICE obtained by Splinter show that hundreds of Americans seized on the hotline to lodge secret accusations against acquaintances, neighbors, or even their own family members, often to advance petty personal grievances.

The logs—hundreds of which were available for download on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement web site despite containing extremely sensitive personal information—call to mind the efforts of closed societies like East Germany or Cuba to cultivate vast networks of informants and an atmosphere of fear and suspicion.

The reports rarely involve the sort of dangerous criminality that Donald Trump campaigned against. Despite the VOICE office’s statement that the service “is not a hotline to report crime,” callers are using it to alert Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers to minor infractions, or merely to the presence of people they suspect of being undocumented immigrants.

On many of the calls, the only violation the informant offers the authority is that the people exist. On June 19, a caller filed the following report:

Caller wanted to report his next door neighbor. Caller claims his next door neighbors are undocumented and are from South America. Caller claims two boys’ ages 14 and 15 reside there along with an adult male. Caller provided his next door neighbor’s address as [street and number redacted by Splinter], St. Augustine, FL [ZIP code redacted by Splinter].

The summaries are drawn from two spreadsheets documenting incoming calls to the VOICE hotline. The first, provided to Splinter by ICE in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, covers the first two weeks of the hotline’s operation in April. It was redacted by ICE to protect the privacy of callers and subjects.

But after conducting Google searches for some data in that spreadsheet, including local police report numbers provided by callers, we were able to find a second spreadsheet, covering April to mid-August, hosted on the ICE web site. That spreadsheet appears to have been partially redacted to prepare it for release under the FOIA, but two columns containing intimate personal details—names, cell phone numbers, alleged crimes, addresses, and Social Security numbers—of both callers and the alleged undocumented immigrants they were calling about remained completely unredacted and publicly available. In several cases, the details would make it possible for people to figure out who informed on them.

Brendan Raedy, an ICE spokesperson, declined a request to speak on the phone about the logs or the publication of private data. In response to a series of emailed questions, he wrote only: “It’s important to know that ICE/VOICE is not using victim personal information to develop leads for immigration enforcement. Callers are not even asked for their status. Information is shared with Victim Assistance Specialists to help when and where they can.”

Together, the logs are a grim running diary of a country where people eagerly report their fellow residents to the authorities, or seek to bring the power of the immigration police to bear on family disputes. On May 25, 2017, one man called to say that his stepson was violating a restraining order by parking his car near his house. He didn’t want his wife to know that he was trying to get her son deported:

Caller stated the illegal alien (step-son) is a drug addict, unemployed, homeless and living in his car that he parks at [address redacted by Splinter]. Caller stated the subject is a danger to society and wants to know why he was not taken into ICE custody. Caller stated the subject recently missing his court hearing [number and date redacted by Splinter] and is now in probation violation. Caller provided A number, name [redacted by Splinter], DOB, and COB. Caller stated he does not want his wife to know and prefers not to be reached at his cell number redacted that he shares with her.

Other complaints likewise focused on family strife:

Caller requested to report her mother-in law and sister-in law. Caller stated these individuals came to the U.S. as tourists and stayed in the U.S. in order to get legal status.

Caller requested to report his ex wife that is undocumented as an overstayed on her visa.

One caller went so far as to provide the date and location of an upcoming divorce hearing at which the accused undocumented immigrant was scheduled to appear.

A number of calls, in line with the VOICE program’s mission to assist crime victims, recount domestic violence committed by undocumented immigrants. But there are also multiple calls from people hoping to turn ICE enforcement against the people who have accused them of domestic violence:

Caller requested to report an undocumented alien who is accusing him of domestic violence in order to obtain legal status. Caller claims subject is his legal wife.

Caller claimed subject made false accusations of domestic violence towards the caller. Caller claimed subject is trying to claim Asylum through the false accusation of domestic violation in order for subject to stay in the U.S.

Javier H. Valdés, the co-executive director of the immigration-rights group Make the Road New York, wrote in an email to Splinter that the logs demonstrate VOICE was little more than an attempt to sow fear and suspicion of immigrants. “Months after the creation of the VOICE program, it’s clear that it’s exactly what we feared it would be,” he wrote. “A sinister public relations ploy to paint immigrants as criminals and foster fear in our communities, all with the despicable goal of tearing apart our families. The program should be immediately ended.”

Publicly, the VOICE hotline is not supposed to be a crime-reporting tool at all, but a means of connecting victims and witnesses in existing cases with support services and with more information about the people accused. But internal training materials for the hotline, obtained by Splinter, contradict that mission statement, saying that the hotline “will provide a means for persons to report suspected criminal activity.”

Callers were often referred to the Homeland Security Investigations tipline. In several cases, VOICE employees contacted a field office to relay information gleaned from the calls, records show.

In the first two weeks of the program, from April 26 to May 10, the logs show that the call center handled 1,940 calls from across the country. Most were pranks, or in the bureaucratic words of the record keepers, “concerned citizens,” who unleashed streams of profanity or talked about green aliens until the operator hung up.

In 66 calls, the caller mentioned a criminal suspect, and VOICE staff were able to match that suspect to the Department of Homeland Security’s database. More than twice as many calls—137 entries—involved a caller reporting someone whose information did not appear in the database.

Absence from the database could mean that subject of the call is undocumented but has not yet come into contact with the agency, or that the person is in the United States legally.

Tipsters often provided claims that were unverifiable, incorrect, or vague. The incompletely redacted spreadsheet of calls on the ICE website, which included identifying information for the people being accused and for the callers themselves, showed how haphazard the accusations could be.

One caller, for instance, complained that her granddaughter was living in Florida with an undocumented immigrant, and further alleged that the immigrant was a sex offender. The suspect, the caller said, was in the process of receiving United States citizenship. Public records for the unredacted address in the call log did identify a middle-aged man with a Latino name living there, but not one who was listed on a sex-offender registry.

Beyond family strife, callers also sought to involve ICE in business disputes. One caller made an immigration complaint against an employee on a work visa at a ballroom-dance studio who was allegedly trying to start her own studio and lure customers away. Callers accused undocumented people of working at painting companies, a drywall installer, a demolition firm, a luxury resort, a foundry, a dairy, an alehouse, a Subway, and an “adult entertainment club.” They provided addresses, names, and sometimes even specific working hours.

Some people appeared to go to great lengths to deliver information to the feds. One caller, seeking to report a pair of supposedly undocumented workers, provided full names and aliases for both of them, along with the make, color, and license plate of the car the used, and the facts that they worked on a farm and attended a particular Planet Fitness gym “in the afternoons.” Nowhere did the report include any claims of criminal activity beyond the alleged use of false documents.

Another caller claimed to have overheard “a neighbor mention during an argument that subject (1)…has an order of removal with immigration.” The subject’s boyfriend, the caller said, was also undocumented, and the caller supplied the address where the two lived.

Others sought to inform on complete strangers:

Caller stated that he wanted to report (2) two people who are using EBT cards to purchase wine and steak in Sacramento (CA). Caller did not have any information on the subjects. Caller wanted to know if he can make a citizens arrest if he sees this happening again.

Another provided precise GPS coordinates for a “camp” of allegedly undocumented people in Nevada.

Even as Homeland Security employees were assembling these files of sensitive information, they were leaving a spreadsheet of it accessible online. Some who had called the hotline were alarmed, when contacted by Splinter, to learn their information had been left exposed.

Jerrold Kestenberg, of Nahant, Massachusetts, called the line to give a report about an undocumented Italian neighbor who he says attacked his girlfriend. His girlfriend’s name was published in the call log, along with the address of the neighbor and Kestenberg’s phone number. “I’m not too happy about it, shit, I mean, I don’t think she wanted that. I didn’t want them to put it out there, just look into it,” he said when we called him.

“I don’t think they got their shit together over there to be honest, pardon my English,” he said about ICE. Had he heard back from anyone about his initial call? “Nobody ever called me back,” he said. “Nobody.”

Some people on the spreadsheet said they had gotten callbacks from ICE. A California woman who asked to remain anonymous contacted the hotline after she said her undocumented Mexican husband sexually molested her 11-year-old daughter. She told Splinter that ICE has contacted her via email about her call, but she said she did not understand how her phone number and police report information were published online. “That’s news to me, they sure didn’t tell me that,” she said. “They told me it was private.” Her husband’s name and work address were also published, and she said she worries for her safety if he finds out that she filed a report with ICE.

A prominent victims’ rights group condemned the fact that the information was publicly viewable.

“If you’ve got information that was efficient enough to allow any member of the public to locate and contact a victim of crime, that system ought to be shut down. That’s a phenomenal security breach,” said Richard Barajas, a former federal judge who is the Executive Director of National Organization for Victim Assistance. “Safeguards must be in place to protect the victim of the crime primarily, and also for simply criminal justice safety, in the name and location of the perpetrator.”

At press time, more than three days after we had notified an ICE spokesperson about the personal information in the exposed spreadsheet and 22 hours after we had sent them the specific link to it, the information was still available on the agency’s web site.

UPDATE (Oct. 4): Several hours after this story was published, the entire online library of FOIA documents from ICE—all the public records that the agency has ever released—went offline. An error message informs users that the library “is temporarily unavailable while it undergoes review.” A link to the unprotected spreadsheet still appears in Google results but the link currently leads to a “File not found” message.

Videos Show Migrant Children Being Slapped, Dragged and Raped

By Dominique Mosbergen, HuffPost

Surveillance videos obtained by the Arizona Republic show migrant children being slapped, pushed and raped by employees at a since-shuttered shelter run by embattled shelter provider Southwest Key Programs.

In one video, a male staffer at the Hacienda Del Sol shelter in Youngtown, Arizona, is seen punching and raping a young boy in a room before slapping him and pushing him against a wall. The child then appears to strike back at the employee who retreats from the boy and leaves the room.
A second surveillance clip shows a female employee at the shelter raping a child in a room. Another staff member is seen in the same video raping another child on the floor.

The Republic said the videos were obtained from the Arizona Department of Health Services under state public-records law. The clips were blurred by the department to protect the children’s identities.

According to the Republic, Southwest Key had reported the incidents shown in the videos — all of which occurred in mid-September — to state authorities, local law enforcement and federal officials.

The shelter was shuttered by the federal government in early October. At the time, Southwest Key said the Office of Refugee Resettlement had decided to suspend operations at Hacienda Del Sol because of an unspecified incident.

“We wholeheartedly welcomed the [decision] and are working to thoroughly retrain our staff,” a spokesman for the Texas-based shelter operator said.

It’s unclear whether the encounters shown in the surveillance videos were directly linked to the shelter’s suspension. The Republic reported in October, however, that the facility was shuttered because staffers there had been found to have physically abused children.

Southwest Key declined to elaborate on the surveillance videos, the Republic said on Friday. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office told the paper that it had reviewed the surveillance clips and determined that “while physical force and rape were used against these minor children, these actions did not rise to the level of criminal charges.”

Southwest Key is the country’s largest shelter provider for migrant children, according to The New York Times. The shelter operator has come under scrutiny in recent months for an array of issues, including accusations of child sexual abuse, the possible misuse of federal money and the failure to conduct adequate background checks on employees.

A staffer at a Southwest Key shelter in Phoenix, Arizona, was arrested in July for allegedly molesting a 14-year-old girl at the facility. About a month later, an employee at a shelter in Mesa, Arizona, who is HIV-positive, was convicted of sexually abusing several boys.

Mark Weber, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, told the Times earlier this month that there had been “numerous red flags and licensure problems” with the Hacienda Del Sol shelter, as well as another Southwest Key shelter in Phoenix, which the federal government also shuttered in October.

ICE put detained immigrants in solitary confinement for hunger striking

By

The solitary confinement cases outlined in the records obtained by The Verge took place at the Stewart Detention Center, a facility managed by CoreCivic outside Lumpkin, Georgia. The Lumpkin facility has been the subject of past allegations of inhumane treatment of immigrant detainees, who can be kept behind bars for years awaiting resolution of their deportation cases.

In April, it was reported that two detainees at Lumpkin had gone on hunger strike to protest their prolonged detention. The detainment logs obtained by The Verge do not specifically address the April incidents but show that, shortly thereafter, detainees at the facility launched a previously unreported series of hunger strikes that spanned months.

ICE has been previously accused of using solitary confinement to retaliate against hunger-striking detainees at other facilities. In comments to The Verge, ICE sent its detention standards stating that hunger-striking detainees should be put in isolation when “medically advisable.” In at least a half-dozen cases, detainees were placed in solitary confinement immediately after having declared hunger strike, although they hadn’t yet had an opportunity to miss a single meal. In most logs, detainees relented and began eating again after less than a week locked in solitary confinement — a form of captivity that human rights groups say can amount to psychological torture.

“These documents confirm what we’ve been hearing in terms of immediate and really brutal crackdowns by using solitary as a means of deterring the hunger strikes and almost as a punishment,” Azadeh Shahshahani, an attorney with the Atlanta-based social justice group Project South, said of the Lumpkin facility. Shahshahani says that the facility responded to detainee demonstrations in 2014 and 2015 by using what she views as excessive force, including placing detainees in solitary confinement.

The logs obtained by the Verge, which span the entirety of 2016, detail a variety of reasons relating to the hunger strike for placing detainees in solitary confinement. In late December, CoreCivic locked a group of detainees in solitary confinement for terms of 60 days because surveillance footage allegedly showed them “being involved in initiating a group demonstration, encouraging others to go on a hunger strike and refusing to lock down for count,” according to the logs. One detainee went on hunger strike after CoreCivic locked him in isolation while it investigated allegations that he was “charging detainees for haircuts as he is a barber.”

The logs indicate that CoreCivic may have attempted to cultivate detainee informants to help gather information about the hunger strike. The entries state that detainees were placed in solitary confinement as a protective measure after other detainees had identified them as serving as “snitches” for CoreCivic personnel seeking to gather information on the demonstrations.

“This incident involved the above listed detainee believing to have been a snitch in the hunger strike incident which occurred in unit 6,” one log reads. “The unit team received a message that Detainee […] would be physically assaulted due his alleged cooperation with the unit staff.”

In comments to The Verge, CoreCivic spokesperson Steve Owen said that detainees had not been punished for hunger striking. No “detainees at the Stewart facility have been placed in restrictive housing in retaliation for hunger strikes,” Owen said in an email. “Providing a safe, humane and appropriate environment for those entrusted to our care is our top priority, and we work in close coordination with our partners at ICE to ensure the wellbeing of the detainees at the Stewart Detention Center.”

Daniel B. Vasquez, a former warden of San Quentin State Prison, where he oversaw a large bloc containing more than a thousand solitary confinement cells, told The Verge that it is necessary to isolate hunger strikers from the general population. “If a person has declared a hunger strike, you have to isolate them in administrative segregation and monitor them on a medical basis,” Vasquez said. He added that it is also possible to punish such detainees by issuing an order to eat that detainees continuing to strike would defy. “So then I issue you a violation report for refusing orders.”

The logs make clear that, in some cases, ICE had ordered CoreCivic to place detainees in solitary confinement for hunger striking. Several of the ICE logs state that ICE officials within the agency’s Health Services Corps had ordered striking detainees to be kept in segregated housing for medical monitoring, although most of the logs do not specify ICE’s specific involvement.

Citing medical privacy laws, ICE declined to comment on any cases of hunger strikers being placed in solitary confinement at Lumpkin. Pointing to various offices that provide oversight of the use of solitary confinement for ICE detainees, an agency spokesperson said that “ICE provides several levels of oversight in order to ensure that detainees in ICE custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement.”

CoreCivic’s Owen also challenged The Verge’s use of language. “It’s also important to note that restrictive housing is not ‘solitary confinement,” Owen said. “We do not have the latter at our facilities.”

CoreCivic emphasized that detainees locked in Stewart’s “restrictive housing” units have the same access to visitation, telephone time, law library, mail, and barber shop as general-population detainees, and are given one hour of recreation time per day. The detainees “continue to have daily interaction facility staff, including medical professionals, chaplains, and ICE officials,” Owen said of CoreCivic’s restrictive housing.

Vasquez agrees, calling the term imprecise and “a word that doesn’t really exist any longer.”

Craig Haney, an expert on solitary confinement at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said that CoreCivc’s description of its restrictive housing at Stewart seemed to be simply a description of conditions generally referred to as “solitary confinement.” “The fact that they get things like haircuts and mail, and must have routine contact with staff,” Haney said, “does not change the nature of the experience.”

Solitary confinement has been repeatedly found to exact a lasting psychological toll. It is common for prisoners who are locked in solitary confinement in the United States to be kept in their cells 23 hours a day and given one hour of recreation per day. At Lumpkin, CoreCivic limited opportunities to go outdoors for some of the hunger-striking detainees. “As a precaution,” several logs stated, “outdoor recreation will be suspended for the duration of their strike.”

ICE has previously been accused of using solitary confinement to punish detainees who hunger strike. In Washington state, after ICE reportedly locked some 20 detainees in solitary confinement during a hunger strike, the state’s branch of the American Civil Liberties Union sued, alleging that the state had infringed on the prisoner’s First Amendment rights. A judge ordered ICE to release the detainees.

Located more than a two-hour drive from Atlanta — home to the closest regional ICE Enforcement and Removal Office and many of the state’s attorneys that would represent immigrants — the Lumpkin facility, has been deemed a “black hole” of the US immigration system where unrepresented detainees can languish for years in harsh conditions. A report published last year by the American Immigration Council stated that only 6 percent of detained immigrants at Lumpkin had representation from an attorney.

Shahshahani, who has been involved with efforts to close the Lumpkin facility for years, says that the facility also saw hunger strikes in both 2014 and 2015. At issue, she says, where both facility conditions — documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center and others — and long periods of detention even for detainees who said they would rather be deported than stay in the facility.

Noting that it can take an entire day for a lawyer or advocate to travel from Atlanta to the Lumpkin detention center for a meeting, Shahshahani says that the facility’s remote location compounds detainees’ feeling of helplessness.

“It goes back to this same issue of isolation at the facility,” said Shahshahani. “Immigrants at the facility feel that they don’t have anyone representing them.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions– the more people he sends to jail, the more money he makes. Prison Inc.: Immigration busts a boon for America’s biggest private lockup By Aimee Picchi CBS

When it comes to companies that are set to profit from President Donald Trump’s policies, here’s a clear winner: private prison operator CoreCivic (CXW).

The Nashville, Tennessee-based company has experienced almost a complete turnabout since Mr. Trump emerged victorious in the November election. Before voters cast their ballots, CoreCivic was having a rough year. Its stock had plunged by almost 50 percent from January 1, 2016 through Election Day. In August, the Justice Department said it would stop using private prisons, representing a hit to CoreCivic’s operations.

Yet just a few months later, CoreCivic’s fortunes have reversed, thanks largely to the election of President Trump and his directives to crack down on illegal immigrants. Since Mr. Trump’s victory, its shares have more than doubled, far outpacing the 9 percent gain in the S&P 500. Analysts now expect the company to have a strong 2017, with SunTrust Robinson Humphrey analyst Tobey Sommer describing it among one of his best investment picks for the year.

“It’s gone from a risk of seeing business go away to a chance for the company to grow,” Sommer said. “Because they have a lot of idle beds, they have an opportunity to sign new contracts and generate new profits.”

CoreCivic may not be a familiar name, which in part may be due to its rebranding push in October. Previously known as Corrections Corporation of America, it changed its name to CoreCivic to reflect its shift from a corrections-focused company to providing a “wider range of government solutions,” CEO Damon Hininger said in a statement.

For instance, CoreCivic is investing in reentry programs, which help former inmates transition out of prisons and into the workforce, as well as in real estate.

CoreCivic declined an interview but in a statement said it offers services “to governments led by elected officials from across the political and ideological spectrum.”

Yet key to its near-term turnabout is President Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigrants. Mr. Trump has ordered the hiring of thousands of additional border patrol agents and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) workers as part of his vow to deport millions of unauthorized immigrants.

In a February 9 call with analysts to discuss CoreCivic’s latest earnings, Hininger credited the company’s fourth-quarter growth largely to what he called ICE’s “heightened utilization” of its services in Southwestern states. He also specifically cited Mr. Trump’s immigration policy, saying it will drive demand for the company’s detention facilities.

Carl Takei, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, said while investors stand to profit, they shouldn’t lose sight of what he calls the moral issues wrapped up with the private prison industry.

A September ACLU report alleged that privately operated detention facilities “have a particularly grisly track record” because they have incentives to cut costs and boost shareholder return, such as by reducing medical staffing. The report cited alleged cases of violence, suicide and sexual assault.

Some students at universities such as Princeton are pushing their colleges to divest from private prison companies, which could make the industry the latest to be targeted by the student divestment movement. In recent years, college students have pushed their campus administrators to rethink investments in stocks that they perceive as contributing to environmental or social harm, such as oil and tobacco companies.

“The contracts make it clear that this is about commodifying human beings,” the ACLU’s Takei said. “The government specifies they will deliver a certain number of units to the private prisons. The units in this context are human beings.”

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In June of 2006, a bipartisan national task force, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, released its recommendations after a yearlong investigation. It called for ending long-term isolation of prisoners. Beyond about ten days, the report noted, practically no benefits can be found and the harm is clear—not just for inmates but for the public as well. Most prisoners in long-term isolation are returned to society, after all. And evidence from a number of studies has shown that supermax conditions—in which prisoners have virtually no social interactions and are given no programmatic support—make it highly likely that they will commit more crimes when they are released. Instead, the report said, we should follow the preventive approaches used in European countries.

The recommendations went nowhere, of course. Whatever the evidence in its favor, people simply did not believe in the treatment.

The simple truth is that public sentiment in America is the reason that solitary confinement has exploded in this country, even as other Western nations have taken steps to reduce it. This is the dark side of American exceptionalism. With little concern or demurral, we have consigned tens of thousands of our own citizens to conditions that horrified our highest court a century ago. Our willingness to discard these standards for American prisoners made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war, to the detriment of America’s moral stature in the world. In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement—on our own people, in our own communities, in a supermax prison, for example, that is a thirty-minute drive from my door.