Detained immigrant teen assaulted by registered sex offender in Sherburne County jail

Case highlights attacks in jails that contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.


Since an attack last month by a jailed sex offender, immigrant detainees at Sherburne County jail have been separated from prisoners in the jail’s housing units. In this photo, a woman from Honduras described her experience of being locked up in the Sherburne County jail for two years. She was photographed Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013.

Photo: Joles, David, Star Tribune

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An 18-year-old high school student being held for federal immigration authorities in the Sherburne County jail was repeatedly sexually assaulted last month by his cellmate, a registered sex offender serving time in the jail as a “boarder” from the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

The assault, detailed in a criminal complaint, occurred at the state’s largest jail for immigrant detainees and highlights an emerging nationwide pattern of sexual abuse at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers.

Sherburne County, which has a contract with ICE, houses 85 immigration detainees, many of whom haven’t been charged with a crime but are routinely commingled with prisoners serving time.

Since the attack, immigration detainees have been separated from prisoners in the jail’s cells. Besides the criminal investigation, Sherburne County also has begun an administrative investigation, part of a new federal law designed to stem sexual abuse of immigrant detainees, into whether the jail staff’s actions or inactions contributed to the offense.

More than 50 ICE ­detainees recently sent a letter to the Star Tribune outlining their concerns about being housed at the jail, from fears of being victimized by prisoners to improper medical care.

Sorsor Jallah, a 26-year-old immigrant from Liberia who drafted the letter, said the detainees fear for their lives because they are housed with rapists and other violent offenders. He said many are too afraid to complain.

“A lot of [the detainees] were saying not to sign their names because it might impact their case,” Jallah said.

Nationwide problem

Sexual abuse against ICE detainees takes place across the country. A number of lawsuits and civil rights complaints have been filed for failing to protect ICE detainees from sexual assault. In a review of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the American Civil Liberties Union found nearly 200 allegations of abuse from detainees in detention facilities from across the nation from 2007 to 2011.

Last year, a Government Accountability Office report found that actions were needed to better prevent sexual abuse in ICE’s 250 detention facilities, including those run by state and local governments. An audit found that 40 percent of the allegations reported to ICE field offices were not passed on to its headquarters. It also found that about 14 percent of the calls to a hot line for reporting abuses did not go through; many calls simply went unanswered.

The 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, which passed Congress unanimously, set a “zero-tolerance standard” for prison rape. It created guidelines to hold correctional facilities accountable for protecting inmates.

Until recently, though, the rules didn’t govern immigration detention facilities overseen by the Department of Homeland Security. Homeland Security in March announced steps it was taking to prevent sexual abuse of detained immigrants, who are considered particularly vulnerable because of social, cultural, and language isolation; poor understanding of U.S. culture; and the subculture of the U.S. prison system. Even with the new rules, county and privately run facilities that contract with Homeland Security may not have to comply for years.

“There is always a particular vulnerability for immigrant detainees in being able to speak up and have it reported. Sometimes even to be taken seriously,” said Claudia Valenzuela, associate director for litigation at the National Immigrant Justice Center, a Chicago-based legal advocacy group.

Four of the five sexual assaults the group has investigated in the past six months have been cases where ICE detainees have been mingled with criminals or those facing criminal charges, she said.

ICE does not prohibit the mingling of its detainees with prisoners, including at its contracted facilities like those in Minnesota. Local ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer said each facility is required to have a formal classification process to determine where detainees will be housed, based on information such as previous criminal histories and the likelihood they might flee.

Sherburne’s mixed population

Pat Carr, Sherburne County’s jail commander, said the jail’s classification officers make a determination about who can be put in the same cell.

Carr said the staff will take action if informed that detainees are threatened. Detainees can report threats or accusations of abuse directly to staff, through a telephone hot line, through ICE grievances and communication forms, Sherburne County grievance forms, and in letters to the jail administration or to ICE.

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