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.

"Treatment at the Sherburne County jail is not cruel," he said.

Sherburne County has made a business out of housing other people's prisoners. In addition to the 85 ICE detainees, there are 183 other federal prisoners and 136 state Department of Corrections prisoners. The county receives about $11.5 million a year to house those prisoners, ­translating to about $900,000 in profit.

One of those state prisoners is John Allen Goetz, who was convicted of two counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in 2006 for molesting four children, including a 4-year-old girl. Goetz, 31, has been serving his sentence in Sherburne County with a release date of 2019.

A criminal complaint does not indicate it, but Goetz was placed in a cell with an 18-year-old ICE detainee awaiting a ruling on whether he will be deported.

The victim's route to Sherburne County's cell #221 began after being convicted of trying to steal a watch from a Wal-Mart and for a city ordinance violation of possession of a small amount of marijuana. After his name was published in the local newspaper, ICE requested his criminal records. They came to his house in February, arrested him and began removal proceedings.

The victim was placed in a cell with Goetz for about a week in late February. At the end of March, according to the criminal complaint, the victim reported to corrections staff that Goetz had touched him while they were cellmates, saying he would be sleeping on the top bunk and awaken to find Goetz standing next to him. He would often pretend to be asleep and would move or turn but Goetz would not stop. The victim asked to be moved from the cell, a request that occurred about eight days after the offenses started.

Goetz was charged earlier this month with one count of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct. According to the complaint against him, he admitted grabbing at his cellmate's genitals numerous times as he slept, but denied doing it for sexual gratification. He acknowledged to investigators, though, that he thought the victim was "cute and young."

Goetz has since been placed in a different housing unit. His victim has been released, but still faces deportation.

"When you mix immigrant detainees with criminal detainees it just ups the risk factor of there being actual assaults and people being put in harm's way," said Linus Chan, director of the Detainee Rights Clinic at the Center for New Americans at the University of Minnesota.

The jail was last inspected for ICE in December and is inspected annually. ICE declined a request by the Star Tribune for a copy of the latest inspection report. Sherburne's Carr deferred to ICE, but said there have been no other incidents of sexual assault against ICE detainees.

Issues with separation of ­felons and immigrants with low-level criminal histories are not unique to Sherburne. In 2012, a Homeland Security inspection found Ramsey County had misclassified at least two detainees. Both were classified as Level I offenders in ICE's system, meaning they were convicted of misdemeanor crimes. Ramsey classified one of them as a Level III offender because of his "refusal to comply with … officers during a prior removal from the U.S." Homeland Security warned that misclassifying the detainees "could potentially result in placing nonviolent ICE detainees in housing units with violent, high threat detainees. This could potentially expose them to physical or psychological danger and unnecessary risk," according to the audit.

Ramsey County disputed the classification error.

'ICE keeps you ... frozen'

Back in Sherburne County, Jallah, who had permanent residence status, has been detained since February and described the jail as a place that instills fear in many detainees.

"ICE keeps you in here frozen. You can't make any moves," Jallah said. "Some get so tired of being in here that they stop fighting their case and say they want to be deported."

He faces the same fate. Later this month an immigration judge will decide if he can stay or will be deported to Liberia. Jallah has been in the state since 2002 and says he has no roots in the country he left as a teenager.

"I came here when I was 13. I don't have any family over there," Jallah said. "There is no law and order. If I get sent back I won't have anyone there."

Jallah was working in the oil fields of Williston, N.D., after serving time for a theft conviction in 2010. He said he was on his way to see his probation officer in Duluth when he was pulled over for a burned-out taillight. He was booked in jail and ICE placed a hold on him.

Despite the jail conditions and the prospect of being forced back to Liberia, Jallah still says, "America is the best country in the world."

"People come here from all over the world to change their lives," he said. "I still believe Americans are good people." 612-673-4434 612-673-4028