In Farmville, there’s an immigration detention facility. It’s where officials hold men who they allege are in the country illegally. Earlier this summer RADIOIQ requested a tour of the privately-owned facility. It took months to arrange, but in November we were granted access.
The facility is a sprawling compound less than three miles from the small quaint downtown of Farmville. It’s surrounded by tall fences topped with barbed wire. On the day we visited more than 500 men were held inside, although those numbers fluctuate each week. At the height of border crossings earlier this Spring there were more than 800 men there.
Photos and audio weren’t allowed inside the facility, nor was talking to detainees. The media tour consisted of one other reporter, several ICE officials, and the facility’s director. He's employed by the private company that runs the facility.
Working through immigrant advocacy groups, we connected with a man recently released from the Farmville facility. In this story we call him Steve, although that’s not his real name. He worried talking to a reporter could impact his still ongoing immigration case.
Steve has lived in the United States most of his life, and he was a kid when his visa expired. But he says those details didn’t seem to matter much when he would tell the guards at the facility his story.
“There's some officers that would literally be like, ‘Trump is right, you don’t deserve to be here. You're not doing anything to help us, so you guys need to hurry up and get outta here.’,” he recalled, adding that comments like that often messed with his head.
According to a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, officials prioritize holding people who are a risk to public safety or a flight risk. Most have criminal charges beyond being in the country illegally, but there are some who don’t. Attorneys we spoke to also say they’ve noticed an uptick of immigrants being detained who may have criminal records, but not violent ones.
Everyone in Farmville is still waiting for their day in immigration court.
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While he was there, Steve says he was constantly sick. He blames it on the living conditions.
“Let's just say this was my bunk, the bathroom is right there so you can smell the urine, you know, it wasn’t really that sanitized,” described Steve.
Most detainees are held in big open dorm rooms. There are showers and toilets blocked by a half wall. Some of the dorms hold up to 100 men and are monitored by a single guard.
“When there's so many people, it's not right that they only have one officer in there, you know, it's not even good for us, for our safety, but it's not even good for the officer's safety also because one guy can't control a hundred men,” said Steve.
Steve described times he saw detainees assault one another, when and where a guard couldn’t see. He also saw guards pepper spray detainees for talking back, or for running towards an outside fence during recreation time. An ICE spokeswoman says she couldn’t respond to anonymous complaints, but officials at the facility did tell me they use pepper spray about 30-times a year.
Steve would keep to himself in order to avoid conflict. He lay in bed for hours. Although visitation is allowed, he didn’t want his family to come see him there. Eventually, he thought about killing himself.
“I kind of lost hope, you know, because I never thought I would see my kid again, or my wife,” he said.
Steve submitted a medical complaint, he says he used the word suicidal and wrote that he had lost hope of everything. He says it took a week or two before officials responded and took him to the medical unit to see a psychiatrist.
Without knowing his name, an ICE spokeswoman couldn’t confirm whether it took that long to respond to his complaint. But officials at the facility say medical complaints are routinely responded to in 24 hours and threats of suicide are taken seriously.
The day we visited a detainee tried to kill himself. Officers used pepper spray to stop him.
There was another man on suicide watch. He was held alone behind glass walls, wearing nothing but a smock made of a special fabric that’s hard to bend. It’s so men can’t choke themselves with it. In the medical unit there was another enclosed room with padding. There was a man inside screaming. Officials said he had psychiatric issues.
For the hundreds of detainees, there’s one full time doctor and one part-time psychiatrist. With nurses and dental assistants, there are 32 medical staff overall.
There were times, Steve said, when he came close to signing his own deportation papers.
“At the end, I'm just saying, I just want to give them what they want. If they want me out, then I'd rather be free somewhere than be stuck in this room,” Steve said. “It makes you feel powerless."
After four months in the facility a judge intervened, ruling that Steve wasn’t a flight risk or a threat. He was able to bail out and now he’s back with his young son.
But his fight, to stay in the only country he’s ever called home, isn’t over. His immigration case is ongoing, as are the hundreds of others who still waiting in Farmville.