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Letter reveals complaints about treatment at Wake jail

Posted July 7, 2011

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— The federal government is investigating allegations that people detained at the Wake County jail as part of an immigration enforcement program were mistreated, according to a letter released Thursday by a state civil liberties group.

Margo Schlanger, an officer for civil rights and civil liberties at the Department of Homeland Security, notified the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union last month that the federal agency is investigating 57 complaints made by people detained at the jail in 2009 and 2010.

"The issues you raise are very important to us," Schlanger wrote in the letter, which goes on to say that the purpose of the investigation is to determine whether the complaints indicate issues that need to be addressed by the agency and not to provide legal remedies or damages for people making the complaints.

Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison, whose office operates the jail, said his 2-year-old partnership with immigration officials passed a federal inspection this year and that he's willing to stand by it.

"I have nothing to hide. Anyone is welcome to come here and look at our operation," he said. "I’ve said that from Day 1. If we do have a problem, I can assure you it will be addressed"

Harrison said he first learned about the investigation from a reporter Wednesday night and that Homeland Security never notified him about the complaint.

"I don't believe that's happening, and that's why if we get a complaint, we look into it. If it is happening, we need to know," he said. "That's why I hate that it's taken this long for somebody to give me this information."

Feds probe Wake jail over immigration claims Feds probe Wake jail over immigration claims

The ACLU submitted its complaints to Homeland Security in April 2010 and was informed of the investigation in a letter dated June 6, 2011.

This is the first time the homeland security agency has investigated a North Carolina jail for complaints regarding the 287(g) program, state ACLU Legal Director Katy Parker said.

"The 287(g) program is a good program, and I stand behind it," Harrison said. "But if there’s any fallacy in it or there's something people don’t understand, or there's complaints, we want to address them."

The U.S. Justice Department is also investigating allegations that the Alamance County Sheriff's Office has targeted Latinos as part of its 287(g) program. Sheriff Terry Johnson has said he's confident the department has done nothing wrong.

The 287(g) program — named for the section of federal law governing it — allows participating local police agencies to enforce federal immigration law. Dozens of police departments take part in the program nationwide.

The program allows local police to determine the immigration status of prisoners in custody and hold them under federal detainers if they're found to be violating immigration law.

"We had lots of complaints about people not being provided proper interpreters, people not being told that they could contact their consulate, people being forced to sign voluntary removal proceeding forms, which is really significant and scary," Parker said.

The complaints, gathered by volunteers who interviewed people detained at the jail, allege racial profiling, verbal abuse, excessive force and failure to inform detainees of rights, including the right to contact a lawyer and to remain silent. The allegations were about both Wake County jail personnel and Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents working there.

"The cop threw me to the ground, and I skinned my knee," read one of the complaints, with the detainee's name blacked out. "My shoulder still hurts a little when I raise my arm."

Other people complained they were denied access to interpreters, forced to sign documents they didn't understand and mocked by both local officers and ICE agents.

"ICE didn't give me an interpreter, and I didn't understand very much," another complaint says. "I told them that I wasn't understanding, but they just laughed and told me to sign. But I don't read or write well, so the ICE officer signed for me."

The ACLU is concerned that it might be hard to find many of the people who made the complaints, since Homeland Security opened an investigation more than year after the ACLU submitted the complaints, Parker said. Many of the complainants said they were forced to sign voluntary removal papers and have likely been deported, she said.

"It will be interesting to see what the investigation uncovers. It may uncover nothing, because it's so late after the complaints were submitted, or there may still be concerns with the program," she said.

"I think the investigation is worthwhile just to make sure that the program is operating the way it's supposed to be operating," she continued.

The ACLU opposes state and local governments getting involved in enforcing federal immigration laws, Parker said.

"The 287(g) program is designed to foster relationship between federal and local law enforcement to do immigration work, but immigration is solely a federal issue," she said. "Our position is that the local governments and state governments ought to be out of the immigration game."


This story is closed for comments.

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  • Rebelyell55 Jul 8, 2011

    Wonder how many law suits or investigations are going on at the expense of defending illegals? How much is actually costing our goverment ( or our tax payers) to conduct these investigation and defend them in court? I bet it would blow the normal person mind.

  • cantstandya Jul 8, 2011

    Detain and deport quick and simple,finding them,feeding them and defending them should not be part of the deal they get for entering illegally,if we are going to recognize the complaints of illegals treatment by letting the ACLU dictate how they should be treated then let that organization be put in charge of those captives,confine them in a manner they see fit,and then they can pay for the comforts that they feel are due,all of this until they are deported which would be quickly if the above practice was utilized since most who donate to the ACLU have other agendas for their funds to be spent on than illegals.

  • bill0 Jul 8, 2011

    It seems to be being overlooked here, but Sheriff Harrison is handling this 100% correctly. He's open to any investigations into the way he runs his operation and wants to show to the public that his office behaves appropriately. Contrast that with the coverups, denials and dismissive responses of the highway patrol and some other local offices.

    I personally think Harrison does a great job running the department and I trust that he is holding his officers to a high standard. His willingness to be open about an investigation reenforces that.

  • joeydirtwood Jul 8, 2011

    If they are not awaiting trial they sneed to be returned to thier homeland at once.I am sure that is all they are asking the court system to be allowed to do.

  • Ambygirl Jul 8, 2011

    How did they get in jail? By doing something illegal of course!! So why do they think they should get special treatment?? They broke the law to get in jail!! They broke the law by coming here illegally! Everyone should be treated with dignity but come on people!! Give it a rest!! These people we are talking about are criminals in every sense of the word. I would be willing to bet they have been treated much better in our jails than any they have in their own country. Just a ruse to get money. They need to be deported! Just that simple....

  • RM24 Jul 8, 2011

    I grant you, it's a tough job, wouldn't want to work with prisoners myself, but if you take the job, in any capacity, guard, cop, nurse, etc.... then you need to do your job and do it properly, just like any other job out there. If you can't handle it, GET OUT. If you want to complain abot it GET OUT and if you do something wrong, illegal or emoral, then you deserve to pay the price. Just because you wear a badge, or work for the government, doesn't give you a pass and it doesn't give you the right,


    AGREE! You knew what you were asking to do. Because it is tough does not give anyone a pass. IF its too hard then quit.

  • dakjlmk2 Jul 8, 2011

    My son was in Wake County Jail for a short time, traffic charges. Anyway, long story short, I had taken his medication up immediately as he suffered from seizures at the time, which would occur more frequently when under stress. Even though I had called nd talked to the Captain and my sons Doctor also called, the "Nurse" refused to give my son his medication. My son ended up having a seizure and was left unattended for some time before taken to a hospital, where he stayed for a day. I grant you, it's a tough job, wouldn't want to work with prisoners myself, but if you take the job, in any capacity, guard, cop, nurse, etc.... then you need to do your job and do it properly, just like any other job out there. If you can't handle it, GET OUT. If you want to complain abot it GET OUT and if you do something wrong, illegal or emoral, then you deserve to pay the price. Just because you wear a badge, or work for the government, doesn't give you a pass and it doesn't give you the right,

  • North Carolina Home Jul 8, 2011

    Let's see...ACLU submitted complaints in APR 2010. Homeland Security informed ACLU of an investigation in JUN 2011 of an investigation. Said the "complainers" probably could not be found after such a long time.

    Why did it take over a year for Homeland Security to decide to investigate?

    Why was Sheriff Harrison not informed of the investigation?

    How do the "complainers" know what they signed if they cannot read, speak or understand English?

    There are way to many holes in this story and the timing and motives of the investigation seem highly suspect.

  • cantstandya Jul 8, 2011

    Might be a good idea to get the ACLU to represent Americans who are having their rights violated by our own government for not protecting us from these illegals since the law really is on our side just not enforced.

  • dryjr Jul 8, 2011

    Get arrested in Mexico and ask for all this stuff and see what happens.