State News

Letter reveals complaints about treatment at Wake jail

Posted July 7, 2011 9:06 a.m. EDT
Updated July 7, 2011 6:32 p.m. EDT

— 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."

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."