According to CoreCivic’s website, the Southern Nevada Detention Center in Pahrump is one of “more than 70 correctional and residential reentry facilities across the country.” (CoreCivic website photo)
Nevada Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen is calling on Homeland Security to conduct a review of a Pahrump detention center used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, saying the facility is potentially obstructing detainees’ legal rights and their pathways for release.
In a letter sent Tuesday to Homeland Security Under Secretary Robert Silvers, Rosen states her office has become aware of reports that detainees at the Nevada Southern Detention Center “lack sufficient access to counsel” and that the facility is not properly notifying attorneys when their clients are transferred to other facilities, including ones in other states. The senator says the issues are “deeply concerning” and is calling on Homeland Security to conduct a “full review” of Nevada’s ICE detention facilities.
Allegations within the letter include that attorneys have faced “significant communication challenges” with facility staff when attempting to schedule meetings with their clients. Additionally, attorneys have reported the detention center has required them to meet with clients in the facility’s front lobby, a public area where attorney client-privilege cannot be maintained, rather than a private space.
Detainees have also been denied accommodations for their disabilities, according to the letter.
Rosen acknowledged that while COVID-19 safety protocols may affect some operations, “such actions still raise serious concerns and are a potential violation of the fundamental values of our judicial system and basic rights in our country.”
The letter also states there are reports of the ICE facility transferring detainees without properly notifying their legal counsel. This “significantly complicates effective legal representation and creates an undue burden when coordinating support for potential release,” adds the letter.
ICE maintains an “Online Detainee Locator System” but attorneys have said the system often does not have accurate or up-to-date information.
Nevada Southern Detention Center, located in Pahrump roughly 60 miles from Las Vegas, is operated by CoreCivic, a private company formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America that boasts it is “the largest owner of partnership correctional, detention and residential reentry facilities” in the nation. The company also believes it is “the largest private owner of real estate used by government agencies,” according to its website.
The detention center is designed for approximately 1,000 detainees. In addition to being contracted with ICE, the facility holds a contract with the U.S. Marshall Service.
In a statement to the Current, CoreCivic Public Affairs Director Ryan Gustin said the firm “has not received any complaints or grievances from detainees or attorneys about legal access issues” at its Pahrump facility, adding CoreCivic does “not have a role in, nor any influence over, the legal process.”
“CoreCivic does not have any say whatsoever in an individual’s deportation, release, or transfer between facilities,” Gustin said, and referred questions to ICE.
Tuesday’s letter was not the first time Rosen has spoken out about CoreCivic’s Pahrump detention center. In January 2020, Rosen and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto sent a joint letter to Homeland Security and the Office of Inspector General asking for an investigation after Vice News reported a senior employee at the facility was active on a neo-Nazi website and expressed interest in starting a white supremacist group.
Immigration attorney Dee Sull says she and her clients have “experienced it all — and then some” when it comes to issues described within Rosen’s letter. Sull in July 2020 filed a lawsuit alleging inhumane conditions and inadequate medical care at Nevada Southern Detention Center during the pandemic. That suit is currently in the discovery phase.
Sull says that throughout the pandemic, and as recently as last week, she has been denied the ability to visit her clients face-to-face and forced to meet via video chat while she sits in the lobby and her client sits in a recreation room. Neither has privacy. Delivery men, other detainees and guards mill about in the background.
“They’re nice people, some of them, but I don’t need them sitting there listening to my conversations,” she adds.
Sull calls it a due process issue and believes it to be unconstitutional. She blames CoreCivic and ICE for the issues, saying both the corporation and the government agency seem as if they cannot be bothered to do even the bare minimum.
“It’s the bare minimum,” she says. “Nobody is asking for a favor or special treatment.”
Sull invested in N95 masks for protection. She routinely makes the hour-and-a-half trek to Pahrump from Las Vegas in hopes of meeting face-to-face because in-person meetings lead to more “meaningful conversations.” It’s a calculated risk and commitment she and other attorneys are willing to make.
“And they can’t do it?” she asks aloud. “We’ve all changed (to adapt to the pandemic). Every single one of us did. It’s time for them to go ahead and do it.”
Sull says facility staff will tell attorneys all the meeting rooms are full, yet the visitor log-in book shows few visitors, or they will say the only time for a private meeting is at 7 a.m. on a holiday.
“It’s all very deliberate and calculated on the part of these industries,” she adds.
Issues with ICE detention facilities, especially regarding abrupt transfers not being properly disclosed to detainees’ legal counsel, were being routinely reported by immigration attorneys long before the pandemic began. But the pandemic has empowered obstruction, Sull and other lawyers believe.
“I think covid in general has been weaponized against attorneys,” says Sull. “Systemically. Not just here in Nevada but all over the country.”
This story was updated to include comments from a CoreCivic spokesperson.
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