MACCLENNY, Fla. – The News4JAX I-TEAM was granted unprecedented access this week to the federal wing of the Baker County Detention Center that houses more than a hundred immigrant detainees.
After our stories on a federal complaint filed by 16 human rights groups alleging “hellish” and “inhumane” conditions, Baker County Sheriff Scotty Rhoden wanted to respond and show the public the facility. It’s the first time news cameras have ever been allowed behind the locked doors of the federal wing of this detention center.
Rhoden refutes all of the claims filed on behalf of 15 current and former detainees. He says the allegations that include medical neglect, lack of water and physical beatings are unsubstantiated and simply not true.
RELATED: Civil rights groups file complaint alleging ‘inhumane conditions’ at federal wing of Baker County jail | I-TEAM obtains inspection report for Baker detention facility where detainees allege ‘inhumane conditions’
“Any inhumane conditions? Hellish conditions? What are your thoughts?” we asked Rhoden.
He answered, “Those are just lies because we take it seriously here at the Baker County Sheriff’s Office to treat people the way they should be treated at all times.”
On the day were granted exclusive access inside, 130 immigrant detainees were being housed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
We saw the common areas and holding cells, where according to a 102-page federal complaint, multiple detainees “report that officers take people into a cell that does not have cameras to beat and pepper spray them.”
As a point of reference, Rhoden told us about an incident in October 2021, where he says use of force was necessary to detain a man who became violent in the detention center’s medical wing where surveillance cameras are present.
He says corrections officers were forced to maintain that level of physical contact while transporting the detainee back to a holding cell, where surveillance cameras are not permitted by law.
“So, in this particular incident, it occurred, it started in our medical staff, which he was handcuffed, use of force was done, handcuffed him and then escorted him to our confinement area, which is confinement — you are in a cell by yourself,” Rhoden explained. “Use of force had to be done there because he refused to (allow officers) to unhandcuff him and get the handcuffs back from him.”
Human rights lawyers also allege in the federal complaint that “numerous complaints have surfaced about the conditions at Baker over many years, and this spring these complaints began to rise in both volume and gravity.”
The complaint states that issues escalated following a hunger strike of a reported 100 detainees last May who allege they were denied water and were unable to flush their toilets.
The sheriff says no mass hunger strike ever really occurred.
“We have not had 100 people go on an official hunger strike. They may declare and say, ‘I’m going on a hunger strike.’ But once they accept their tray and they accept their meal, and they eat and their intake, that’s not a hunger strike,” he said.
Rhoden says inmates must refuse at least nine meals before ICE qualifies a detainee’s refusal to eat as an official hunger strike, which in turn, triggers federal requirements put in place to monitor a detainee’s water and food intake.
Rhoden says during a clinical hunger strike, the facility does indeed shut off the detainee’s water in their cells, but it’s done so that medical staff can make an accurate determination if the detainee is actually not eating or drinking.
Another startling allegation made by human rights lawyers stated that “when women have asked for more sanitary napkins, officers have told them to use their Baker-issued socks or clothing, which are often dirty when they receive them.”
“We have never had that allegation come to us that I’ve ever heard of,” Rhoden responded.
Rhoden says that when he first took office in 2016, female detainees were given unlimited access to feminine products, but he claims detainees were misusing them to make their pillows softer or to pad the floors of their cells.
Jail staff showed us how detainees misused toiletry products to dim the lights inside their holding cell. We were shown a toilet paper wrapper stuck to the overhead lights and told it was stuck there with jail-issued toothpaste.
“When we would do cell searches we would find this multitude of feminine products,” he added.
Rhoden says in response, his agency installed digital vending machines, which track how many feminine napkins have been distributed using the detainee’s personal access code and pin number.
Rhoden says even though ICE has mostly remained silent about allegations of abhorrent conditions, he’s prepared to defend his federal detention facility along with the people who work here.
“What I’m not going to do is allow people to come in here and lie about our facility, the job that our people do here — because we take pride in our job,” Rhoden said. “I’m not going to stand by and remain silent and not vigorously defend what we do here at the Sheriff’s Office because our people do a great job here on a day-to-day basis, and I’m going to stand behind that what we do here is right.”
ICE inspects this facility several times a year, but according to the federal complaint, Baker County Detention Center staff handpicked detainees that had no complaints.
“Again, that’s absolutely not true again,” said Rhoden.
He adamantly denies that he or his employees stood in the way of a federal ICE inspection conducted of this immigration holding facility in May.
Human rights advocates allege detention center staff handpicked the inmates that were allowed to interview with federal investigators in order to hide the alleged mistreatment. The sheriff says the detainees making the claims are not telling the truth.
“Why would the detainees be lying?” we asked Rhoden.
“That’s a good question,” he responded. “My only answer to that would be, they don’t want to be incarcerated. Who wants to be incarcerated?”
Rhoden says, to ensure that every interaction in the facility is documented, he’s setting aside funding for self-worn body cameras in next year’s budget.
The I-TEAM spoke with Katie Blankenship, the American Civil Liberties Union’s deputy legal director, about Rhoden’s responses — including his plan to add for body cameras.
“Then we could be inside the cells for the use of forces, and we could combat what the other complaint was, and we would be able to hear the back and forth with the corrections officer and the detainee,” said Blakenship. “I’m encouraged to hear that, and they absolutely should do it.”
Blankenship says body camera video would tell the true story because currently there are blind spots that surveillance cameras can’t see. As for the sheriff denying all the allegations in the federal complaint, she still maintains the detainees that her agency interviewed are victims of medical neglect, retaliation, and basic inhumane treatment.
“What they’re provided as far as their personal hygiene and clothing is also extremely insufficient,” Blakenship said. “The housing units they’re forced to live in are unclean, they have no ability to clean them. … They are not getting anywhere close to the medical care they need; serious conditions are going untreated.”
She added, “This has been going on for years where the individuals that were detained never met each other. They have never crossed paths. They didn’t know each other. They’ve been at Baker County and in completely different times and yet their reports of their mistreatment are strikingly, strikingly similar.”
The ACLU and 15 other human rights groups are asking the federal government to cancel Baker County’s contract with ICE while Sheriff Rhoden is defending the facility and its workers.
“It’s untruths about the Sheriff’s Office, and if ICE does decide to end our contract, it won’t be because of false allegations, it will be because they made that determination on their own. It won’t be because the Baker County Sheriff’s Office hasn’t done what we were supposed to be doing on a daily basis, and that is protecting those people that are back there,” he said.
Blakenship says the ACLU will push for unannounced inspections to be allowed and that legal action against the facility is something the organization is considering.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement responds
On Friday, the I-TEAM received a response to the investigation Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and it’s pointing to an inspection conducted earlier in 2022.
An ICE Spokesperson writes:
The statement comes 15 days after lawyers say immigrants were the victims of “excessive use of force and physical assaults including beatings and unwarranted use of pepper spray and restraints.” The immigrants also claimed they were the “are victims of racialized harassment, verbal abuse and targeting.” A lack of medical care was also listed as a concern.
“Serious conditions are going untreated, such as diabetes, seizure disorders, medications are withheld and people are seriously suffering and their lives are at risk,” Blankenship told us.
ICE addressed this allegation, writing:
“All ICE detainees, regardless of location, can expect timely and appropriate responses to emergent medical requests, and timely medical care appropriate to the anticipated length of detention.”
Human rights advocates want ICE to start performing unannounced inspections. The federal agency made no mention of adhering to this request.