An immigrant detainee is alleging he was sexually harassed and physically assaulted at Plymouth County jail’s immigrant detention unit — the latest in a series of allegations that have led Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey to call for an immediate review of the facility by the Department of Homeland Security.

In a letter this week to officials at Immigration & Customs Enforcement and the DHS, Warren and Markey said they have heard concerns from detainees about inadequate medical care, limited and monitored interactions with counsel, violation of detainees’ rights to practice religion and retaliatory punishment against inmates who filed complaints. The lawmakers say these incidents would violate ICE’s “national detention standards,” and they are seeking detailed explanations for a long list of questions about how the Plymouth County sheriff's office and ICE run the facility.

GBH News has obtained a series of letters from detainees from December complaining about racially biased deportation officers, inability to communicate with mental health staff due to language barriers, black mold in the showers and being in close quarters with COVID-19 positive prisoners. Following the report of sexual harassment and physical assault, one detainee’s lawyers also claim that he was inappropriately denied access to a visa after reporting the crime due to a failure of the facility’s systems.

ICE said its Office of Detention Oversight inspects all facilities twice a year to see if they meet detention standards, and a third inspection is conducted each year by an outside contracted company called Nakamoto Group. The most recent inspection in Oct. 2021 rated Plymouth as “superior,” the highest ranking, though contractor documents shared with GBH News indicate some of last year’s inspections were conducted remotely, or with some inspectors working from home due to the pandemic, relying on photographs and videos of the facility. DHS did not respond to requests for comment.

Markey is not convinced that ICE detainees are getting “access to a safe, dignified, and lawful environment,” he said in a statement emailed to GBH News. “ICE officials and contractors must be transparent about how they treat people in their custody, and that’s why Senator Warren and I wrote to the agency this week to demand answers as to whether this facility is meeting DHS rules and regulations.”

The Plymouth County Sheriff’s Office denies the allegations. “We welcome the Senators’ interest in our facility,” said spokesperson John Birtwell. “In past years we have had a productive relationship. I am confident the claims described in the letter are unfounded. This is a safe, secure and modern facility staffed by humane men and women.” He says there are currently 140 ICE detainees at the facility.

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Outside contractor Nakamoto Group inspected the Plymouth facility in June 2021.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Plymouth has a contract with ICE to hold the immigrant detainees, the only remaining Massachusetts county that does so after Essex and Franklin Counties severed their contracts and ICE terminated another with Bristol over detainee abuse allegations.

In the letters obtained by GBH News, one detainee said he hadn’t seen his young daughter in person since February 2020 and hasn’t had access to video visits. Others said they had witnessed or been part of fights in the jail, but never saw medical personnel evaluate or examine inmates to see if they sustained injuries. Several detainees said they were not given time or a designated space to practice Muslim faith. One claimed that when he cited this infraction of ICE rules this fall, he was thrown into solitary confinement.

In September, a group of 60 advocacy groups, including Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network and Prisoners Legal Services, wrote a letter to ICE and Plymouth Sheriff Joseph McDonald detailing their concerns about the facilities and detainee treatment.

“People inside have kept speaking up, kept recording messages to share with the public, have kept speaking to their families, even under the threat of again physical assault by correctional officers, harassment, being put in solitary confinement, being transferred to other facilities and all, of course, under the threat of deportation,” said Elizabeth Nguyen, a volunteer with the Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network.

In December, the ACLU filed a complaint in Superior Court on behalf of Michaell Acosta Granados, a 20-year-old ICE detainee who said he was sexually harassed by a fellow detainee and later physically attacked by another detainee.

Acosta, who was transferred to Plymouth last year, reported the sexual harassment incident to county authorities under the Prison Rape Elimination Act, and was interviewed by a county officer several times during the investigation.

Acosta says he was “savagely attacked without provocation” by another detainee on Sept. 12 who repeatedly screamed that he was a “rat” for reporting the sexual harassment by the other prisoner, according to attorneys and court documents. In the Superior Court complaint, Acosta's attorneys said he suffered “serious bodily injury” including pain to his spine, jaw, head, neck and mental health injuries, and cooperated with the investigation into the sexual harassment and physical attack.

His lawyers say the attack and his cooperation should have qualified him for a “U-visa,” which is available to immigrants who cooperate with an investigation or prosecution of a crime committed against them. But Plymouth officials denied his application and did not have a policy in place for reviewing U-visa applications, despite being required to do so by state law.

Acosta’s attorneys say Plymouth’s handing of Acosta’s visa application is an indication of the flawed systems at the facility.

Julie Dahlstrom of the Immigrants' Rights and Human Trafficking Program at Boston University is one of Acosta’s attorneys, and she said Plymouth didn’t have a system in place to help immigrants who want a U-visa due to a crime committed against them.

“First of all, they don't have a policy pursuant to the state law,” Dahlstrom said. “Part of the law is to give victims notice that there will be a just, clear procedure for agencies to follow. That’s what we believe wasn't happening in this case. Plymouth didn't have a policy to when there was a victim in front of them who was savagely attacked.”

The Plymouth County Sheriff's office did not reply to inquiries about Acosta's case. According to court documents, the county has until mid-January to respond to the suit.