Court documents made public in Virginia and Texas give a glimpse of the systematic brutality being meted out to immigrant children in both public and private jails. Children are strapped down, hooded and beaten, or drugged by force, as part of the everyday procedure in what can only be called the American Gulag.
An Associated Press report published Thursday gave details of the abuses committed last year against young Latino migrants at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center near Staunton, Virginia. Lawyers for the teenage victims sued the prison -- a state facility run by a consortium of seven towns and cities in the Shenandoah Valley -- and a court hearing is set for July.
According to a half-dozen sworn statements, given by the victims in Spanish and then translated for filing with the federal court for the Western District of Virginia, children as young as 14 were beaten while handcuffed, tied down to chairs while stripped naked and hooded, and held for long periods in solitary confinement, sometimes naked and cold.
All these are forms of torture practiced at Guantanamo Bay and at CIA torture prisons around the world. These techniques have been transferred back into the United States and unleashed on immigrant children, who have been demonized by the Trump administration.
The lawsuit filed by the nonprofit Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs declares that young Latino immigrants held at Shenandoah "are subjected to unconstitutional conditions that shock the conscience, including violence by staff, abusive and excessive use of seclusion and restraints, and the denial of necessary mental health care." As a result of "malicious and sadistic applications of force," the youth have "sustained significant injuries, both physical and psychological."
A Honduran youth sent to Shenandoah when he was 15 said in his statement, "Whenever they used to restrain me and put me in the chair, they would handcuff me... [They] strapped me down all the way, from your feet all the way to your chest, you couldn't really move... They have total control over you. They also put a bag over your head. It has little holes; you can see through it. But you feel suffocated with the bag on."
A 15-year-old from Mexico who spent nine months at Shenandoah described similar treatment.
"They handcuffed me and put a white bag of some kind over my head," he said, according to his sworn statement. "They took off all of my clothes and put me into a restraint chair, where they attached my hands and feet to the chair. They also put a strap across my chest. They left me naked and attached to that chair for two and a half days, including at night."
A 14-year-old Guatemalan youth reported frequent imprisonment in his tiny cell for up to 23 hours a day, as well as long periods of physical restraint. "When they couldn't get one of the kids to calm down, the guards would put us in a chair--a safety chair, I don't know what they call it--but they would just put us in there all day," he said in his sworn statement. "This happened to me, and I saw it happen to others, too. It was excessive."
A 17-year-old who fled Mexico to escape an abusive father and drug cartel violence was arrested at the US border and passed through several detention centers before arriving at Shenandoah, one of three facilities in the United States with contracts from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, to provide "secure facilities" for young immigrants. The boy was frequently shackled, usually with cloth bindings, and reported at least one violent strip search and several beatings. He was driven to attempt suicide several times.
Other allegations include that the Latino youth received worse food and facilities than local juvenile prisoners, mostly white, and that meals were frequently cold and inadequate, leaving the children hungry.
The AP interviewed an unnamed child development specialist who had worked with teens at Shenandoah. "The majority of the kids we worked with when we went to visit them were emotionally and verbally abused. I had a kid whose foot was broken by a guard," she said. "They would get put in isolation for months for things like picking up a pencil when a guard had said not to move. Some of them started hearing voices that were telling them to hurt people or hurt themselves, and I knew when they had gotten to Shenandoah they were not having any violent thoughts."
Because the children held at Shenandoah were unaccompanied minors, rather than separated from their families, there were some suggestions in the media that they had gang connections that somehow justified the brutal treatment. But according to the AP report, a program director at the facility said the youth had been screened for gang connections and were actually suffering from mental health issues resulting from trauma in their home countries.
The acts of torture involved multiple guards at the facility, which was run by a regional board but under the ultimate control of the state government, headed throughout this period by Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe. The new governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, who took office January 1, ordered a state investigation into the claims of abuse, but only after the AP report became public Thursday.