Woman alleges abuse in Eloy prison, suing ICE

A transgendered woman who says she was sexually assaulted twice at an immigration detention center in Eloy is suing the private company that operates the center as well as Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and the city of Eloy.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit Monday in U.S. District Court in Phoenix on behalf of Tanya Guzman-Martinez. The ACLU charges that federal and local officials and Corrections Corp. of America, which runs the Eloy detention center under contract with ICE, failed to protect Guzman-Martinez from sexual abuse and harassment by staff members and by detainees at the facility.

"We're seeking redress for Tanya, but we also want to highlight that sexual abuse in immigration detention facilities is a systemic and widespread problem and one the federal government has failed to address," said Victoria Lopez, an ACLU immigration-rights attorney.

The ACLU recently published government documents, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, confirming 185 reports of sexual abuse of immigrant detainees since 2007 at facilities across the country, including eight alleged incidents at CCA's Eloy detention center.

The suit comes as the U.S. Department of Justice is about to issue comprehensive regulations under the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, to prevent sexual assaults in correctional facilities. The draft rules are coming under criticism in Congress because Justice officials are proposing not to apply them to immigrant-detention facilities operated by or for the Department of Homeland Security, of which ICE is a part.

Guzman-Martinez, who now lives in California, was detained at Eloy for eight months ending in April 2010. In June 2010, a CCA officer, Justin Manford, was convicted of attempted unlawful sexual contact with her on Dec. 7, 2009. The ACLU suit also charges that Guzman-Martinez was repeatedly harassed by staff and inmates and sexually assaulted by a male detainee in April 2010, a week before she was released.

In a written response, CCA spokesman Steve Owen said the company immediately fired and prosecuted the officer when it became aware of the situation.

"CCA has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual misconduct and abuse," Owen wrote. He said that employees receive annual training on sexual abuse and assault prevention and that detainees can file grievances or use CCA and government hotlines to report allegations.

ICE spokeswoman Amber Cargile declined comment on the suit but said that ICE, too, has a zero-tolerance policy on abusive or inappropriate behavior. She said ICE's current detention standards "prohibit sexual assault and sexual abuse and mirror the critical provisions in the Prison Rape Elimination Act."

Immigration detainees are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and assault because detainees often fear that if they report the abuse they'll be deported, said Chris Daley, deputy executive director of Just Detention International, an international organization dedicated to ending sexual abuse in detention.

He said that instead of relying on internal policies and reporting, as CCA and ICE do, the Prison Rape Elimination Act would allow abuses to be reported to a non-governmental third party.

Daley said external oversight is key to ensuring that agencies and contractors meaningfully address the problem.