Ex-Inmates Tell Their Stories as Criticism of Howard Co. ICE Contract Intensifies

Una celda en el centro de detención del condado de Howard en Jessup. Foto de Horus Alas

EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this story will appear on Maryland Matters in Spanish on Thursday.

Nota del editor: una versión de este articulo aparecerá en Maryland Matters en Español este jueves.

Kevin was pulled over in Landover as he was on his way to work around 6:30 a.m. in June of 2019. He still isn’t sure why he was stopped.

Pedro was pulled over for failure to stop at a stop sign in Greenbelt. Eddy blew out a tire on Maryland Route 32, and expected help from local police officers. Miguel was pulled over in Annapolis and charged with driving without a license.

Each of these men — whose last names are being withheld to protect their privacy — eventually were booked at the Howard County Detention Center in Jessup, under the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Two are undocumented immigrants, and two recently acquired protected status. But they aren’t sure why they were turned over to ICE for what they characterize as minor infractions — or less.

ICE has had a contract for two dozen years with Howard County to incarcerate certain offenders at the county jail. But activists from immigrants’ rights groups like CASA and the Howard County Coalition for Immigrant Justice are stepping up their criticism of the arrangement and the county’s decision to maintain its contract with ICE.

The stories of these individuals who were willing to go on the record with Maryland Matters about their personal backstories and time in detention at Jessup are ammunition for the immigrants’ rights groups battling ICE.

But the head of the county’s corrections agency is questioning the veracity of some of the ex-inmates’ accounts.

‘I still have scars’

Miguel and Pedro first shared their experiences during a recent virtual news conference hosted by CASA. In the following weeks, Eddy and Kevin spoke to Maryland Matters. Pedro and Miguel would both appear at a protest in Ellicott City organized this June by the activist coalition.

Miguel, a Baltimore County resident, said, “The experience I lived through over in Howard County was very hard. I still have [psychological] scars from it. I haven’t been able to forget what I went through.”

Miguel’s speeding violation took place in March 2019. Court records show he entered a guilty plea for the charge on Sept. 18, and was given a 15-day jail sentence.

According to Trent Leon-Lierman, a regional organizer with CASA, ICE removed Miguel from a jail in Anne Arundel County and took him into custody on the 13th day of his sentence.

During Miguel’s time in detention at Jessup — which he said lasted about a month and eight days — he got sick and had trouble receiving medical attention.

“It was like my stomach collapsed,” Miguel said. “My teeth got loose from nervousness. I had never been in a jail before.” He said he requested and was denied medication to treat his symptoms.

“I spent four days laid out in bed, and didn’t eat anything,” Miguel added. Eventually, his teeth had come loose due to nerves, and a doctor in the jail offered to pull them out. He declined this offer, and recalled the doctor agreeing to provide medication, but not explaining how to take it.

“I got very skinny,” said Miguel, who has since recovered. “Shortly before I was able to get out, my stomach swelled up… I don’t know, sometimes I cry [about it].” 

He had to pay a $10,000 bond to be released.

Miguel said friends have told him, “‘You haven’t done anything serious for them to have put you in there.’” Reflecting on his experience under ICE custody, he said, “I’ve been humiliated.”

Pedro, who lives in Prince George’s County, said his encounters with law enforcement stem from a domestic dispute that occurred when he was a teenager. “When I was 15, my step dad wanted to hurt me,” he said. “I defended myself and ended up in jail because of it.”

Protesters urging Howard County to end its contract with ICE. Photo by Horus Alas

Court records from Arizona—where Pedro lived at the time—date the incident to 2007. He pleaded guilty to one count of non-dangerous, non-repetitive aggravated assault in the Maricopa County Superior Court of Arizona. Pedro was sentenced to four months in juvenile detention as well as four years of probation.

After his sentence in Arizona, Pedro was deported to Honduras. He reentered the U.S. without authorization — a crime under federal statute — and said that in 2016, he was arrested and sent to federal prison for the reentry.

“I was brought [to the U.S.] by my mom, and raised here since I was about 6,” Pedro said. He remembered having to stay with aunts and uncles in Honduras whom he had never met before, and was uncomfortable living there.

Maryland court files date Pedro’s traffic stop in Greenbelt and subsequent charge to June 2016. He said he was then incarcerated for 14 months in federal prison for the reentry offense, followed by eight months at the Howard County Detention Center. 

Pedro said that while in detention at Jessup, there were “many incidents where I wasn’t looked after as I should’ve been.” He described having an open wound on his hand about the size of a quarter after being attacked by five other inmates.

“I asked for stitches,” Pedro recalled. “All they did was put some ointment on my wound and send me back to the hold.” He said that he wanted to get checked for a head fracture after the incident, but he “did not get proper medical assistance.”

Pedro said he is also asthmatic, and detailed a difficult winter walk to the detention center’s infirmary. “For them to make me take a 7- to 10-minute walk to the infirmary, I thought that was harsh,” he said. “My lungs were in pain and felt like they were frozen.”

Pedro remembered times when he had urine, feces and rotten milk thrown at his cell. He also recalled two occasions where he was placed in “the hole” — a common area where several inmates with psychological issues or those cited for bad behavior are typically held for days.

“Officers didn’t move me out of there,” he said of one stint in the hole. “They didn’t even let me mop [the debris that had been thrown in his cell]. I had to stand there and smell that for about five days.” According to Pedro, inmates had to bang on doors and make noise for several hours to get a facility supervisor’s attention.

The supervisor directed an inmate to clean up the solid waste, he said, but did nothing about the smell until a specialist was brought in to clean about five days later.

‘I thought the police were going to help me’

Eddy, who lives in Prince George’s County, said he entered ICE custody at the Howard County Detention Center on Sept. 2, 2017.

“My car’s tire exploded,” he said. “I thought the police were going to help me. They asked me for my ID and documents [pertaining to legal status]. I told them, ‘No — I just have my license on me.’”

Eddy remembered calling a tow truck to move his car from the scene of the accident. He said that as he was waiting for the truck to arrive, Howard County police officers contacted ICE agents to pick him up. Some 30 minutes later, Eddy said they took him to the detention center in Jessup.

Howard County is not a (287)g jurisdiction, meaning local police are not expected to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. Maryland Matters sent an inquiry about Eddy’s case via email to the Howard County Police Department, which requested his name in order to process the information query. Eddy was uncomfortable granting his consent.

He said he spent about one week in detention in Howard County and recalled “a lot of racism there aimed at the Hispanic community.” Eddy mentioned one encounter with a guard who told him, “You all come to steal from us.” Miguel and Pedro also said they felt ICE detainees were not treated as well as other inmates.

“Sometimes in those facilities, there’d be missing soap and toilet paper,” Eddy said. 

After his week in detention at Jessup, Eddy said he was taken to other facilities in Baltimore, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and ultimately deported to Guatemala. He recalled the entire deportation process lasting about 20 days.

Eddy and his wife have three daughters who were born in the U.S. and are American citizens.

Court files only indicated a civil contract dispute on Eddy’s record. The state documents did not register any criminal history or traffic offenses.

“It was really difficult, but through the grace of God, I was able to come back here after my deportation,” Eddy said. “I was separated from my family for about nine months. It was hard, but here we are again.”

In Eddy’s view, if Howard County’s ICE contract were canceled, the immigrant community would probably feel safer. “There wouldn’t be as much distrust toward [law enforcement],” he said. “Most people don’t approach the authorities [to report crime.] The first thing they ask you is if you have legal status.”

Kevin, another Prince George’s County resident, told Maryland Matters a bizarre account about how he came to be in ICE custody and the subsequent ordeals he faced in detention.

“When I was stopped by immigration officers, I was driving straight to work with my brother,” he said. “It was around 6:30 in the morning, on a Tuesday last June [2019].” Kevin said Prince George’s County Police officers pulled him over roughly at the intersection of Maryland Routes 202 in Landover.

Kevin described how some five or six seconds after Prince George’s police officers pulled him over, two ICE agents approached his red 2019 Nissan Rogue from behind with guns drawn. “The agent told me he had a report about there being weapons in my car,” he said. “I told him, ‘OK, check it.’”

According to Kevin, he showed his driver’s license to one agent, while the other dragged Kevin’s brother — who had been riding in the passenger seat — out of the car. “I had a license that wasn’t authorized for federal use,” he said, referring to a REAL ID license. The agent “told me to get out of the car, and that I was being detained.”

“He told me, ‘I’m detaining you because you’re an immigrant,’” Kevin said.

“The car was under my name, and was insured—there was no reason for them to have stopped us,” he added. “The police don’t have a record of our arrest because we were taken in directly” by ICE.

Kevin described being transported to Baltimore and then spending about a month in detention in Frederick County. He said his sister scrambled to find him and his brother, calling myriad local police and ambulance agencies without success. 

Kevin’s brother managed to get in touch with her around 3 p.m. that day to let her know they’d been detained by ICE.

Around July 20, Kevin remembered ICE agents transferring him to Howard County while his brother remained in Frederick. “When I got there, there was an ICE agent in the building,” he said. “I asked him why I had been transferred, and he couldn’t answer me. He told me it was random.”

Kevin also complained about long waits for medical attention at Jessup. “They would call you at least 15 or 20 days after you complained of having fever or a cold,” he recalled. “They wouldn’t give you anything.”

One of the more remarkable incidents Kevin recalled from his time in detention was spending five days without an intact pair of shoes. On a Thursday, “the ones they gave me ripped,” he said. “I told lieutenants, and a bunch of other officers. They all told me to tell the staff that was coming on for the next shift.”

“I had a visit on Saturday,” Kevin said. “My shoes were totally ripped, and a guard told me that I couldn’t go on my visit like that.” He recalled that officer then entering Kevin’s cell and asking if any of the other inmates could loan him a pair of shoes. “Someone loaned me a pair, and I was able to go on my visit,” Kevin said.

It wasn’t until the following Tuesday—when he had an appointment with the facility’s medic that Kevin said he requested some 15 days before—that he managed to speak to the right person to get a new pair of shoes.

“The doctor was indignant, and asked a guard why things were like that,” Kevin said. “The guard told him it was normal… Finally, on Wednesday, the doctor sent a nurse down to bring me a pair. There were conflicts about who was in charge of us.”

He also expressed difficulty obtaining toilet paper while in the detention center. Kevin said officers would, “give us one roll for two people in the same cell. We would usually go at least two days without toilet paper. The guards would tell us they’d already given us some. They would tell us we all had the same face.”

Kevin said he spent about four months in detention at Jessup, until about Nov. 5 last year, when he won his immigration case. He said that a nonprofit organization managed to secure him a lawyer, and thanks to testimony from his family and neighbors, he was able to secure a work permit which can be renewed each year.

Maryland judiciary records did not reveal any criminal, traffic, or civil charges on Kevin’s file. Those findings appear consistent with his statement to Maryland Matters that, “Other than the immigration case, as far as state and county charges are concerned, I’ve never had a [traffic] ticket or anything.”

Agreement from 1995

The men’s statements are at odds with how Howard County officials describe the execution of their ICE contract as well as the upkeep of the detention center.

In 1995, the county entered into an Intergovernmental Service Agreement with the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, which allowed the federal agency to house immigrant detainees at the Howard County Detention Center.

The agreement’s original language indicated it would “remain in effect indefinitely until terminated by either party.” It has remained in place through four county administrations, including the present one headed by Democratic County Executive Calvin Ball, yielding the county about $18.2 million over the past decade.

The library at the Howard County Detention Center. Photo by Horus Alas

While Howard is one of three Maryland counties — along with Worcester and Frederick — to have such a contract with ICE, the Howard County Detention Center stipulates four stringent criteria under which detainees are accepted from ICE.

The Department of Corrections’ admission and release procedures indicate that in order to be housed at Jessup, ICE detainees must be: individuals convicted of crimes, individuals charged with jailable offenses, members of criminal gangs, or previously deported felons who reentered the country without authorization.

County officials have stressed that — contrary to what they say is popular misconception — the Jessup detention center does not accept women or children in ICE custody. The county is currently paid $110 a day for each ICE detainee it houses. 

Jack Kavanagh, director of the Howard County Department of Corrections, told Maryland Matters that out of hundreds of cases he’s reviewed during his tenure, he had only found one where a detainee didn’t meet the facility’s standards for ICE detention. In a follow-up conversation, he said he and his staff had identified a second case from 2017.

Kavanagh framed the center’s acceptance of ICE detainees as a public safety issue, and said that since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the facility has not been accepting detainees unless they pose a danger to society. Kavanagh said these include convicted murderers, and individuals charged with terrorism and carjacking.

Despite activists arguing that detainees either don’t meet the center’s criteria or pose no threat to society, Kavanagh has remained firm on the soundness of the facility’s booking procedure. “I have to go with what the record shows. It shows they’ve got a jailable offense, and that’s why they’re being deported. I try to not get into arguments about it,” he said.

Kavanagh also said the vetting process became more stringent in 2019, so that “there’s nobody here with minor offenses. We’ve been accused of having women and children and [immigration] status offenders here. We only have people with serious criminal histories.”

Asked about the cases of Miguel, Pedro, Eddy and Kevin, Kavanagh conceded that Eddy’s case was non-criminal, and did not meet the detention center’s stated criteria. 

He provided Maryland Matters with additional out-of-state charges from ICE on Pedro’s file, and said that ICE had received information alleging Kevin’s involvement with the MS-13 gang. Maryland Matters requested access to ICE’s documentation for that charge, which has not been provided as of this writing.

There has been no follow-up on Miguel’s file as of this writing. His Maryland judiciary records consist only of traffic violations and a possession of drug paraphernalia charge, which the state declined to prosecute.

In a follow-up conversation, Pedro said that several out-of-state charges ICE had on his record were accurate, but that he pleaded guilty to them at the advice of lawyers who didn’t have his best interests at heart.

“I accepted a burglary charge because the sentence kept getting longer as I tried to fight the charge. First they gave me four months, then six, and then eight,” Pedro said. He described a neighbor calling the police after he tried to collect an outstanding debt at the home of someone whose driveway he had shoveled in Suffolk County, N.Y.

Pedro said he was waiting at the back entrance at a residence where, “the homeowner owed me money… He told me he was going to the gas station and would come back — I was $200 short on rent at the time.”

ICE also listed a possession of a dangerous weapon charge from Yuba City, Calif., on Pedro’s file. When asked about it, Pedro said, “I’ve never been in possession of any firearm. The officers found a weapon and asked me if I knew about it and if it was mine, and I told them no.”

Pedro remembered his public defender suggesting he accept the charge despite denying ownership of the weapon. “‘Accept the charge, and we’ll say it was possession of a legal weapon on your record,’” he recalled the lawyer saying. 

“Public defenders have told me these things wouldn’t create problems for immigration cases. That’s why I accepted,” Pedro said. “Now, it turns out ICE has those charges. And they were poor decisions I made in accepting culpability for those charges.”

ICE officials alleged that Pedro is involved with the Sureños gang. This association, Pedro said, stemmed from his time in jail in California after the weapons charge, during which he felt compelled to seek protection in a group.

“You have to seek out your people in order to be protected,” Pedro said. “So I sat at the same table where the other Hispanics sat… [This charge] didn’t come from the street.”

Pedro said that in cases like his, “you’ll see ‘aggravated assault,’ and you’ll think that’s a bad person. It doesn’t tell the full story.” He works as a painter by trade, and added that, “Here on the street, if you were to see me, I’m still in my work clothes, and I try to earn my daily bread.”

In response to the gang charge, Kevin said he didn’t learn about it until after his release from the Howard County Detention Center. The defense attorney on his immigration case said the ICE lawyer prosecuting Kevin may have asked, “Have you ever been in a gang?” but did not raise any specific charges or evidence.

Kavanagh strongly denied much of what Miguel, Pedro, Eddy and Kevin recounted as their experiences in detention. He suggested they sign a release in order for Maryland Matters to review their records while in detention, and wrote that, “the 15-day alleged medical response is absolutely unbelievable.”

Kavanagh said it was “possible that an inmate in segregation” had feces, urine and rotten milk thrown at his cell, but that clean-up is “always done soon after the incident.” On allegations of racism, Kavanagh said that he “can’t investigate or remedy any such complaints without documentation,” and that he had no reports on the matter from ICE agents.

He called comments on shortages of soap and toilet paper “absolutely false,” and said that the facility has records detailing how and when those items were issued. In response to Kevin’s account of having gone five days without a functional pair of shoes, Kavanagh asked whether he had filed a complaint, and invited Maryland Matters to speak with the facility’s ICE liaison officer.

Kavanagh provided a reporter with a tour of the facility earlier this summer, during which all areas surveyed appeared clean and orderly. While the tour was taking place, ICE detainees were playing soccer in an open-air courtyard some 25 feet high, closed off from above with chain link fencing. In their main cell block, two detainees were watching a TV screen from their dining bench. There was dishware, a checkerboard and a Bible on the table behind them.

Many activists say that even if the detention center is impeccably run, the ICE contract still results in unfair detention and deportation proceedings.

Leon-Lierman accused ICE of, “[inflating] immigrants’ records who we work with to seem as if they are public safety threats… In reality, all they are doing is detaining immigrants for months or years for potential civil immigration violations.”

‘We feel the contract…has helped keep people safe’

But on the county administration side, there seems to be little impetus for canceling the contract as it stands.

During an interview with Maryland Matters in June, Ball said, “In talking with many immigration attorneys and our community, we feel that currently, the contract has helped keep people safe, and helped ensure that those who do meet those criteria in jail are able to be closer to their loved ones.”

County officials also note that Howard County joined a lawsuit earlier this month, initiated by New York State, to block the Trump administration from blocking undocumented immigrants from being part of the Census count.

“This latest attempt to co-opt the constitutionally mandated census process is illegal and clearly violates our federal laws and standards,” Ball said in announcing the county’s decision to join the suit.

Several members of the activist coalition have criticized Ball for sponsoring CB-9-2017 — legislation in 2017 that would have prohibited county employees from assisting with immigration enforcement — during his time on the county council, but then declining to cancel the county’s ICE contract once he became county executive.

In response, he said the CB-9 legislation “didn’t do anything to jeopardize collaboration with ICE in terms of targeting criminal activity in the county.”

“It’s quite important for me that we are not a 287(g) jurisdiction—in terms of protecting other community members. I’m making that statement now,” Ball said, “that we will never be a 287(g) county.”

Horus Alas is freelance reporter and digital designer who graduated from the University of Maryland’s master’s program in journalism in December 2019. He has edited web content for NASA’s Glenn Research Center and reported for the Baltimore Brew, Capital News Service and The Diamondback. He can be reached at [email protected]