The Baker County Sheriff's Office

Suit over Baker County Sheriff’s handling of ICE detainees awaits judge’s ruling

Published on July 2, 2024 at 4:22 pm

Life for detained noncitizens at the Baker County Detention Center in Macclenny has deteriorated since the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida first sued the Baker County sheriff back in September 2022, their attorneys say. 

Suspected undocumented immigrants arrested by federal or local law enforcement in Northeast Florida are kept at the jail during investigations and deportation proceedings. The facility is one of dozens of city and county jails that contract with ICE, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

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“The current condition at Baker is worse than it was when we filed the complaint,” Amy Godshall, an ACLU attorney, told Chief U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan on Monday.

From his bench on the 10th floor of Jacksonville’s Bryan Simpson United States Courthouse, Corrigan heard arguments in ACLU of Florida v Baker County Sheriff’s Office et. al. and is now tasked with deciding whether to allow the case to move forward, barring a settlement between the two sides by a July 15 deadline. 

Attorneys for the sheriff’s office and other defendants are asking Corrigan to dismiss the case with prejudice. They say the agencies have broken no laws.

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In addition to the Baker County Sheriff’s Office, the suit also names Sheriff Scotty Rhoden, Undersheriff Randy Crews, Capt. Evelyn Blue and the financial management arm of the jail, the Baker County Corrections Management Corp. It alleges that the sheriff’s office is violating detainees’ rights by denying them access to counsel and by interfering with their communication with their lawyers and family.

The ACLU claims some detainees have suffered so many dropped calls they’ve been forced to abandon contact with family at times, and some have seen legal mail extensively delayed or intercepted. 

According to the ACLU, all legal mail is supposed to be opened and inspected, but not read, in the presence of a detainee.

In the motion to dismiss, the sheriff’s office says that would be a violation, if true, but that did not happen.

“The Constitution …does not permit reading attorney-client correspondence,” writes Justin Levine, an attorney for the Baker County Corrections Management Corp., in a court filing. “However, mail to and from a court or other entity, including civil rights groups or law schools, do not constitute ‘legal mail.’”

The ACLU alleges that all of these issues, taken together, equate to retaliation against the ACLU because of their work to make sure detainees are fully aware of their rights.

The attorney representing the sheriff’s office, Matt Carson, denied the ACLU’s claims.

“All due respect, they have no earthly clue what it takes to run a detention facility,” Carson said to the judge before explaining that security concerns led to the decision to cancel a presentation the ACLU planned to host for detainees. 

Godshall responded that this was the ACLU’s “first time hearing” that the sheriff’s office had concerns about security.

The lawsuit says the Baker County Sheriff’s Office approved “Know Your Rights” presentations and legal visits “well ahead of time, but then canceled both the presentations and legal visits without explanation at the last minute.” 

The organization also alleges that the sheriff’s office denied attorneys access to their clients “and stated they would reevaluate future visits that had already been scheduled, signaling the ongoing denial of individuals’ right to counsel.”

The hearing comes within the same week as a new report released by the American Civil Liberties Union, American Oversight, and Physicians for Human Rights on what the groups say show the Department of Homeland Security’s “flawed internal oversight mechanisms and failure to provide adequate medical and mental health care to people detained in Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities” across the nation.

The report, “Deadly Failures: Preventable Deaths in U.S. Immigration Detention,” examines the deaths of 52 people who died in ICE custody between Jan. 1, 2017, and Dec. 31, 2021. The report states “95% of deaths in detention were deemed as being preventable or possibly preventable if ICE had provided clinically appropriate medical care.”

Of the deaths examined, seven occurred in Florida detention centers, including the Baker County Detention Center. 

Godshall, a legal fellow at ACLU of Florida, said the issues have been reported for years.

“Immigration detention centers, like Baker, have festered neglectful and even abusive conditions for people detained in these facilities, in violation of basic human rights, and unjustifiably putting people’s lives at risk. This new report confirms what we and our partners have been saying.”

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Casmira Harrison is a Jacksonville Today reporter focusing on local government in Duval County.

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