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Restraint Chairs and Spit Masks: Migrant Detainees Claim Abuse at Detention Centers

Restraint Chairs and Spit Masks: Migrant Detainees Claim Abuse at Detention Centers

VERONA, Va. — Guards at a juvenile detention center for troubled immigrant teenagers had many ways of handling serious problems. At times, they resorted to the chair. Other times, the mask.According to migrant teenagers and a former worker, the high, hard-backed metal chair had wheels so it could be tilted and moved like a dolly…


VERONA, Va. — Guards at a juvenile detention center for troubled immigrant teenagers had many ways of handling serious problems. At times, they resorted to the chair. Other times, the mask.

According to migrant teenagers and a former worker, the high, hard-backed metal chair had wheels so it could be tilted and moved like a dolly through the halls of the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center, a northwest Virginia facility that houses American and undocumented migrant youths who have emotional, behavioral and psychological issues.

Teenagers as young as 14 were strapped to the chair — some stripped down to their underwear — with their feet, arms and waist restrained by cushioned leather straps and loops, they said.

Those who guards feared might spit on staff, said one former worker, got the mask — a mesh hood that covered their entire faces and heads. Sometimes, the detainees said, they were forced to wear it while in the chair.

sworn statements.]

One 15-year-old from Mexico, identified by the initials J.A., said that staff members, who never told him why he was transferred there, pushed him to the floor, handcuffed him, took off his clothes, put a spit mask over his head and strapped him to the restraining chair — all because he did not want to go to his room.

In interviews, two former employees of the Shenandoah Valley facility, which has received $31.4 million in federal contracts since 2009, said the use of the chair and the mask was carefully monitored, and they were used only as a last resort. They disputed any suggestion that their treatment of the migrant youths was abusive, cruel or unlawful.

class-action lawsuit was filed late last year by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs on behalf of three plaintiffs who were asking for quality treatment and mental health care for all detainees. Since then, two plaintiffs were returned to their home countries and a third decided not to proceed. A fourth migrant teenager who has been detained at the center since December — a 17-year-old boy who he said left Honduras after a gang threatened to kill him if he didn’t join it — was recently added to continue the suit. Three former detainees, including D.M., gave sworn statements about their treatment at the Shenandoah Valley center, but are not plaintiffs.

After news reports in late June about abuse allegations, Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, ordered officials at two state agencies to investigate the claims in the lawsuit. Officials and a child protective services worker interviewed all detained migrants and reviewed their case files.

The detention center — operated by the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center Commission, a three-county, four-city agency — said in a statement that it “takes all allegations of misconduct very seriously, including the complaints of abuse described in the pending federal lawsuit.” The center concluded, after a thorough investigation, that the allegations lacked merit.

As of late June, 22 of the facility’s 58 beds were occupied by immigrant youths. In congressional testimony earlier this year, Kelsey Wong, a program director, said the center serves an average of 92 migrants every year, and about 300 youths in total.

Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. A guidebook that is widely used as a best practices manual by juvenile detention administrators states that devices like restraint chairs can lead to injuries and cardiac arrest, can traumatize teenagers with histories of abuse, and often appeared to be used as punishment or for convenience rather than as part of a response to an emergency.

“It’s not something that has any place at all, in our view, in a well-run juvenile facility,” said Jason Szanyi, deputy director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, who has worked with officials in more than 100 juvenile detention centers around the country.

that the government violated parts of the 1997 Flores settlement, a federal agreement that limits the time and conditions under which immigrant children can be detained, when it placed certain migrants at Shiloh. Under the terms of her ruling, migrants must be transferred from Shiloh unless a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist has determined the detainee is a threat to himself or others, and they cannot be drugged unless a legal guardian or emergency court order authorizes it.

Judge Gee also ordered that migrants be told why they were sent to Shiloh, or any of the other more restrictive facilities, and that they be given access to drinking water, as many claimed they were not.

One boy, identified as Julio Z., attested that a staff member at Shiloh “often refused to allow Julio and other class members to leave their living quarters to obtain drinking water,” the July 30 order states. On one occasion, the boy tried to leave and a staff member threw him to the ground, injuring one of his elbows.

The government has until Aug. 10 to work out the details of the transfers.

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