Private prison company won't say why a critical over-the-phone translation service was down for two weeks at Cibola County prison

A special phone line that provides translation services for immigrants detained at the Cibola County Correctional Facility was inexplicably disconnected for two weeks in June and July, limiting access to legal counsel who help people file asylum claims and mental health professionals who assess their well-being.

The lapse led to a loss of valuable time to work on detainees' cases, attorneys and others tell SFR.

As of July 5, the phone line had been restored, according to Kevin Martin, a public information officer for CoreCivic, the private prison company that operates the detention center on contract with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. CoreCivic subcontracts the translation service to Language Line Services, and both prison officials as well as outsiders who visit the prison, such as legal counsel, use the  line to communicate with detainees.

Martin blames the lapse in service on a "billing issue," but would not elaborate. Lawyers and mental health workers say they were surprised after showing up to the prison in the last couple weeks to meet with detainees, only to be turned away by staff who informed them that communication wasn't possible. By June 29, more than a week after the service went down, not even Dean King, the top ICE official overseeing the prison from Albuquerque, had heard about the problem, according to an email obtained by SFR.

Two lawyers who frequent the prison told SFR on July 9 they had not been informed that the translation line was back in service. Wes Brockway, a staff attorney at the Santa Fe Dreamers Project who has represented immigrants detained at Cibola, says a CoreCivic employee in charge of scheduling legal visits informed him on July 5 that the line was still down—apparently in error.

"I'm happy for our clients that have access to that, but it shouldn't have been down in the first place," Brockway says. "There were important things we needed to schedule that we were unable to for the last two weeks, and [detainees] were just very flat-out denied access to counsel and services necessary for their asylum cases."

Martin, the spokesperson for CoreCivic, writes in an email to SFR that the private prison company was "not required" to give attorneys and others access to the Language Line phone service. When SFR relayed this information to Brockway, he cited executive orders issued by past US presidents mandating each federal agency provide limited English speakers "meaningful access" to services such as legal counsel.

Lynne Canning, a Santa Fe-based attorney, was planning to speak with her client over the phone with a translator. Her client is scheduled to appear in front of a judge early next week to argue her asylum claim. After SFR informed Canning the translation line was up again, she said she would visit her client at Cibola this week.

"There are obvious advantages to speaking in person instead of the phone," Channing explains to SFR, "particularly in these situations where these women have been through an incredibly horrific experience that I can't imagine going through."

Like all Cibola detainees represented by the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center and its network of pro-bono lawyers, Canning's client is a transgender woman. She is kept in an isolated pod at the prison with between 50 and 60 other trans women. Brockway and Canning say trans people often face severe brutality with little consequence in Central America, an observation supported by Amnesty International.

This is why Carlota*, a 23-year-old trans woman who spent the last six months locked up at Cibola, left her hometown of Yoro, Honduras, and tried crossing into California in January. Speaking from the Albuquerque home of a woman who took her in after her release, Carlota says being incarcerated alongside other trans women provided her with some sense of security, but that she also experienced mistreatment from guards and nurses. (*Name has been changed.)

"There were times they treated us as if we were men," says Carlota, including misgendering and not using their preferred names. Then, "they started to just refer to us by our last names, but I feel this is a form of discrimination."

At one point, after getting into a fight with another prisoner, Carlota says she was held in solitary confinement—in a cell by herself for 23 hours a day—for a month. She says she knows other women who were held in similar conditions even longer. The United Nations considers more than 15 days in solitary to be torture; CoreCivic has repeatedly claimed it doesn't use solitary confinement.

Despite the conditions, Carlota is among the more fortunate trans detainees to go through Cibola. That's because she had legal representation, unlike the 15 others who currently do not, attorneys tell SFR. Carlota credits legal counsel for a judge tentatively approving her asylum claim in June.

With her lawyers from the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, Carlota says, "I didn't feel alone anymore. I felt more confident. They were working on my case and they won the case, thanks to God."

Brockway, who represented Carlota, says immigration lawyers often work in tandem with mental health workers who visit with detainees to conduct interviews that gauge for trauma and other psychological conditions. The results can bolster a person's "credible fear" claim—a key hurdle in asylum cases.

On June 8, Albuquerque-based child psychiatrist Shawn Sidhu held a training at the University of New Mexico for mental health workers interested in administering to detainees at Cibola. To his surprise, 70 people showed up, and in a few weeks a dozen volunteers were ready to begin visits under his direction.

"But that's when the phone stuff started happening," blunting the team's momentum, Sidhu tells SFR.

Both CoreCivic and ICE maintain that legal and mental health volunteers can obtain their own translation help, but Sidhu says they need the precision of a professional service.

"The amount of detail we need, asking who persecuted them, and also discussing feelings and emotions, those are higher language [concepts]," Sidhu says. "You basically can't do the work without a specialized interpreter."

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