A delegation of Latino elected officials from Chicago traveled to Kankakee on Tuesday demanding to see conditions inside the Jerome Combs Detention Center.
U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia; Illinois state representatives Lisa Hernandez, Aaron Ortiz and Celina Villanueva; and Cook County Commissioner Alma Anaya made a surprise visit to the detention center in response to a series of complaints made by immigrants being held here and documented by advocates.
“We had received complaints from immigrant advocates, from detainees and families about the conditions here,” Garcia said.
He said the surprise visit was organized because the lawmakers wanted to see the real conditions inside the detention center. Garcia said they didn’t want to see a “sanitized” version.
Kankakee County Sheriff Mike Downey led the lawmakers on a guided tour of the facility. The Kankakee sheriff's office runs the detention center under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Downey said there were 130 immigrant detainees at the facility, but there’s capacity for up to 208. He said the average stay for an immigrant there is about 23 days and that ICE reimburses the county $90 per day, per detainee.
“I’m proud of our operation,” Downey said. “Our staff does a great job. We treat people like you wanna be treated, and that goes a long way.”
But the lawmakers were appalled by what they witnessed.
Hernandez said it was difficult to see immigrants being detained like criminals.
“For me, it was very disturbing to see that you have people who have the slightest infraction, let’s say a [broken] tail light and stopped and land in a detention center because of documentation,” Hernandez said.
Villanueva said entering the country illegally is a civil offense, not a criminal one. She called this type of detention a “systemic” issue that is harming Latino communities.
“It’s important to understand the trauma this is causing our communities,” Villanueva said. “To have people sitting in jail because of their immigration status and being caught up for very minor infractions and landing up in jail where they don’t see the sunlight or know what time it is.”
During the tour, WBEZ was allowed to visit two units inside the detention center. The units, labeled “low classification” by ICE, housed 48 men wearing orange jumpsuits facing deportation. They sat in their beds. There were a couple of phones, a video telephone and several TVs inside the units. The men are allowed some recreation time inside an enclosed basketball court.
Tuesday’s surprise visit was prompted by five-page list of complaints reported by immigrant detainees and immigration advocates. Among the complaints were racist comments by guards, unwarranted solitary confinement and a lack of access to medical care, the law library and religious accommodations. There was at least one unit in the jail has been without air conditioning for at least two months.
One of the complaints focused on inadequate access to health care. There is only one nurse and requests for routine health concerns and even emergencies are often delayed, detained immigrants told advocates.
Detained immigrants who require prescriptions, including antidepressants, are being denied their requests, the complaint said.
In a previous letter to acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin K. McAleenan, Garcia, along with fellow U.S. Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Mike Quigley, noted complaints about the lack of sufficient health care at the Jerome Combs Detention Center.
“Observers at the Kankakee facility report that individuals transferred to the Kankakee facility were denied medication upon transfer, despite their prior facility filling their prescription,” the letter stated.
On Tuesday, García was allowed to meet with two detained immigrants who lived in his district. One of them is a 32-year-old African immigrant who is married to a U.S. citizen and has two children. The other is a 53-year-old man who lost his legal permanent residency following a DUI conviction.
Garcia said he spent most of the time with the men talking about their immigration cases and not the conditions at the detention center.
The delegation vowed to go back to the detention center.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed failed suicide attempts to a 32-year-old immigrant.
María Ines Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ's Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her