Jesús Lorenzo Ávila walked into the visiting room with his hands cuffed behind him. A warden brought him in so we could speak through a thick glass panel. He gets close to the round, metallic grid that allows us to have a conversation. There is a slight opening in the glass, large enough to pass a paper through. There is also an area where he can rest his interlocked hands. Marks on his wrists, left by the handcuffs, peak underneath his denim jacket.
It’s Friday. For Catholics like him, it’s Good Friday. He didn’t realize because he is “locked up.” Ávila is doubly punished. Besides being detained at New Mexico’s Otero County’s processing center, he's in a tiny isolation cell, restricted from going to the yard or bathing, among other things.
This is Jesús Ávila’s isolation story at ICE detention centers:
His testimony is part of “Solitary Voices,” a collaborative project coordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and The Intercept. Seven media outlets are part of the project, including Univision News.
Using data collected from ICE through official channels, ICIJ created a database which revealed that more than 8,000 solitary confinement incidents like Ávila’s were registered between 2012 and 2017. In more than 5,000 cases, people spent more than 15 days in isolation. The victims, and some civil rights experts, consider it a torture.
What does the data say?
Jesús Ávila identifies himself as bisexual. Therefore, he prefers to be with the center’s LGBT community. He alleges that being bisexual and speaking up for himself, defending his rights, has made him enemies among the wardens. “They are taking it out on me. I have been at the SHU way too long. I try to remain calm, but the truth is I’m very sad. Desperate. I can’t go back to Mexico; I’m threatened there.”
Even in solitary confinement, he can make phone calls. If there is money in his account, he can talk to family members, to his wife Lisbeth, who is in Mexico, and to his lawyer Imelda. Most often, though, he talks to Margareth Brown, a volunteer activist from Avid, a nonprofit organization. She visits him, looks out for his mental health and makes sure he has everything he needs.
“I’m very worried about him being in solitary confinement again. I try to keep his spirits up, but I feel he’s not doing well. It’s terrible, what he’s going through,” she says over the phone.
Ávila’s right eye is still blotchy. "It’s getting better. At least I can open it. When I got beaten, I was very scared that I couldn’t open my eyes; I didn’t see. Now I don’t sleep well. I can’t. I bite my nails off, which I didn’t use to do before. Also, there’s a new thing I do: I grind my teeth, moving my mandible from side to side. I have anxiety attacks.”
Visiting day was his fifth day in the new solitary confinement punishment. He was becoming more desperate as days went by, which was noticeable during phone calls. “Hey, today is May 13. I’m supposed to get out of here, but no one has shown up. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. They left me here, in the SHU.”
Official records show that he has complained to the center’s authorities in writing. “I’m afraid to die,” he has told them. He wants justice. He has asked them to investigate the incidents that landed him in solitary, but he only receives negative replies to his claims, such as: “You don’t qualify for parole.” There’s another detail: he doesn’t speak English. While he writes the complaints in Spanish, the replies come back in a different language. “And I don’t understand.”
Ávila has evidence of each complaint he has made, of the medical records of the day he was beaten and of the forms instructing his punishments. He also affirms that he signed a document allowing ICE to give information about his case.
However, when approached about this detainee, ICE declined to reply, “because he refused to sign the document that allows us to reveal information about his case.”
ICE officers also explained in writing that the agency issued a directive in 2013—“Review of the Use of Segregation for ICE detainees”—, which requires the agency to inform, review and supervise each decision to place detainees in SHUs for more than 14 days. It also requires immediate notification and review if there are major concerns about the detainee’s health or other issues.
ICE argues that according to its records, only 0.5% of the detainees under its custody were in solitary confinement since 2015. It remained as such until 2018, when it dropped to 0.4%.
“Are you afraid of further retaliation against you, and more punishments, when this goes public?” we asked Ávila at the end of the interview.
“I’m not afraid. Nothing can be worse than this isolation and what happened to me in El Paso. I want people to know that civil rights are being violated here.”
As we were closing the writing of this piece, on Tuesday 22nd, Ávila called. “I’m still at the SHU.”
'Solitary Voices' is a journalistic project coordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and The Intercept, in which participated: Univision and NBC (in the United States), Grupo SIN (Dominican Republic), Mexicans Against Corruption (Mexico) and Public Square (Guatemala).