A 2010 image of a man being held in an Arizona immigration detention center.
A 2010 image of a man being held in an Arizona immigration detention center. JOHN MOORE / GETTY IMAGES

It's now been over a month since 121 immigrant men were separated from their families at the Mexico-US border, handcuffed, and shuttled to a federal prison in Sheridan, Oregon. The men represent 16 different countries and speak a combined 13 different languages. The majority of the detainees are seeking asylum from their country of origin, where they faced gang violence or religious persecution.

But the timing of their immigration—in the midst of the Trump administration's criminalization of any undocumented immigrant entering the US—couldn't have been worse. Because of Donald Trump's sweeping decision to detain each and every undocumented immigrant, the country's prison-like detention centers designated for immigrants ran out of space, leaving at least 1,600 immigrants to be divvied up between five actual prisons across the US, including Sheridan Federal Correctional Institution (FCI).

For the first weeks of their incarceration, no detainees were allowed access to a lawyer, make a phone call, read legal documents in their language, or have time outside their cramped cell for more than two hours—all legally-mandated requirements for detained immigrants in the US. While a federal judge ordered the prison to allow lawyers with a pro-bono group called Immigration Law Lab (ILL) inside Sheridan FCI on June 25, detainees are still lacking basic rights, like the ability to call their families or practice their religions. But the disregard goes beyond just legal rights violations.

"Here we have come to save our lives, but I think we will die here in jail.”

New court documents filed this week by federal public defenders who've met with the detainees (and first reported on by OPB) have revealed just how damaging the months of incarceration has been to the immigrants' mental health.

"We felt as if we are stuck on an island in sea and we cannot tell and ask anything from anyone. Sometimes I cried but no one listened," wrote one unidentified detainee in a statement shared by William Teesdale, chief investigator with the Federal Public Defender’s Office. "We are getting crazy by the way we [are] kept locked. Sometimes I feel like dying. It felt like everything is over and I should commit suicide. I [am] very sad. I have lost all hopes getting out of here."

Teesdale's 30-page declaration, describing his experience speaking with detainees inside the prison in June, accompanies five habeas corpus petitions (reports from people who believe they are being illegally detained) filed on behalf of five Sheridan FCI detainees by the public defender's office. For most Sheridan detainees, the public defenders were the first people advocating for their rights since being picked up at the border.

"Staff observed signs of depression, anxiety, terror, stress and despair among the detainees," Teesdale writes. Some of the immigrant men cried in their meeting with Teesdale, he notes.

The men have faced a number of mentally traumatic experiences at Sheridan FCI, like being regularly strip searched in front of other detainees, held in the same building as convicted felons, forced to remove religious headscarves, and kept in a three-person cell with an open toilet for up to 22 hours a day.

"We feel we are in hell," writes a detainee.

"I am so afraid being here," writes another. "I am very distraught. I have been crying and crying."

The entrance to the rural Sheridan prison.
The entrance to the rural Sheridan prison. Alex Zielinski

One man describes life inside the cell with his fellow detainees: "[We are] lying on the bed the whole day... and remembering old days... we would feel like crying, we are dying day by day inside here."

Federal Public Defender Lisa Hay included a letter she sent to Sheridan FCI Warden Josias Salazar in the newly submitted court files, in which she raises concerns about suicide attempts in the facility.

"Descriptions of a recent apparent suicide attempt by a detainee have reached our office," Hay writes. "Both those who witnessed the incident and those who heard of it have expressed great distress."

According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention standards, staff are required to conduct a mental health evaluation of each detainee within 12 hours of arriving to a detention center. Hay isn't convinced those evaluations took place.

"Reports we receive from detainees cause us to question whether these procedures have been followed. We ask that you provide immediate attention to suicide prevention and counseling for those who are experiencing trauma from witnessing the attempted suicide," Hay writes. Despite sending three letters to Salazar with these concerns, Hay has yet to receive a response.

"I feel bad. I get depressed. I have thought about taking my life because I had never been locked up," writes a detainee in Teesdale's court filing.

"Our condition in our country was not good. We heard that we would be safe in USA but the situation was different. So please evacuate me from this place."

"I have problems with depression and my mind is always racing. I have to cry into my pillow. I have suicidal thoughts but then I think about my family," writes another.

Many detainees exhibiting flu-like symptoms or allergic reactions told Teesdale that they hadn't been offered medical care since entering Sheridan FCI. "Detainees reported trying to tell the prison guards about their medical concerns, but being unable to communicate adequately in English," Teesdale writes. A number of men whose religious practices include a vegetarian diet say they have been "starving" without vegetarian options inside the prison. Teesdale notes that issues has just recently been improved.

The longer some detainees are held at Sheridan waiting for their asylum case to be heard by a judge, the more eager they seem to return to the country they fled. The US, they say, is not what they had expected. Perhaps that was the Trump administration's intention from the beginning.

"Our condition in our country was not good. We heard that we would be safe in USA but the situation was different. So please evacuate me from this place," writes one detainee.

"Here we have come to save our lives, but I think we will die here in jail.”