Federal judge allows lawsuit alleging mistreatment of ICE detainees in McHenry County jail to move forward

The McHenry County Correctional Facility and the Michael J. Sullivan Judicial Center are seen on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2021, in Woodstock.

A federal judge ruled that a lawsuit filed last year by former federal immigration detainees held at the McHenry County Jail can move forward.

The lawsuit, filed by former Immigration and Custom Enforcement detainees, alleges they were threatened by McHenry County Jail employees to be put in the “hole,” “suffer serious harm” or be deported if they did not perform “janitorial labor.”

“Plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged that defendants obtained (their) labor or services through prohibited means,” Judge Iain D. Johnston said in his 13-page opinion earlier this month.

“Threatening to deport a detainee to obtain proper janitorial labor is plausibly a threatened abuse of law or legal process, let alone the infliction of serious psychological harm sufficient to cause a reasonable person to perform the requested labor or services,” Johnston said in the opinion.

The violations are alleged to have been made under the federal Trafficking Victims Protections Act, which in part, protects people from being exploited by being forced, defrauded or coerced into “compelled labor,” according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ National Human Trafficking Training and Tactical Assistance Network.

Johnston also denied the county’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Jay Kumar, the attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of six former ICE detainees, said Tuesday.

The former detainees listed as plaintiffs are Aleksey Ruderman, Jason Clarke, Jahat Evelyn, Basaru Asolo, James Forero and Chris Pocknell.

The ruling assumes the facts in the complaint are true and allows the lawsuit to move forward, he said.

The former inmates, who were in custody at various times between 2015 and 2021, said they were forced to clean showers, toilets and the gym for free or face punishment that included being locked in their cells or solitary confinement, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, filed in the spring of 2022, names McHenry County, the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office, former Sheriff Bill Prim and four individuals who oversaw the jail and enforced its rules requiring the alleged “forced labor.”

They are seeking class-action status and asking for at least $5 million in damages for current and past detainees, according to the lawsuit.

McHenry County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Emily Matusik said Tuesday the office could not comment on pending litigation. She said the office is being represented by the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s office in the litigation.

The jail no longer holds ICE detainees after the Illinois Way Forward Act banned counties from contracting with the federal government to house immigration detainees. However, between 2016 and 2020, the jail held an average of 240 civil immigration detainees per day. The county received $95 per day per detainee. In that time the county earned $41 million in revenue, the lawsuit states.

The next steps in the lawsuit involve a factual investigation, depositions of inmates, jail guards, officials and other witnesses, and eventually a jury trial at the federal courthouse in Rockford.

“We believe there are human rights abuses going on at many detention centers where inmates are forced to perform labor against their will,” Kumar said.

The McHenry County lawsuit is “part of a growing trend of suing detention centers around the U.S.,” he said.

However, those other lawsuits are against “for-profit jails“ that partner with private contractors, he said.

The McHenry County lawsuit is the first of its kind filed against a county jail that has no private interests, said Kumar and Jacqueline Stevens, a political science professor and the founding director of the deportation research clinic at Northwestern University in Evanston.

Stevens said lawsuits have been initiated in various states since 2014 against privately owned jails based on her research and records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act characterizing work programs in ICE-contracted facilities across the county.

ICE detainees are people, suspected of being in the country illegally, being held in “civil detention,” she said. These detainees are to be treated “differently under” the Trafficking Victims Protections Act than those being held criminally, she said.

“It is illegal to force those being held civilly into labor,” she said.

“Even though this is a county jail and the others sued have been private, the problem is they are both organizations that are used to keeping prisoners in custody and they are using the same protocol to obtain their labor used for those who are held criminally ... and that’s illegal.”

Kumar said the McHenry County lawsuit seeks “compensation for the detainees who were forced or punished to perform labor against their will and were not paid anything. This case is part of a movement to protect the civil rights of detained immigrants.”

When the county filed its lawsuit to dismiss, it said it has “qualified immunity” and cannot be held liable under Trafficking Victims Protections Act, which the judge denied.

The county and sheriff’s office argued the act “allows governments to require that detainees, mental hospital patients, and prisoners perform basic housekeeping chores without pay.”

Their motion further states that they did not violate the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, because “duties which are owed to the state” are insulated from the 13th Amendment prohibitions.

That means, the county argued, detainees may be required to “perform simple housekeeping tasks in his or her own cell and community areas.”

“At this time, the court cannot determine whether federal or state immunities apply,” Johnston wrote in his ruling denying the county’s motion for dismissal.

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