Several men held in police custody in San Diego said that on a recent morning, a staff member at the facility walked into their cells unannounced to give them a lewd look.

Four men, all of whom are in the same accommodation, filed formal complaints and shared information about the March 22 incident with the San Diego Union-Tribune, either directly or through phone call recordings passed by lawyers. They said others had also experienced the behavior but were afraid to come forward for fear of retaliation.

“I’m traumatized,” said Erik Mercado, “I feel like I could be victimized again at any time.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the government agency responsible for detaining migrants, did not respond to a request for comment.

CoreCivic, the private prison company that owns and operates the facility and employs the staff member in question, said it was aware of the allegations and the situation was being “thoroughly investigated”. Spokesman Matthew Davio said allegations of criminal sexual abuse at CoreCivic facilities are always reported to outside law enforcement.

“CoreCivic is committed to the safety and dignity of every person in our care,” Davio said. “We have a zero tolerance policy for all forms of sexual abuse and sexual harassment.”

Mercado, who has been in the facility for more than two years, said he was lying in bed on Tuesday morning wearing only his boxers because it was hot in his cell when a CoreCivic employee opened the door. door without knocking. Mercado said he turned his head and realized the employee was staring at his butt.

“I said, ‘Hey man, what are you doing here? ‘” recalls Mercado. “He said, ‘I’m looking for something big.’ It made me more uncomfortable. I said, ‘What’s the (expletive)?’ And I sat down.

Mercado said the employee looked at his body and had an erection. Mercado told him to leave, Mercado said, and the employee said he was looking for a 5-gallon bucket before exiting the cell.

“It’s quite disturbing for me to go through that again,” Mercado said.

Mercado immediately got dressed, he said. When he entered the common area, he saw that the employee was still going in and out of the cells. Mercado went to see a case manager at the unit office and told him what had happened.

At first the case manager accused him of lying, he said, although he was eventually able to report. CoreCivic took issue with her characterization of the case manager’s behavior, noting that she reported the inmates’ claims.

Meanwhile, other men had emerged from their cells complaining of similar experiences.

Among them was Elenilson Coto Delgado, who said he was also only wearing his boxers when the employee opened his cell door without knocking.

“He was looking at my penis,” Coto said in Spanish. “I had him covered, but I could tell what he was looking at. I said, ‘What’s going on?’ “

He remembers the employee’s response in English: “I’m looking at something good”.

Coto said that when he protested the employee’s presence, the staff member looked nervous. Then the employee said he was looking for a bucket.

Coto, who has serious mental health issues, said the experience made her symptoms worse.

“I can’t even sleep. I think he might come into my cell,” Coto said. “I’m starting to think about how someone could abuse my children as well as this person tried to abuse me. It’s not just what we’re going through here in this prison. We’re inmates, we’re immigrants. , but it’s not fair that these people want to mistreat us.

“We are fed up with all of this,” he added. “That’s why we complain. We want people to know about the mistreatment we receive here.

Amanda Díaz, head of the national hotline for Freedom For Immigrants, a nonprofit working to end immigration detention, said the organization frequently receives calls about allegations of sexual abuse. Mercado, Coto and two other men shared what happened to them at the organization via the hotline.

“Sexual abuse ranging from verbal harassment to the extremes of rape is rampant, and it is often covered up by perpetrators,” Díaz said. “ICE operates under a veil of secrecy, and that leaves virtually no avenue of justice for those who have been wronged.”