Guest Commentary: Riot at GEO Group’s El Centro Detention Facility Leads to Facility-Wide Lockdown

Security Lapses at San Luis Detention Center Create Dangerous Conditions for Detainees and Staff

By  Malik Washington

On Thursday, February 21, 2024 at approximately 1:15 pm, I witness the first of many pre-planned violent attacks.  The initial incident took place on the Recreation Yard (Rec Yard) at the El Centro Detention Facility in El Centro, California.  Detainees from Housing Unit Bravo West were playing soccer and then it was as if a light switch flicked on and mass pandemonium broke out between two groups on the Rec Yard.

Customarily, members that belong to the Sureños and Pesos live with one another in peace.  The mantra most prisons follow here and in many other locations is respect how to respect.  But something changed drastically that afternoon.  I and many others housed in Unit Alpha South had an unobstructed view of the violence which unfolded on the soccer field.  Within the first 30 seconds, correctional officers and medical personnel began to arrive at the scene which was evolving into a full-scale riot.

What appeared to trigger the next wave of violent attacks was the announcement of a “code yellow” on the radio that guards carry.  A “code yellow” means an incident is occurring and it demands the attention of all available officers.  Within one minute of the broadcast, officers were running from the Rec Yard to Mike Unit where another fight broke out.  Then another breakout of violence on Nancy Unit.  The scene was chaotic.  It became apparent that these were not just random incidents, but part of a well-orchestrated and timed attack meant to send a clear message.

From the window in my unit, I saw detainees on the Rec Yard being zip tied with plastic cuffs.  I saw medical staff assessing the injuries of both detainees and staff.  I observed one older Mexican detainee whose clothes were covered with blood.  Some of the officers I spoke with said no weapons were used by detainees during the riot. But GEO employees are not known to be the most transparent individuals when it comes to incidents like this. The head warden at El Centro Detention Facility is Warden Semaya.  Mr. Semaya placed the entire unit on full institutional lockdown.  That meant absolutely no privileges whatsoever; no phone use, no access to tablets, no video visits, no TV, no movement except for the bathroom, the shower, or medical.  Imagine having a loved one housed inside this facility and then being abruptly cut off from them with no explanation.

Luckily, I was able to send a brief text to my partner and colleague, Gale Sanders Washington, just minutes before tablet access was discontinued.  During the initial investigation in lockdown phase, four detainees, including myself, were cleared by medical in order to work in the kitchen.  That job assignment in the kitchen lasted one day.  An officer who wished to remain anonymous told me that when Warden Semaya heard that I was working in the kitchen, he sent out a memo instructing staff that he did not want any detainee from Alpha South working in the kitchen.  Previously, there had been some disturbances among the inmate population when a detainee from Alpha South worked in the kitchen, so it had become advisable that we not work in the kitchen; it was a security issue.

Detainees housed on my unit are routinely subjected to some form of punitive or retaliatory treatment by Warden Semaya.  What was remarkable here was that our unit was one of the only units where no detainee violence erupted.  Nevertheless, group punishment has been a hallmark of Warden Semaya’s management style.  All prison administrators have a unique management style.

It is noteworthy to mention that on February 26, 2024 at approximately 1:00 pm, a meeting was held among El Centro Detention Facility administrators and the U.S. Marshal Service. It was determined after this meeting that the housing units at El Centro that did not participate or engage in violence would be rewarded by having their privileges restored.  At approximately 3:00 pm on 2/26/24, privileges were restored to Units Alpha North (women detainees) and Alpha South (men detainees).

The GEO El Centro facility was on a modified lockdown until February 29, 2024.

Then on February 29, 2024, normal operations and privileges were restored for the entire population.  Conditions are peaceful and we hope they stay that way.

Ironically, a few days before this outbreak of violence, representatives from the U.S. Marshals Service conducted an intense and thorough security audit of the El Centro Detention Facility.  GEO Group’s El Centro Detention Facility located in El Centro, California represents GEO’s most lucrative contract facility in California.  GEO Group receives approximately $2.7 million monthly to house ICE and Federal pre-trial detainees for the U.S. Marshal Service.  At the very least, the community of Imperial County should demand integrity and ethical behavior from Warden Semaya and his Classification Department

Coincidentally, one of the detainees who was targeted alongside me in December 2023 with a punitive transfer just arrived back to El Centro from San Luis Detention Center in San Luis, Arizona.  Some of you may remember Ricardo Flores who hails from Brawley, California.

Ricardo had this to say about his time at San Luis Detention Center and his return to El Centro Detention Facility and I quote: “First and foremost, I thank my God Jehovah to be alive and to be back in El Centro, California.  My near two-month stay at San Luis Detention Center in Arizona was a nightmare.  Violence erupted at least five times inside the dorm I was housed in.  There are no security cameras inside any of the dorms; a person could be killed at San Luis and not be discovered for hours, perhaps even a day.  Detainees sharpen metal blades all day on the floor and the guards are oblivious and ignorant to the risk.  While housed at San Luis, I never received a clean white t-shirt or underwear; all detainees’ clothing was yellow, brown, soiled, and smelled badly.  It was a privilege to get more than one soap per week at San Luis.  It was like a third-world country inside San Luis Detention Center. Every day detainees pray to be sent to the El Centro Detention Facility. I thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for bringing me back close to my family.  I just hope and pray that I am never subjected to any more retaliation for speaking up about my rights and needs. Thank you for your time.”

Inmate-on-inmate violence is a regular occurrence inside American jails and prisons.  However, there are security lapses inside San Luis Detention Center that must not be ignored.  The conditions produced are dangerous.  Detainees at San Luis Detention Center have been known to impersonate officers by pushing the intercom and emergency button, then once they gain access to the housing pod or rec yard, they focus on attacking their targeted victims.

Our independent, nonprofit news organization has been in direct contact with Theo Anderson, the U.S. Marshals’ Supervisor in charge of detention centers in this area. We have conveyed information to him about the conditions inside these detention centers.  We ask other members of the journalism and activist community to contact Mr. Anderson as well as members of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division and request a thorough and fact-finding investigation regarding the accusations contained in this article.  Moreover, we are pleading with the US Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division to take a closer look at a custom, policy, and pattern of practice exhibited by Warden Semaya and his staff at El Centro Detention Center which seek to intimidate, threaten, or retaliate against detainees and staff members who may be viewed as truthtellers or whistleblowers.  We will continue to keep the public abreast of information as it avails itself.

There is a culture of retaliation against detainees and employees at the GEO Group El Centro Detention Facility.  Although Malik and Ricardo Flores have been returned to El Centro after a punitive transfer to San Luis, the culture of retaliation still exists and should be thoroughly investigated by the US DOJ. WE WANT TO MAKE OURSELVES ABSOLUTELY CLEAR HERE.  MALIK IS NOT JUST BLOWING HOT AIR.  THERE ARE SOME SYSTEMIC PROBLEMS THAT NEED TO BE ADDDRESSED.

Malik Washington is a free-lance journalist and staff writer for Destination Freedom and Destination Freedom Media Group.  He is a co-founder of the SRJ Freedom Collective.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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