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ICE quietly relaxes ban on using stun guns on jailed detainees

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Struck by a Taser
Salaad Mahamed shows where one of the Taser probes struck him in the hand while being detained at the Sherburne County Jail. The other probe hit him on his right testicle, delivering 50,000 volts of current. Mahamed said he thought the jail staff were trying to kill him.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

When a Sherburne County Sheriff's deputy used a stun gun on a detained immigrant in 2007, he did not break jail rules. But the deputy appeared to violate standards set by the federal immigration officials for the treatment of detainees.

Last year, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency gave the Sherburne County Jail a deficient rating because of its use of stun guns on immigration detainees. ICE banned use of the device in 2003 due to safety concerns.

Despite the violation, the agency, which pays Sherburne County millions a year to house its detainees, kept sending them there.

Since then, ICE has dropped its objections to Tasers. Instead, the agency quietly relaxed its policy against the use of stun guns on detainees, and retroactively changed the deficient jail rating to "acceptable."

That's difficult to take for Salaad Mahamed, the immigrant whom the deputy shot with a stun gun. Mahamed describes the seven months he spent in the Sherburne County jail, as a pre-trial immigration detainee in 2007 and 2008, as a nightmare.

 It began when Mahamed argued with a guard who refused to change the TV channel. Mahamed was sent back to lockdown, where he had been spending 23 hours a day for a previous punishment. He was ordered onto the floor of his locked cell.

Sgt. Steve Pedersen, the on-duty supervisor, was called to the scene and tried to handcuff Mahamed and move him to another part of the jail to quell the disturbance. Pedersen entered Mahamed's cell and shot him with a stun gun. One of its projectiles landed in Mahamed's hand and the other on his right testicle, delivering 50,000 volts of current.

Mahamed, 46, thought jailers were trying to kill him.

"The original policy of ICE not to use any Tasers on any of their prisoners proved, obviously, to be very problematic,"

"I felt like all my five organs -- the brain, heart, kidney and liver -- all of them was shake," he said. "And while I was being shaking, he was over 300 pounds come jumping on me, with three other people when they see me. I was defenseless and just shaking."

Mahamed, a Somali immigrant who sought political asylum in the United States in 1997, was picked up on an apparent immigration violation 10 years later.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement doesn't have its own detention center in Minnesota so officials sent him to the Sherburne County Jail in Elk River. It's one of five county jails in Minnesota where ICE rents bed space for its detainees.

Mahamed, of Minneapolis, said because of the incident he suffers from incontinence, impotence, mental trauma and blackouts. He filed suit against Sherburne County Sheriff Bruce Anderson, Pedersen, and another officer, alleging that they violated his constitutional rights. A federal judge dismissed all of the claims except one against Pedersen, for excessive use of force.

Pedersen is appealing the ruling. Greg Wiley, general counsel for the Sherburne County sheriff's office, said the officer did not intend for the stun gun's projectile to strike Mahamed where it did, but the county defends Pedersen's use of force.

"In the view of the county, our investigation of the incident, he acted appropriately," Wiley said.

Sherburne County Jail has a good record in the treatment of its inmates and detainees, he said.

Salaad Mahamed
Salaad Mahamed is a Somali immigrant who, while being held at the Sherburne County Jail for an immigration violation, was Tased by guards. Mahamed says because of the incident he suffers from incontinence, impotence, mental trauma and blackouts.
MPR Photo/Sasha Aslanian

"We are inspected by the federal government pursuant to contacts, we are inspected by the Department of Corrections pursuant to contracts, our policies and procedures have passed muster every time," Wiley said.

That wasn't the case in 2009, when ICE gave Sherburne County the deficient rating "due to the use of Electro Muscular Distruption Devices," commonly known as stun guns, or Tasers.

Sherburne County received more detainees from ICE that year than any other jail in Minnesota. The agency rented space for more than 6,000. At $80 a bed per night, the county made almost $4 million last year from the federal government.

On its website, Sherburne County notes that the money it receives from the federal government reduces the cost of law enforcement to the county and its residents.

The Freeborn County Jail also received a deficient rating last year because of Tasers. Ramsey, Carver and Nobles counties received ratings of "acceptable," although all three jails also authorize their jail staff to carry Tasers.

But there's no indication of any consequences for a jail that used them.

Federal immigration officials in Washington sent the deficient memos to ICE Field Office Director Scott Baniecke in Bloomington. They directed him to work with the failing jails, and within 30 days submit a plan of action to correct problems.

Baniecke declined to comment.

When asked if they took any action to improve their failing grades, jail administrators in Sherburne and Freeborn counties said no.

"It's a deficiency we are willing to take," Freeborn County Jail Administrator Marcellino Pena said. "We won't take Tasers off the floor. It's a safety issue for our staff." 

He added that Freeborn has never had to use a stun gun on a detainee. 

Sherburne County Sheriff Joel Brott, who runs the jail where Mahamed was detained, said Baniecke informed him that in October 2009, ICE changed its internal policy regarding the ratings it issued because of stun gun use in jails. 

At the time, all previously provided deficient ratings that facilities received because jail personnel had used stun guns were retroactively changed back to the original ratings that they received. ICE determined that stun gun use was not a "life safety issue," Brott said.

When asked about the change in policy, ICE spokeswoman Gillian Brigham in Washington said in a statement that, "It is agency practice to discourage the use of Electro-Muscular Disruption Devices commonly known at Tasers at local facilities that house ICE detainees.

"However, a facility's relationship with ICE is not adversely affected if Tasers are part of their official Use of Force policy, and their officers have been properly trained to handle the equipment," she said.

The agency's shift from not allowing jails to use stun guns on detainees to discouraging them may have been influenced by law enforcement running the jails.

Jim Franklin, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association, said having different rules for civil detainees and jail inmates living under the same roof is unfair.

"The original policy of ICE not to use any Tasers on any of their prisoners proved, obviously, to be very problematic," Franklin said. "There has been a number of discussions with the ICE people, and they have since changed their policy from it's not being allowed to be used to it's discouraged, or it's used as sort of a last resort, which is pretty much consistent with the policy we have." 

ICE directly informed jails of the policy change, without public notice. Human rights groups were unaware of the change.

Helen Harnett, director of policy for the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago, which monitors detainee treatment, said she was shocked by the change.

"It's a radical shift. I think the reason it's so surprising is Secretary Napolitano and ICE assistant secretary John Morton announced a series of changes," Harnett said. "They called it 'an overhaul to the immigration system to make it truly civil,' and there's a lot of staff at ICE national working on this change right now.

"And as part of that reform effort they say 'there needs to be a culture change' just at the ground level in these facilities. This shift in policy on Tasers just completely contradicts all that work that they've been doing."

Harnett said she hopes Mahamed's experience was an isolated event. A recent national survey her organization did of detention conditions did not find any other complaints about stun guns. But as most detainee grievances are handled by jails, she wonders if anyone would know.

TIMELINE: TASER TROUBLE  

Dec. 10, 2003 - Federal Immigration and Naturalization Service rejects Tasers after a Customs officer is injured in training session and sues. 

May 16, 2007 - Salaad Mahamed transferred by ICE to Sherburne County Jail after being picked up in North Dakota for immigration violation.

Oct. 20, 2007 - Sgt. Steve Pedersen uses a Taser to gain control of Salaad Mahamed in his cell after a disagreement with a guard who refused to turn the TV station.

Dec. 12, 2007 - Salaad Mahamed sues, claiming excessive force due to his race, a violation of his civil rights.

Jan. 31, 2008 - Mahamed released from custody.

Nov. 4-6, 2008 - Sherburne County Jail undergoes routine evaluation by ICE. One Taser incident noted from previous calendar year.

Feb. 27, 2009 - Different Sherburne County detainee alleges he's being denied medical care. This is the only inmate complaint that turns up in MPR's information request to ICE.

March 30, 2009 - District Court Judge allows Mahamed's use of force case to proceed. 

Aug. 6, 2009 - Immigration and Customs Enforcement announces major reforms to immigrant detention system over next several years.

Aug. 19, 2009 - Sherburne County receives "deficient" rating from ICE due to use of Electro Muscular Distruption Devices, or stun guns.

Oct. 23, 2009 - ICE reverses policy on Tasers and retroactively gives "acceptable" ratings to jails previously marked deficient.

May 11, 2010 - 8th Circuit Court of Appeals hears Mahamed v. Pedersen.