04/03/2009 06:53 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Lawsuit: ICE isolates immigrants in unsanitary basement jail

No drinking water, changes of clothing, soap or shower - those are the conditions inside a Los Angeles jail for immigrants that prompted the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California to sue the federal government. Detainees also lack access to mail and attorneys.

The facility is designed to detain immigrants for 12 hours or less, but the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency uses it to house immigrants for several weeks. The jail, known as B-18, is located in a basement.

"The facility fails on every level to house detainees in a way that comports with basic notions of dignity," said Karen Tumlin, a staff attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, part of a team that filed the lawsuit this week.

The suit alleges officials found a loophole that allows them to keep immigrants at the facility longer than intended by shuttling inmates to jails in the local area, where they stay overnight and on weekends. "The next morning, authorities shuttle the detainees back to B-18 to begin the cycle all over again," according to the complaint.

Advocates argue the government also fails to notify detainees who qualify for release on bond. They call for the facility to provide inmates with adequate access to law libraries, writing materials, phones and up to date list of low-cost or free legal service providers.

One of the detainees cited in the lawsuit, 52-year old Mexican immigrant Abelardo Chavez Flores, was kept at B-18 for six weeks. He said had to sleep on the floor many nights and at one point went for two weeks without being able to brush his teeth. Even after a volunteer attorney assisted him in preparing his immigration appeal, officials denied him use of the mail.

Download a copy of the complaint here (PDF).

For more on immigrant detention, see