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GAO Audit: Alien Detention Facilities Suffer Continuing Deficiencies

by John E. Dannenberg

An often overlooked segment of the nation's prison population, alien detainees, was the subject of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit between May 2006 and May 2007. While the largest problem noted was limited access to free telephones to call attorneys and consulates, numerous other deficiencies were found pervasive.

The number of illegal aliens in the United States was estimated in 2006 at 12 million. The total number per year spending some time in alien detention grew to 286,000 by 2006, with available bed space at around 27,500. As of December 31, 2006, 27,607 aliens were in detention.
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) budgeted $953 million for detention services for fiscal year 2007. National detention standards apply to the 330 adult and three family facilities used to house detainees. The instant audit reviewed 23 facilities to see how well standards were adhered to, whether ICE's internal compliance reviews were effective and what complaints surfaced in the outside world regarding detainees. Of 35 national detention standards, eight were selected for audit. These included telephone access, medical care, holding room procedures, use of force, food service, recreation, access to legal materials and grievance procedures.

The most persistent problem was inadequate access to pro bono telephones, which occurred at 16 of the 17 facilities that provide this service, where attempts to use the service to make calls were rendered ineffective due to technical deficiencies. At one facility, the list of consulate phone numbers was six years old. Of 30 such numbers tried, nine were incorrect. Although phone contractors reported on outages in their monthly reports, ICE claimed that they were unaware of any problems. ICE laid this oversight to understaffing and personnel turnover. However, ICE's Detention Inspection Worksheet, an internal review document, did not cover inability to complete phone calls. Where the auditors reported such problems at 16 facilities, ICE's contractor reports showed only five.

Additionally, cumbersome procedures thwarted phone use. In some facilities, eight separate operations were required to be input on the phones to complete a connection. For many non English speaking foreigners with little or no education, this often proved insurmountable. Even the requirement to enter Alien Registration Numbers caused confusion. Indeed, the auditors, when following posted procedures, were frequently blocked from executing attempted calls. The overall success rate in completing calls averaged around 60%, with a low of 35% and a high of 73%.

Other deficiencies included food service (three facilities), holding room problems (three facilities) and use of force (four facilities). Housing exceeded rated capacity at four of 23 facilities. The internal grievance system revealed that most complaints revolved around medical problems. In one period, where 409 grievances were received, only seven had been resolved. The three medical problems included failure to conduct the 14-day intake physical exam for 260 detainees at a San Diego, CA facility, failure to conduct intake medical screenings and the absence of first-aid kits.

Use-of-force concerns centered on abusive use of dogs and Tasers (Interestingly, the trademark "Taser" was acknowledged as an acronym for Thomas A. Swift Electronic Rifle). ICE rules prohibit use of Tasers on detainees, but some guards still carried them. In North Las Vegas, guards reported that, ICE rules notwithstanding, they maintained dogs and Tasers and would use them as needed.

Food service complaints ranged from unclean kitchens to the use of uncleared workers. Detainees at the Cowlitz County Juvenile Facility only received one hot meal per day.

ICE rules provide for five hours access to a law library per week. 18 of the 21 facilities reviewed for legal access had at least one computer and legal software as an option to conduct research on immigration law.
Overcrowding resulted in triple-celling in 2-man cells at the San Diego Correctional Facility. A dorm designed for 68 female detainees housed 110. Overflow ?bunks? were often just mattresses on the floor.

Overall, telephone access was found to be the most glaring deficiency. However, the inability of detainees to gain processing aid due to restricted telephonic communications might ironically be aggravating the problem of overcrowding. See: Alien Detention Standards, GAO Report GAO-09 875 (July 2007). The report is available on the PLN website.

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