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Burgeoning Immigration Detainee Population Stresses ICE

by Matt Clarke

The Bush administration’s hard-nosed approach to immigration enforcement has caused an explosion in the immigrant detainee population, which has grown from a daily average of 19,600 in 2005 to 29,700 in 2007. This increase parallels a rise in deportations, from around 186,600 in FY 2005 to 276,900 in FY 2007. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has reacted to this increasing number of detainees by contracting with local jails and private prison firms for additional bed space.

The expanded use of imprisonment for immigration violators stems from the “deport them at any cost” philosophy of the current administration, which resulted in the elimination of ICE’s “catch and release” policy and a decrease in the use of alternatives such as release on bond and electronic monitoring. The justification for this approach is that less than a third of non-incarcerated immigration detainees voluntarily leave the country when ordered to do so, even if they are being supervised or monitored.Increasing the number of ICE detainees comes at a cost for both taxpayers and prisoners. The budget for ICE detentions grew from $864 million in FY 2005 to $1.6 million in FY 2008. A large portion of that budget was paid to city and county jails, which imprison 63% of ICE detainees. Another major portion went to private prison companies such as CCA and GEO Group, which operate seven facilities under ICE contracts. ICE has eight detention centers of its own scattered across the nation.

Until late last year, one of those facilities was the San Pedro Processing Center on California’s Terminal Island. According to immigrants and their attorneys, prisoners often slept on the floor on inflatable mattresses, and telephone access was difficult.

“The overcrowding at San Pedro was crazy,” said former ICE prisoner Eugene Peba.
“They don’t have enough employees to take care of the detainees’ day-to-day problems.”

Medical care was difficult to obtain at San Pedro, too. Peba said it took him months of begging before he was seen by a doctor, and detainee advocates blame a denial of care for the death of a San Pedro detainee due to AIDS. [Also see: “Failure to Treat Immigrant Detainee’s Fatal Penile Cancer Ruled ‘Beyond Cruel,’” this issue of PLN]. The San Pedro facility abruptly closed in October 2007, two months after it failed to meet American Correctional Association accreditation standards.

ICE responded to criticism about health care by stating the department had spent almost $100 million on medical treatment in FY 2007, and had a very low mortality rate considering detainees’ poor health habits and medical backgrounds.

However, this was contradicted by Thomas Hogan, former warden of the York County Prison in Pennsylvania, which is one of ICE’s largest detention facilities. “The Department of Homeland Security has made it difficult, if not impossible, to meet the constitutional requirements of providing adequate health care to inmates that have a serious need for that care,” Hogan stated in a court affidavit.

Additionally, the former interim director of the Division of Immigration Health Services (DIHS), Neil Sampson, stated that ICE had treated detainee medical care “as an afterthought.” He said the problem was widespread. “They do not have a clear idea or philosophy of their approach to health care [for detainees],” Sampson remarked.

According to a July 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), four ICE prisons were over capacity, there were isolated problems with health care access and use-of-force policies, and “systemic” issues with access to telephones. ICE officials denied the allegations of overcrowding, saying their facilities were at 95% capacity and the contracted private prisons were at 98% capacity in FY 2007.

In a reaction typical of the Bush administration, ICE decided to resolve the problems cited in the GAO report by hiring a private company to place “quality assurance” specialists at the 40 largest detention facilities, plus use full-time inspectors to replace the previous system of annual inspections.

In the future, ICE intends to contract for additional bed space in local jails and private prisons rather than build more of its own facilities. That plan has been criticized because ICE detainees are often housed with felons in local jails, and ICE frequently transfers prisoners between facilities – making contact with their attorneys and families difficult. ICE even “loses” transferred detainees in the system at times. ICE officials were unapologetic, saying immigrants in custody would “present a hardship on their family regardless of where they are.”

Beyond overcrowding issues and an expanding detainee population, ICE has come under fire for in-custody deaths. A New York Times series published in May 2008 noted that there were 66 deaths in ICE custody from January 2004 to Nov. 2007. Seven more detainees have died this year, including Valery Joseph, 23, whose death in ICE custody at the Galdes County Detention Center in Florida occurred on June 20, 2008.

Of particular concern in many of these cases was the difficulty in obtaining information or details about in-custody deaths, especially from privately-operated contract facilities. The Times series profiled several cases including that of Boubacar Bah, a Guinean immigrant who had overstayed a tourist visa and was incarcerated at a facility in New Jersey. He died after spending four months in a coma; he had suffered a skull fracture and brain hemorrhaging, allegedly caused by a fall.

According to a May 8, 2008 New York Times article, “Mr. Bah’s relatives never saw the internal records labeled “proprietary information – not for distribution” by the Corrections Corporation of America, which runs the New Jersey detention center for the federal government. The documents detail how he was treated by guards and government employees: shackled and pinned to the floor of the medical unit as he moaned and vomited, then left in a disciplinary cell for more than 13 hours, despite repeated notations that he was unresponsive and intermittently foaming at the mouth.”

Other news agencies, including the Washington Post, which ran a four-part series in May, have focused attention on detainee deaths and inadequate medical care at ICE facilities. ICE responded with a May 5, 2008 statement that said the department “takes great care to ensure the safety and well being” of detainees in custody.

Sources: Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post, Immigration News Briefs

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