by Christopher Zoukis
A December 11, 2017 report issued by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) harshly criticized Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for serious deficiencies at four immigration detention facilities.
The OIG report arrived just weeks after two non-profit groups, Detention Watch Network and the Center for Constitutional Rights, released a damning review of 201 immigration detention facilities that concluded they operate under inadequate standards with insufficient accountability, under contracts with “perverse incentives.”
The analysis by the pair of non-profits did not include the T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Taylor, Texas, which houses female ICE detainees. That facility is operated by private prison company CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corp. of America). It was also the site of a November 2017 complaint filed by Laura Monterrosa, from El Salvador, who claimed she was sexually abused by a guard at the 500-bed detention center.
Many other detainees had already suffered sexual abuse, according to Sofia Casini, the coordinator of immigrant programs at Grassroots Leadership, a non-profit based in Austin, Texas. “You have to keep in mind that all of the women in Hutto are asylum seekers and many have experienced sexual assault. Not only is detention already inherently traumatizing, but now you have sexual assault survivors experiencing more abuse and being re-traumatized,” she stated.
Monterrosa is the only named victim of three detainees who raised allegations of sexual misconduct at the Hutto facility in 2017. The other two, “Ana” and “Esmeralda,” did not file their complaints under their real names for fear of retaliation by the guard whom, they said, stalked them both. They also claimed other guards noticed the behavior and urged them to report it. But the guard they complained about, like the one Monterrosa accused, reportedly remains employed at the facility.
A review of the women’s claims by ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility and the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office concluded they were unsubstantiated. Monterrosa and “Esmeralda” said they were subjected to retaliation by CoreCivic guards. “Ana” has since been transferred to another ICE facility in Laredo, Texas.
The allegations make a total of at least five claims of sexual abuse by guards at Hutto. In 2007, a guard was accused of abusing a woman while her infant child slept beside her in her cell. And in 2010, eight women said a male transport guard, Donald Charles Dunn, had sexually abused them – even though under its contract, CoreCivic was specifically required to have a female guard present when female detainees were being transported. [See: PLN, April 2015, p.46; Dec. 2011, p.42].
ICE’s Jacob Castro assured Casini, of Grassroots Leadership, that if any credible claims of sexual abuse were found at Hutto, the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office would “take over.” But the law enforcement agency with jurisdiction over the facility may in fact be the Taylor Police Department. Casini said the Sheriff’s Office told her it could not comment on the confusion with respect to jurisdiction.
Nearly two-thirds of ICE’s detention facilities are operated under contract by one of two private prison companies – CoreCivic and GEO Group. Of the remaining ICE facilities, some are run by local law enforcement agencies under a program known as 287(g) while others operate under an Intergovernmental Service Agreement (IGSA).
Pursuant to 287(g), local law enforcement officials act as ICE agents to arrest and detain people suspected of being undocumented immigrants. The IGSA then allows them to receive a per diem reimbursement for holding each detainee suspected of an immigration law violation.
The analysis of the ICE detention facilities by Detention Watch Network and the Center for Constitutional Rights first required a four-year effort involving FOIA requests and lawsuits against DHS and its contractors, according to Ghita Schwartz, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Eventually, she succeeding in obtaining sufficient documentation to count a total of 35,929 immigration detainees on any given day between October 2016 and July 2017. Of those, private prison companies were responsible for holding 73 percent – 26,240 people – and received per diem payments ranging from $30 to $168.64 for each detainee.
Also during that nine-month period, 12 detainees died in ICE facilities. The highest total at one facility – three deaths – occurred at the Adelanto detention center in San Bernardino, California, operated by GEO Group under a contract that runs until 2021. The analysis found that 159 other facilities operate under contracts with no expiration date.
Moreover, the study determined that the financial incentives provided to local law enforcement agencies under the 287(g) program and IGSA contracts were “perverse” – rewarding localities that expanded their law enforcement operations with high per diem rates paid to hold people detained for suspected immigration law violations.
Detention Watch Network and the Center for Constitutional Rights also accused ICE of duplicity in asking Congress for more money to house detainees at the same time the agency was failing to provide them adequate care – which is what the agency’s own OIG uncovered in its December 11, 2017 report.
In surprise inspections of five ICE-contracted facilities – all operated under an IGSA – the OIG uncovered significant problems at four: the Santa Ana City Jail in California, the Hudson Detention Center in New Jersey, the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia and the Otero Detention Center in New Mexico.
Multiple facilities were found to have deficient health care for detainees. Medical staff sometimes did not use available language translation services, and some medical forms were not available in Spanish. A Detention Watch Network press release related to the report said the disregard of the language barrier in the immigration detention context “jeopardiz[es] the health of detained individuals who are not able to provide their medical history or fully explain their symptoms or concerns without interpretation.”
Other problems uncovered by OIG inspectors included the use of improper strip searches at the Santa Ana facility; abusive use of solitary confinement at Santa Ana, Stewart and Otero; lack of working telephones and unjustified lock-downs at Otero; serious problems with grievance procedures at multiple facilities; and abusive and disrespectful treatment of detainees at all four detention centers.
“ICE detainees are held in civil, not criminal, custody, which is not supposed to be punitive,” the OIG report noted. “The problems we identified undermine the protection of detainees’ rights, their humane treatment and the provision of a safe and healthy environment.”
In a separate report, the OIG found substandard conditions at the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange County, California, which houses over 500 detainees for ICE. [See: PLN, April 2018, p.60].
Christina Fialho, with Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC, now known as Freedom for Immigrants), said the advocacy organization had filed multiple complaints with ICE over abusive, violent and deplorable conditions at the Santa Ana and Hudson facilities. She contended the OIG report was “only the tip of the iceberg.”
“[I]magine the widespread abuse we would find if all 201 immigrant prisons were reviewed,” Fialho said.
In an April 2017 report compiled from FOIA requests, CIVIC found the OIG received 1,016 reports of sexual abuse between May 2014 and July 2016. Just 24 were investigated. The group has since filed complaints with DHS’ Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liabilities on behalf of 27 detainees who alleged sexual abuse in ICE facilities.
Mary Small, policy director at Detention Watch Network, echoed Fialho’s comments and called for significant changes to immigration detention.
“The realities documented by the OIG inspectors and many more, are endemic to the entire detention system,” she said. “The findings of the report support our ongoing call to immediately release people from detention, as ICE has proven time and time again to be incapable of meeting basic standards for humane treatment.”
Sources: www.detentionwatchnetwork.org, www.oig.dhs.gov, www.shadowproof.com, www.thinkprogress.org, www.splinternews.com, www.nmpolitics.net
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