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Weekly Diaspora: Why Detention Reform is Desperately Needed

by Guest Blogger on 10/21/2010 at 12:15pm

DetentionBy Catherine A. Traywick, Media Consortium blogger

Last October, the Obama administration’s announced their intention to reform the detention system — to improve the management, medical care and accountability within detention centers, and make better use of low-cost alternatives to detention.

But one year later, a new report by the Detention Watch Network reveals that the “truly civil” detention system once promised by the administration has truly failed to materialize. And while the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been crowing over its record number of deportations, it’s suspiciously mum when it comes to the record number of detainees that still languish in woefully mismanaged detention facilities.

DHS gets an “F”

Elise Foley at The Washington Independent notes that, despite DHS’s assurances that “visible changes have been made” to the system, immigrant rights advocates are critical of the purported reforms.

The Detention Watch Network, which graded DHS on each of its proposed reform initiatives, concluded that the agency has achieved minimal progress and has not substantively improved conditions for the nearly 400,000 immigrants detained every year under “cruel and unusual,” prison-like conditions. DHS received particularly low marks on its promise to utilize low-cost and humane alternatives to detention, such as ankle bracelets or bond release.

Underscoring the case for alternatives to detention, Foley details the story of Pedro Perez Guzman, a 30-year-old undocumented immigrant who came to the United States at the age of 8. Guzman, who is married to an American citizen and has a young son, has been in detention since last year, when he was picked up on a deportation order. As a father, breadwinner, and long-time (albeit undocumented) resident, Guzman should be a good candidate for bond release or some other alternative to detention. But because DHS has failed to broadly implement such alternatives, he’s spending his last months in the United States behind bars instead of with his family.

Reform hasn’t curbed sexual abuse in detention

The administration’s failure to meaningfully reform the broken detention system has particularly pernicious consequences for women detainees. As I detailed in a special report for Campus Progress, women in detention are routinely subject to a variety of mistreatment that ranges from gender discrimination to rape.

The T. Don Hutto detention facility in Texas stands out as a prime example of how failed reforms have disproportionately impacted women. Four years ago, the facility came under fire after a guard was caught having sexual relations with a woman detainee — an act which, thanks to a loophole in federal law, wasn’t technically a crime in privately-operated ICE facilities.

Last year, DHS overhauled the Hutto detention center, publicly touting it as model facility that embodied the administration’s vision for “truly civil” detention reform. Then, this August, a Hutto guard was arrested for sexually assaulting several detainees while transporting them for deportation. To date, no one knows how many women he assaulted, or whether other guards have done the same.

Clearly, a DHS facelift wasn’t enough to correct a long-standing pattern of mismanagement, poor oversight, and discrimination that ultimately resulted in the victimization of an unknown number of immigrant women.

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