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Court Orders Release Of Video Stills Showing Deplorable Conditions Inside Border Patrol Detention Facilities

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Following attempts by Border Patrol to keep evidence from the public, a court ordered the release of video stills depicting disturbing conditions inside detention facilities in the Tucson, Arizona sector.

From the American Immigration Council:

Accepting the position of the Plaintiffs and the Arizona Republic, which intervened to argue for the release of the materials, the court recognized that access to court proceedings and to basic information about governmental practices are fundamental First Amendment rights.

The video stills and expert testimony released today reveal that Border Patrol holds individuals—among them traumatized asylum seekers and mothers with infants and small children—for days at a time in cold, overcrowded, and dirty cells that are designed to detain people for only a few hours. Graphic photographs show detainees packed head-to-foot in filthy, overcrowded rooms. One image captures a mother changing an infant’s diaper on a trash-strewn concrete floor.  

The video stills are available to view here. In at least four of the stills, detainees — including women and children — are shown wrapped in metallic-like blankets. “The blankets are migrants’ sole protection against the cold temperatures; they took to calling the cells ‘hieleras’ — Spanish for iceboxes,” notes the New York Times.

More from the American Immigration Council:

Also among the unsealed documents is testimony from an expert for the Plaintiffs who wrote that, in his 35 years of experience working in correctional facilities, he had “never been in one that treats those confined in a manner that the CBP treats detainees.”

Among other conclusions about the poor treatment of individuals detained in Border Patrol facilities, he said that “[t]he absence of medical screening upon arrival is unthinkable,” and that he had never before witnessed an attempt to “cram” so many people into so little space, without beds and bedding. He concluded, “[t]he CBP [is] housing people in conditions that are unnecessarily harsh, dangerous and contrary to accepted industry practices and standards.”

“The images unsealed by the court leave no room to debate the fact that thousands of immigrants are subjected to inhumane and unconstitutional conditions by the Border Patrol,” said Nora Preciado, staff attorney with the National Immigration Law Center. “We urgently need meaningful and lasting reforms that put an end to these abuses, hold the agency accountable, and ensure that people are treated with dignity.”

Currently in Pennsylvania, 22 mothers are in week two of a hunger strike at the Berks County Residential Center — a family detention facility — to protest mistreatment and recent comments made by DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson.

Johnson defended the practice of family detention earlier this month, saying that the average stay is 20 days. However, women participating in the hunger strike say they and their children have been in detention for as long 365 days.

More from The Nation:

The women and their children are housed six to a room at the Berks County Family Detention Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania. They share a bathroom with a short curtain but no door. They’re awoken at 6:30 every morning for the first of several mandatory check-ins. During the night, a guard shines a flashlight into their eyes every 15 minutes. Most of them are badly sleep deprived. Many of their kids are showing symptoms of early childhood trauma and other developmental problems; some have stopped growing. The youngest detainee at Berks is 2 years old, and has spent around half of his life in detention. Like the other children, he isn’t allowed to sleep in his mother’s bed at night.

They’re refugees who fled brutal violence in Central America and are now caught in a legal limbo. They were denied asylum after a cursory interview at the border and are subject to deportation. But attorneys representing them say that the screenings they went through at the border were legally flawed. The Obama administration claims that they have no right to appeal the decisions—a stark departure from longstanding legal precedent. They’re now being detained, indefinitely, while a legal challenge works its way through federal courts.

There’s no reason to hold them while that process plays out; according to a 2009 study by Human Rights First, asylum seekers under supervised release almost always show up for their hearings. Most are never put into the detention system in the first place; advocates say those who ended up at Berks were the tragic winners of a “wheel of misfortune.”

An independent psychological evaluation provided to The Nation by an attorney representing several of the detainees found that one typical 6-year-old boy at Berks “is suffering from PTSD, as evidenced by symptoms of anxious avoidance, hyperarousal, dysregulation, loss of appetite, and constant fear and worry.”