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Inhumane Human Rights Violations Found at U.S. Immigration Detention Centers

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Gross human rights violations at four U.S. immigration detention centers were identified by Acting Inspector General John V. Kelly* for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in a Dec. 11 report entitled Concerns about ICE Detainee Treatment and Care at Detention Facilities.

The Office of Inspector General (OIG) for DHS raised concerns about the treatment and care at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities and said the problems highlighted “undermine the protection of detainees’ rights, their humane treatment, and provision of a safe and healthy environment.”

The report was followed by a letter from 70 members of Congress blasting DHS for failing to investigate thousands of sexual assault complaints filed by detained immigrants over the last decade. According to Homeland Security by Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), a progressive advocacy group, DHS received a total of 33,126 complaints of sexual and/or physical abuse from January 2010 to July 2016. Of those, only 225—.07 percent—have been investigated.

Tens of thousands of immigrants are jailed by ICE for civil immigration violations and held until they are deported or released. According to the DHS OIG report, “all ICE detainees are held in civil, not criminal, custody, which is not supposed to be punitive.”

Yet — in addition to the sexual assault complaints — alarming problems undermining the protection of detainees’ rights at four detention facilities were documented in the OIG report:

  • In violation of required DHS standards, all detainees entering one facility were strip-searched and not documented in detainee files. According to the 2011 Operations Manual ICE Performance-Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS), staff are not to routinely subject detainees to strip searches unless there is “reasonable suspicion” based on “specific and articulable facts that would lead a reasonable officer to believe that a specific detainee is in possession of contraband.” When strip searches are not documented, “there is no way to ascertain whether these searches were justified or whether they infringed on the privacy and rights of detainees.”
  • Detention staff mistreated detainees with guards yelling, using disrespectful and inappropriate language, and threats to lock down detainees at their discretion.
  • Violations of PBNDS were found in the administration, justification, and documentation of segregation and lock-down for detainees. Detainees were not always told why they were being segregated, nor did staff always communicate detainees’ rights in writing or provide appeal forms. In multiple instances where detainees were disciplined (including segregation or lock-down), there was inadequate documentation in the detainee’s file to justify the disciplinary action. One detainee was locked down for multiple days for simply sharing coffee with another detainee. Others were locked down for violations of minor rules without required written notification of reasons for lock-down and appeal options.
  • Detainees with painful conditions waited days for medical intervention, contrary to the health care services requirements by PBNDS.
  • Spoiled, wilted, and moldy produce and other food, as well as expired food, lack of adherence to basic safety standards by food service workers did not comply with PBNDS standards, thereby endangering the health of detainees.
  • Available language services were not always used to facilitate communication with detainees, contrary to PBNDS specification that language assistance be provided to detainees.
  • Detainees were not provided the ICE National Detainee Handbook and a local facility detainee handbook, as required by PBNDS. These handbooks cover essential information, such as the grievance system, services and programs, medical care, and access to legal counsel. Three detention facilities did not always give detainees handbooks in a language they could understand, which may have prevented detainees from fully comprehending basic facility rules and procedures.
  • Language translation services were not always used by staff (available by phone during medical exams), thereby creating language barriers preventing detainees from understanding medical staff.
  • Some medical consent forms were not always available in Spanish, and staff did not always explain the English forms to non-English speaking detainees. As a result, detainees may not have been providing enough information about their medical conditions to ensure adequate medical treatment while in treatment.
  • Some detainees reported that staff obstructed or delayed their grievances or intimidated them, through fear of retaliation, into not complaining. These deterrents may have prevented detainees from filing grievances about serious concerns that should have been addressed and resolved.
  • Inconsistent and insufficiently documented grievance resolution processes were found. Many serious complaints from a detention center included only cursory and uninformative explanations of the resolutions. For one particularly troubling allegation of misconduct by facility staff, there was no clear documentation it had been investigated, only a note that it would be investigated, and not explicitly documented in the facility’s grievance system.
  • Staff did not always treat detainees respectfully and professionally, and some facilities may have misused segregation.
  • Detainees are supposed to have access to telephones and be able to make free calls to DHS OIG. Yet, non-working telephones were in detainees housing areas and when the OIG Hotline was tested, the message received notified the caller that the number was restricted. The OIG found a failure to protect detainees’ rights and a risk to a facility escalating or ignoring problems may have resulted in detainees not having an effective  grievance process and access to ICE and other channels.
  • Muslim prayer times were sometimes interrupted or delayed by detention center staff.
  • Possible indication of serious problems or abuse of detainees could be reflected in the missing or incomplete documentation of daily medical visits and meal records for detainees being held in segregation.
  • Bathrooms were in poor condition, including mold and peeling paint on walls, floors, and showers, no hot water in bathrooms, no cold water in showers, and water leaks in housing areas were observed, contrary to PBDNS requirement of “high facility standards of cleanliness and sanitation.”

The OIG report is only the latest account of how cruel and intolerable conditions at detention centers can be. Detainees have staged multiple hunger strikes over the years to protest inhospitable conditions, yet DHS has done nothing. In fact, DHS is in the process of expanding detention centers to hold more immigrants — without any indication that they plan to make reforms to existing centers, despite documents like the OIG report.

In short, numerous unsafe and unhealthy detention conditions continue to exist in ICE detention centers, which fail in “complying with the PBNDS and establishing an environment that protects the rights, health, and safety of detainees.”


* Not to be confused with General John F. Kelly, the former DHS Secretary who is now Trump’s chief of staff.