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DHS Inspector General and Doctors Describe Repeatedly Unaddressed, Horrific Immigrant Detention Conditions

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Today, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he is hearing only about minor detention condition issues and that “any issue that affects the safety of detainees is addressed immediately.”

However, the facts suggest otherwise, according to nine reports by the DHS Inspector General and multiple doctors working in southwest border area hospitals. They use words like “dangerous,” “neglected,” and “infringed on detainee rights” to describe what they are seeing — and what remains unaddressed.  

Yesterday, the New York Times reported:

As apprehensions of migrants climb at the southwest border, and dozens a day are taken to community hospitals, medical providers are challenging practices…that they say are endangering patients and undermining recent pledges to improve health care for migrants.  

The problems range from shackling patients to beds and not permitting them to use restrooms to pressuring doctors to discharge patients quickly and certify that they can be held in crowded detention facilities that immigration officials themselves say are unsafe. Physicians say that needed follow-up care for long-term detainees is often neglected, and that they have been prevented from informing family members about the status of critically ill patients. Agency vehicles parked conspicuously near hospital entrances, health providers say, are also stoking fear and interfering with broader immigrant care.

The situation inside immigration detention facilities is even worse.  Last week, the Inspector General (IG) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released a report describing horrific conditions at four ICE detention facilities that posed “immediate risks or egregious violations of detention standards…, including nooses in detainee cells, overly restrictive segregation, inadequate medical care, unreported security incidents, and significant food safety issues.” The week before, the DHS IG issued a management alert requiring “immediate attention and action…to alleviate dangerous overcrowding at the El Paso Del Norte Processing Center (PDT).” These are not isolated reports. In fact, since President Trump took office, the DHS IG has issued nine reports and management alerts – summarized below – describing similar problems across the DHS immigration detention system both at the border and in the interior.  

Ur Jaddou, Director of DHS Watch and former USCIS Chief Counsel, said:  “In reviewing nine DHS IG reports and management alerts on DHS detention conditions over the last two years, there is one consistent and troubling theme: many of the issues raised by the IG are almost a verbatim repeat of issues raised in previous reports – a month, several months, and even two years prior. It is clear that no matter how blatantly aware this administration is of serious health and safety concerns in DHS detention, very little is done to address problems, contrary to Acting Secretary McAleenan’s claim today before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Even the IG noted this point in one report stating, ‘Although CBP headquarters management has been aware of the situation…for months…DHS has not identified a process to alleviate issues.’ If these reports of serious detention condition violations were merely isolated, one-time reports, one might excuse Acting Secretary McAleenan’s comments today.  However, we have a series of at least nine IG reports spanning over two years, addressed to high-ranking officials in DHS, and still nothing seems to be changing.”

Brief Summaries of Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Reports and Management Alerts

June 2019 – Unannounced visits to four ICE detention facilities revealed the following:

  • “[W]e observed immediate risks or egregious violations of detention standards at facilities in Adelanto, CA, and Essex County, NJ, including nooses in detainee cells, overly restrictive segregation, inadequate medical care, unreported security incidents, and significant food safety issues.”
  • “All four facilities had issues with expired food, which puts detainees at risk for food-borne illnesses.”
  • “At three facilities, we found that segregation practices violated standards and infringed on detainee rights.”
  • “Two facilities failed to provide recreation outside detainee housing units.”
  • “Bathrooms in two facilities’ detainee housing units were dilapidated and moldy.”
  • “At one facility, detainees were not provided appropriate clothing and hygiene items to ensure they could properly care for themselves.”
  • “[O]ne facility allowed only non-contact visits, despite being able to accommodate in-person visitation.”
  • “Our observations confirmed concerns identified in detainee grievances, which indicated unsafe and unhealthy conditions to varying degrees at all of the facilities we visited.”

May 2019 – One week of unannounced visits to five Border Patrol stations and two ports of entry in the El Paso area revealed:

  • DHS was housing 6 to 7 times the maximum capacity of detainees.
  • Some detainees “in standing-room-only conditions for days or weeks….”
  • “[D]etainees standing on toilets in the cells to make room and gain breathing space, thus limiting access to the toilets….”
  • “[S]taff discarding…detainee property, such as backpacks, suitcases, and handbags, in the nearby dumpster.”  
  • “Although CBP headquarters management has been aware of the situation at PDT for months and detailed staff to assist with custody management, DHS has not identified a process to alleviate issues with overcrowding at PDT.”
  • While DHS agreed to take corrective action, the IG was unimpressed with DHS’ timeline for resolution – one and a half years – and said it would continue inspections until the issue was resolved more swiftly since, as the IG stated, detainees “cannot continue to be held in standing-room-only conditions.”    

February 2019 – An unannounced visit to Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark, New Jersey revealed:

  • “[A] number of serious issues that violate U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) 2011 Performance Based National Detention Standards and pose significant health and safety risks at the facility.”
  • “Specifically, we are concerned about the following issues:
    • Unreported Security Incidents
    • Food Safety Issues
    • Facility Conditions”

January 2019 – A review of ICE contracting tools revealed serious deficiencies in holding ICE contracted detention facilities accountable:

  • “ICE fails to consistently include its quality assurance surveillance plan (QASP) in facility contracts. The QASP provides tools for ensuring facilities meet performance standards. Only 28 out of 106 contracts we reviewed contained the QASP.”
  • “Instead of holding facilities accountable through financial penalties, ICE issued waivers to facilities with deficient conditions, seeking to exempt them from complying with certain standards. We analyzed the 68 waiver requests submitted between September 2016 and July 2018. Custody Management approved 96 percent of these requests, including waivers of safety and security standards.”
  • “However, ICE has no formal policies and procedures to govern the waiver process, has allowed officials without clear authority to grant waivers, and does not ensure key stakeholders have access to approved waivers.”
  • “Further, the organizational placement and overextension of contracting officer’s representatives impede monitoring of facility contracts.
  • “Finally, ICE does not adequately share information about ICE detention contracts with key officials.”

September 2018 – A management alert regarding the Adelanto ICE processing Center described many of the same concerns raised in the June 2019 report regarding four other facilities:

  • “Nooses in Detainee Cells”
  • “Improper and Overly Restrictive Segregation”
  • “Untimely and Inadequate Detainee Medical Care”

June 2018 – A report explaining that ICE’s inspections and monitoring systems do not lead to “sustained compliance or systemic improvements.”  Specifically, the report states:

  • “[I]nspections [do not] ensure consistent compliance with detention standards, nor do they promote comprehensive deficiency corrections. Specifically, the scope of ICE’s contracted inspections is too broad; ICE’s guidance on procedures is unclear; and the contractor’s inspection practices are not consistently thorough. As a result, the inspections do not fully examine actual conditions or identify all deficiencies.”
  • “In contrast, ICE’s Office of Detention Oversight uses effective practices to thoroughly inspect facilities and identify deficiencies, but these inspections are too infrequent to ensure the facilities implement all deficiency corrections.”
  • “Moreover, ICE does not adequately follow up on identified deficiencies or consistently hold facilities accountable for correcting them, which further diminishes the usefulness of inspections.”
  • “Although ICE’s inspections, follow-up processes, and onsite monitoring of facilities help correct some deficiencies, they do not ensure adequate oversight or systemic improvements in detention conditions, with some deficiencies remaining unaddressed for years.”

December 2017 – IG inspection of five detention facilities “raised concerns about the treatment and care of ICE detainees at four of the facilities,” specifically:

  • “[P]roblems that undermine the protection of detainees’ rights, their humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment.”
  • “Upon entering some facilities, detainees were housed incorrectly based on their criminal history.”
  • “[I]n violation of standards, all detainees entering one facility were strip searched.”
  • “Available language services were not always used to facilitate communication with detainees.”
  • “Some facility staff reportedly deterred detainees from filing grievances and did not thoroughly document resolution of grievances.”
  • “Staff did not always treat detainees respectfully and professionally, and some facilities may have misused segregation.”
  • “Finally, we observed potentially unsafe and unhealthy detention conditions.”

September 2017 – A “sample of ICE segregation data and visits to seven [ICE detention] facilities” revealed failed systems to ensure the safety and health of detainees with mental health conditions in segregation.  A year and half later, NBC News reported that the situation is even worse than the IG reported.  The IG found:

  • Although detention facilities were generally following ICE guidance on documenting and reporting segregation decisions on detainees with mental health conditions, “ICE field offices we reviewed did not record and promptly report all instances of segregation to ICE headquarters, nor did their system properly reflect all required reviews of ongoing segregation cases per ICE guidance.”
  • “In addition, ICE does not regularly compare segregation data in the electronic management system with information at detention facilities to assess the accuracy and reliability of data in the system.”
  • “ICE field office review and reporting of segregation of individual detainees with mental health conditions is important to ensuring the protection of detainees and facility staff, providing the best alternative for detainees with mental health conditions, and mitigating the risk of deterioration in detainees’ mental health.”
  • “Unless ICE field offices comply with requirements to report and record these reviews, ICE headquarters cannot be sure required reviews are taking place and may not have all the information needed to assess the use of segregation, which could put detainees and facility staff at risk of harm.”   

March 2017 – A management alert requiring “immediate action” at the Theo Lacy Facility (TLF) revealed many of the same problems the IG found in several other future reports described above:

  • “Food handling at TLF poses health risks.”
  • “Unsatisfactory conditions and services at the facility, including moldy and mildewed shower stalls, refuse in cells, and inoperable phones.”
  • “Some ‘high-risk’ detainees are in less restrictive barracks-style housing and some ‘low-risk’ detainees are in more restrictive housing modules; the basis for housing decisions is not adequately documented.”
  • “Contrary to ICE detention standards, inspectors observed high-risk detainees and low-risk detainees together in parts of TLF. Although detainees were purportedly identified by classification level, this was not apparent to the inspectors.”
  • “Moves from less restrictive barracks to more restrictive housing modules are not explained to detainees, nor are detainees given the opportunity to appeal changes, as required by ICE detention standards.”
  • “[The contracted facility’s] more restrictive disciplinary segregation violates ICE detention standards.”
  • “Neither ICE nor [the contracted facility] properly documents grievances from detainees to ensure resolution, notification of resolution, and opportunities to appeal.”