ICE paints bleak picture of detention system Abuses continue despite agency's
By SUSAN CARROLL, HOUSTON CHRONICLE
October 10, 2011
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have continued to use troubled detention facilities despite documenting flagrant violations of their own detention standards, including poor medical care and mistreatment of detainees, new internal records show.
Two years ago, top ICE officials announced plans to create a "truly civil" detention system and improve oversight of the sprawling network of detention centers, private prisons and state and local jails that house hundreds of thousands of detainees annually.
Since then, ICE officials say they have taken unprecedented steps to improve detainee care, including creating an aggressive inspection and monitoring system designed to hold accountable the private contractors and local governments that run detention facilities.
However, more than 1,000 pages of internal reports from ICE's Office of Detention Oversight, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, paint an often bleak picture of the inside of the nation's immigration detention system, with detainees in some facilities lacking access to quality medical care or even clean underwear.
At Houston's contract detention center, ICE inspectors have quietly documented dozens of deficiencies in internal reports over the past few years, with problems involving medical care, the use of excessive force and "abusive treatment" of detainees, the reports show. Yet the agency has posted only positive inspection reports prepared by private contractors who toured the Houston facility on its website, not its own internal reports.
David Shapiro, a staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project, said ICE's internal inspection records raise questions about the agency's ability to oversee its sprawling detention network, calling its progress on detention reform over the past two years "halting."
"There were some positive reforms," Shapiro said. "But really, in terms of substantive improvements in conditions, a lot of them have just failed to materialize. Detainees are still held in facilities that really are indistinguishable from prisons and jails … and a lot of times, the conditions are really quite atrocious."
ICE officials announced plans in fall 2009 to overhaul their detention system with the goal of making it less penal and more humane for the roughly 400,000 detainees it houses annually.
Since 2009, the agency has winnowed down the number of facilities in use from more than 300 to 250 and has started laying the groundwork for a handful of detention centers that will offer less restrictive conditions, including greater outdoor access and more visitation time for family and friends.
But, just like in 2009, more than half of ICE detainees still are housed in county jails and state prisons scattered across the country, often alongside accused or convicted criminals. Even in private prisons that hold only ICE detainees, conditions are generally prison-like, with most immigrants passing their days behind double fences topped with barbed wire or concertina coils.
ICE has stationed detention monitors in the 42 facilities that house the bulk of the detainee population in an effort to improve oversight, and has hired private contractors to conduct annual inspections of each facility in use. The agency also has improved the system for tracking deaths in detention, which have totaled 124 since 2003.
But efforts to strengthen its detention standards - national guidelines designed to ensure detainees' health, safety and due process rights - have stalled out in part because of opposition by union members concerned for agent, contractor and detainee safety.
And internal records show ICE officials have quietly struggled to ensure contractors' compliance with the standards, including basic quality-of-life issues for detainees.
ICE officials declined to comment on any of the specific issues identified in their internal reports. Gillian Christensen, an ICE spokeswoman, said ICE has stopped using 17 facilities found to have repeat problems.
The internal records also show ICE has continued to struggle with long-standing problems, including access to adequate medical care, a centerpiece of its reform plans.
At one county jail in Iowa, some detainees diagnosed with tuberculosis were not provided with medication, the records show. At several other facilities, some detainees still did not receive medical exams within two weeks of arriving, or had them performed by unqualified staff.
In one glaring example, ICE inspectors at the Mira Loma Detention Facility in California were told to "serve a subpoena" if they wanted to see medical records for a detainee housed there who had complained of poor health care, according to a May 2010 inspection report.
That facility, which is run by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, has had a wide range of problems documented by ICE inspectors over the years, including Taser use and inadequate medical care. ICE again documented problems with medical care in its 2010 inspection, noting that sick detainees "reported being given Tylenol and being told to drink more water to cure or prevent ailments."
LASD officials did not return a reporter's phone call.
Detainees also reported basic quality-of-life issues in several facilities. At one contract detention center in Alabama, ICE inspectors saw detainees showering in their underwear because there was no daily laundry service.
Female detainees at Texas' Rolling Plains Detention Center reported the showers were so hot they burned their skin and made their hair fall out, the records show.
The records also show that ICE has struggled with oversight issues. In several reports from ICE's detention oversight office, inspectors faulted ICE management for failing to conduct unannounced visits - in one case in Texas where the ICE field office was located just two blocks from the detention center.
Some inspection reports documented a lack of cooperation by contractors. ICE staff at the Douglas County Department of Corrections in Nebraska reported "not receiving notifications of alleged criminal aliens who were incarcerated" there. "ICE staff stated these individuals are not screened, and are released into the community upon the termination of their state or federal sentence," the July 2010 report states.
ICE's Office of Professional Responsibility records also show it has failed to systematically track disciplinary actions involving contractors, making it difficult to determine whether companies and corrections departments are doling out appropriate punishments for substantiated reports of abuse.
At the Houston facility, which is run by the Corrections Corporation of America, ICE inspectors noted that an employee was terminated for an inappropriate relationship with a detainee, and another resigned in lieu of termination due to "a violation of the use of force policy." Two employees were suspended for "abusive treatments toward detainees" others were "counseled" for yelling and cursing at detainees.
ICE officials declined to provide any additional information on the disciplinary actions in Houston, but said they take detainee grievances seriously and respond to allegations of criminal activity by guards and corrections officers aggressively.
For more minor infractions that do not rise to the level of a crime, the agency can only threaten to remove its detainees if the rogue employee is not removed from the contract, said a senior ICE official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Houston CCA officials did not respond to a reporter's questions.
The Houston facility, like many others in the internal documents, has received relatively high marks in reviews by private contractors paid by ICE to inspect them for compliance with the agency's detention standards.
Those contractor-produced reports, frequently published on the agency's website, often directly contradict the internal inspections. For example, private contractors in 2009 found no violations of the government's detention standards at the Houston facility. But the records show ICE's own inspectors documented more than 50 deficiencies in 2008 and nine repeat deficiencies in 2009.
"With negative reviews that never see the light of day, and these positive reviews, it undermines the contention that the government can be trusted to police its own detention facilities," said Meghan Rhoad, a Human Rights Watch researcher who has studied the U.S. immigration system.
"A central premise of the detention reform was that stronger federal oversight would protect the welfare of detained immigrants. That was repeated over and over," she said. "But, clearly, oversight means more than just monitoring. It means taking action. There have to be consequences for facilities that repeatedly fail to meet the minimum standards."