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Widespread Detainee Abuse At ICE Prisons Confirmed By Inspector General Report

The inspector general for the Homeland Security Department conducted unannounced inspections of six immigrant detention facilities overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It uncovered glaring examples of detainee abuse and mistreatment at four of the facilities.

Inspections were conducted in response to complaints from immigrant rights groups, as well as complaints to the inspector general, and the report was released as President Donald Trump’s administration seems intent to slash the budget for inspector general offices, like the one at DHS.

According to the report [PDF], “We identified problems that undermine the protection of detainees’ rights, their humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment.”

The problems included: abuse of solitary confinement (or “segregation”) and lockdown of detainees, abuse of strip searches, intimidation and threatened retaliation against those with potentially serious concerns about confinement conditions, lack of interpretation services during medical exams, and deplorable bathroom maintenance, as well as a refusal to properly supply detainees with hygiene items.

All ICE detainees are detained in civil custody. As the report mentions, the confinement is not supposed to be punitive.

ICE’s Enforcement and Renewal Operations “oversees the confinement of detainees in nearly 250 detention facilities that it manages in conjunction with private contractors or state or local governments.”

Inspectors made unannounced visits to “Hudson County Jail (mixed gender), Laredo Processing Center (female-only), Otero County Processing Center (male-only), Santa Ana City Jail (mixed gender), Stewart Detention Center (male-only), and Theo Lacy Facility (male-only).”

Stewart Detention Center is run by CoreCivic, the private prison contractor formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America. The Santa Ana City Jail no longer has an ICE contract, and detainees were transferred to Cibola County Detention Center in May.

At the Otero County, Santa Ana, and Stewart facilities, the OIG found, “Staff did not always tell detainees why they were being segregated, nor did they always communicate detainees’ rights in writing or provide appeal forms for those put in punitive lockdown or placed in segregation. In multiple instances, detainees were disciplined, including being segregated or locked down in their cells, without adequate documentation in the detainee’s file to justify the disciplinary action.”

“One detainee reported being locked down for multiple days for sharing coffee with another detainee,” the report indicates. “We also identified detainees who were held in administrative segregation for extended periods of time without documented, periodic reviews that are required to justify continued segregation. Some detainees were locked down in their cells for violations of minor rules without required written notification of reasons for lockdown and appeal options.”

Detainee reports of Santa Ana City Jail personnel strip searching all detainees upon admission were confirmed. However, this routine use of strip searching was not documented in detainee files, which is required.

Moreover, this violated ICE’s own guidelines. “Performance-based national detention standards” instruct staff to only strip search detainees when 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.”

There were several complaints from detainees about staff mistreating detainees. At the Santa Ana City Jail, “Multiple detainees corroborated an incident in which a guard yelled at detainees for several minutes, while threatening to lock down detainees at his discretion. We reviewed surveillance video footage of the incident, which confirmed detainee accounts, including a hostile and prolonged rant and threats of a lockdown.”

Inspectors found an “inconsistent and insufficiently documented grievance resolution process” at the Stewart Detention Center.

Also, at the facilities, inspectors were informed by detainees that staff obstructed or delayed grievances through intimidation or “fear of retaliation.”

“Detainees are supposed to have access to telephones and be able to make free calls to the Department of Homeland Security OIG. Yet, at the Otero County Processing Center we observed non-working telephones in detainee housing areas; at the Stewart Detention Center, when we called the OIG Hotline, we received a message that the number was restricted.”

There were detainees at the Santa Ana City Jail and Stewart Detention Center, who reported “long waits for the provision of medical care, including instances of detainees with painful conditions, such as infected teeth and a knee injury, waiting days for medical intervention.”

At the Otero County Processing Center and Stewart Detention Center, inspectors saw bathrooms with mold and peeling paint on the walls, floor, and showers. The Stewart facility did not have hot water. Some showers did not have cold water. There were water leaks in housing areas.

“The realities documented by the OIG inspectors, and many more, are endemic to the entire detention system,” declared Mary Small, who is the policy director for Detention Watch Network. “The findings of the report support our ongoing call to immediately release people from detention, as ICE has proven time and time again to be incapable of meeting basic standards for humane treatment.”

Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director for Project South, reacted, “As our year-long documentation showed, Stewart is rife with abuse and should have shut down long ago. Some examples of human rights violations include: exploitation of immigrant labor for operation of the facility, reports of maggots being found in the food, and responding to hunger strikes with threats of force-feeding.”

“The May 2017 death of 27-year-old Jean-Carlos Jimenez-Joseph who was held in solitary for 19 days should have served as a final wake-up call and resulted in the immediate closure of the facility. We hope that the Georgia Congressional delegation will take action on the letter signed by 70 Georgia and national organizations and investigate this facility,” Shahshahani added.

Marcela Hernandez, an organizer with the Immigrant Youth Coalition, shared, “In our weekly visits to Santa Ana Jail’s trans pod, we documented multiple abuses, such as the women being kept in their cells for more than 20 hours a day and violent verbal, emotional, and physical abuse. There was also a huge lack of adequate medical attention to the point that one of the women collapsed, was taken to the local hospital, and was in a coma for weeks. She wasn’t allowed to finish her rehabilitation and was taken back to Santa Ana Jail, where her health continue to deteriorate instead of getting better.”

“For these reasons, we continue to support the fight against trans detention and all immigrant detentions,” Hernandez declared.

“Although the Santa Ana City Jail is no longer a contracted immigrant jail, it still holds hundreds of human beings inside deplorable conditions, where people are subjected to strip searches that often occur under unsanitary conditions and sometimes in full view of other people,” Christina Fialho of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) asserted. “We have filed countless complaints against ICE over the years regarding inadequate medical care at Hudson, a pattern or practice of sexual violence throughout the system, physical abuse at various immigration prisons, and more.”

Fialho argued, “Rather than [address] our concerns, ICE has adopted a head-in-the-sand approach, denying that any problems exist. The OIG report is only the tip of the iceberg; imagine the widespread abuse we would find if all 210 immigrant prisons were reviewed. A starting point in tackling this culture of impunity is greater transparency from our government institutions.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."