10-21-2011By Ruthie Epstein
Refugee Protection Program
This week’s PBS Frontline documentary “Lost in Detention” examined practices of immigration enforcement under the Obama administration. It offered a vivid portrayal of the U.S. immigration detention system, which uses a sprawling network of 250 jails and jail-like facilities across the country – including ICE-operated Service Processing Centers, privately run Contract Detention Facilities, and county jails and prisons operating under Intergovernmental Service Agreements with ICE – to hold almost 400,000 civil immigration law detainees each year. Fifty percent of these facilities are actual jails, and the other fifty percent “in most critical respects…are structured and operated much like standardized correctional facilities,” according to a prison expert retained by the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. The documentary confirmed many of the findings of Human Rights First’s new report assessing the U.S. government’s progress toward meeting its own commitments to transformation – “Jails and Jumpsuits: Transforming the U.S. Immigration Detention System – A Two-Year Review.”
In ICE detention facilities, asylum seekers and other civil immigration law detainees typically wear color-coded prison uniforms and live in conditions that are characteristic of penal facilities—their freedom of movement and outdoor access are highly limited; they often visit with family and friends separated by Plexiglas barriers; and they have little or no privacy in toilets and showers. As the documentary demonstrated in footage taken at Willacy Detention Center, a massive facility in Texas operated by Corrections Corporation of America, these ICE facilities are typically surrounded by multiple perimeter fences topped with razor wire, barbed wire, or concertina coils. (ICE has since ended its contract with Willacy, although the facility continues to hold immigrants detained under a program called Operation Streamline for the Department of Justice.)
Two years ago, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) committed to transform the U.S. immigration detention system by shifting it away from its longtime reliance on jails and jail-like facilities, to facilities with conditions more appropriate for the detention of civil immigration law detainees. This commitment followed a review of the detention system from the DHS Special Advisor that found that “[present immigration detention] standards impose more restrictions and carry more costs than are necessary to effectively manage the majority of the detained population.” In the Frontline documentary, Mark Fleming, an attorney who worked with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on a comprehensive report on detention and due process in the U.S. immigration system, observed that the system “is not supposed to be punitive, and yet, in every way, shape, or form, it was punitive. It was a criminal setting. They wore uniforms as inmates, the officers had very much a criminal justice mentality, and so it’s palpable the desperation that detained immigrants feel at this facility.”
In the course of Human Rights First’s research on immigration detention facilities, we visited 17 ICE-authorized detention facilities that together held more than 10,000 of the 33,400 total ICE beds, interviewed government officials, legal service providers, and former immigration detainees, as well as a range of former prison wardens, corrections officials, and other experts on correctional systems. We found that the United States continues to hold the overwhelming majority of detained asylum seekers and other civil immigration law detainees in jails and jail-like facilities across the country. The facilities are expected to cost American taxpayers more than $2 billion in 2012.
ICE has begun to use, or has plans to use, five new facilities that would contain in total 3,485 detention beds in less penal conditions. These facilities are designed as templates for a more appropriate approach to immigration detention. If they open as designed and as scheduled, approximately 14 percent of the detained population would be housed in these less penal conditions – including greater outdoor access, contact visitation with family, and a more normalized environment with the detention facility. Asylum seekers and other immigrants would still wear uniform clothing, even at these new facilities – and the remaining 86 percent of ICE detainees would still be held in jails and jail-like facilities.
In Human Rights First’s report, we note that former prison officials and other corrections experts have found that less penal conditions in detention can actually help improve safety inside a facility, a finding echoed in multiple studies. We also outline steps that the administration should take to end its reliance on facilities with conditions that are inappropriate for asylum seekers and other civil immigration law detainees, and to bring U.S. detention practices into compliance with international human rights standards, including:
- End the use of jails and jail-like facilities to hold immigration law detainees. ICE should phase out contracts with county and state jails and prisons, which are inappropriate for civil immigration law detainees.
- Use more appropriate facilities. After an individualized assessment of whether detention is necessary, when asylum seekers are detained under the civil immigration laws, they should not be held in prisons, jails, or jail-like facilities. Instead, ICE should use facilities with more appropriate conditions that provide a more normalized environment, permitting detainees to wear their own clothing, move freely among various areas within a secure facility and grounds, access true outdoor recreation for extended periods of time, accessing programming and email, have some privacy in toilets and showers, and have contact visits with family and friends.
- Develop and implement new standards specifying conditions for civil immigration detention. To promote compliance, these new standards should be incorporated into contracts and promulgated into regulations.
- Expand Alternatives to Detention nationwide. When used as true alternatives to detention for individuals who would not otherwise be released – and not as alternatives to release for the non-detained population in removal proceedings, ATD programs should create significant cost savings for the government – more than $110 per person per day. Congress should ensure than cost savings are realized in the expansion of ATDs by reallocating part of the detention and removal budget to an increase in the ATD budget.
- Revise laws and regulations to provide for detention only after an individualized assessment of the need to detain. Arriving asylum seekers and other immigration detainees should have the chance to have their custody reviewed in a hearing before an immigration court. Congress should revise laws so that an asylum seeker other immigrant may be detained only after an assessment of the need for detention in his or her individual case, rather than through automatic or mandatory detention.
The Frontline documentary’s detention segment opened with a shot of immigration detainees at James A. Musick Facility in Irvine, California. Musick is actually a new ICE facility; the Orange County Sheriff’s Department agreed to provide 235 beds for ICE use beginning in June 2010. The Frontline footage of Musick demonstrated the bottom line in just a few, powerful seconds. Despite ICE’s commitments to leave the jail model behind, the ICE detainees at Musick are wearing bright red prison uniforms. There’s still a long way to go.