Each year, inspectors for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement visit more than 100 detention centers across the country to ensure the facilities that house about 31,000 immigrants on any given day are safe and humane.
A new report says those inspections overlook serious deficiencies, from sexual assaults to lack of medical care, and appear designed to give the detention facilities a pass.
Most of the immigration detention centers are run by private prison companies or county jails through contracts with ICE. In 2008, following investigations into abuse and neglect in immigration detention centers, Congress mandated that ICE end its contract with facilities that failed two annual inspections in a row.
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Since then, not a single detention center has failed two consecutive inspections, according to the report, by the National Immigration Justice Center (NIJC) and Detention Watch Network (DWN). The groups analyzed inspections from 2007 to 2012 at 105 of the largest immigration detention facilities in the country, including two in Illinois.
That’s not because abuse and neglect in the facilities suddenly ended, said Claudia Valenzuela, one of the authors of the report and director of detention services at NIJC, based in Chicago.
“We looked at these facilities in the report where there is longtime documentation of abuses,” Valenzuela said. “If these facilities are not failing, we don’t know what kind of facility will ever fail an inspection.”
Take Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, which is run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and in 2012 detained on average nearly 1,500 immigrants a day.
In April 2010, Tanya Guzman-Martinez, a transgender woman from Mexico, was sexually assaulted by a fellow detainee in the all-male housing unit at Eloy, where she was being held while her asylum case was working its way through immigration court. The man pushed her, grabbed her breast and slapped her on her butt, according to a lawsuit she later filed with the help of the ACLU of Arizona.
It was not the first time that Guzman-Martinez was sexually assaulted during her eight-month stay at the facility.
Four months earlier, a guard at Eloy forced Guzman-Martinez to watch him masturbate and then ingest a cup of his semen, threatening that he would lock her in “the hole” or have her deported if she did not comply, according to the lawsuit. The guard was later convicted of attempted unlawful sexual contact, but officials at Eloy did not move Guzman-Martinez to a women’s unit, which would have prevented the second attack.
Despite that, an inspection of the Eloy Detention Center by ICE officials in February 2011 found that the facility met all standards for sexual assault prevention and intervention.
“We think it’s really difficult for ICE to deny that there is some shortcoming in their inspection process, when these inspections can paint such a different story from those in the grievances that are being raised by those who are detained,” Valenzuela said.
Guzman-Martinez was released from detention soon after she reported the second assault to police, was granted reprieve from deportation and later received an undisclosed settlement payment from CCA.
Other immigrants detained at Eloy have not been so fortunate. At least three detainees have committed suicide since 2013, more than at any other ICE-contracted facility, according to ICE data. Yet Eloy received a passing grade on the suicide prevention standards in its 2012 inspection. This is despite an acknowledgement by inspectors that the suicide watch room contained “structures or smaller objects that could be used in a suicide attempt.”
CCA did not return a call for comment.
Shedding Light on a Hidden Detention System
Until now, practically all of the information about ICE detention, which costs more than $2 billion per year, was hidden from public view. It took a three-year legal battle before the agency turned over the detention center contracts and inspection reports to NIJC and DWN under the Freedom of Information Act.
The agency still hasn’t released all of the reports that NIJC requested. Many of the missing reports are of 2010 inspections of facilities that failed inspections in 2009. It’s unclear whether the facilities were inspected that year and if ICE overlooked the reports or intentionally withheld them from NIJC.
U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Chicago Democrat and long-time critic of the nation’s immigration policies, said a “culture of secrecy” persists at ICE.
“If we are going to have a system that detains so many people, we have to have the checks and balances in place to make sure that the detention is as humane as possible,” he wrote in an email.
ICE did not respond to specific questions about the report, including those about the missing documents. Instead, in an email, an ICE spokeswoman said that the agency plans to review the report.
In addition to the treatment of detainees, the report has another troubling finding: Inspections can be changed by ICE personnel after they are submitted, and no record is kept of who changed them or why.
That happened at the Pulaski County Jail, formerly called the Tri-County Detention Center, one of two ICE detention facilities in Illinois.
Tri-County held an average of 224 immigrants per day in 2012—about half the entire population of Ullin, Ill., where the jail is located.
That year, inspectors found the jail did not meet standards, due to deficiencies in medical care, including not having a written policy for management of pharmaceuticals and improper care of needles and syringes.
However, a memo to the Chicago field office director that was affixed to the front of the inspection report before it was sent to the facility said, “A final rating of Meets Standards has been assigned and this review is now closed.” There is no explanation for the change.
Gutierrez said the report highlights another in a long series of disappointments in immigration detention.
By his accounting, the entire U.S. immigration system “gets a failing grade.”
The Chicago Reporter is a non-profit investigative news organization that focuses on race, poverty and income inequality.