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Sunday, 31 October 2010

Sexual assault and abuse rampant in America’s immigration detention centers

CBP Border Patrol agent conducts a pat down of...Image via Wikipedia

Source: Campus Progress


By Catherine Traywick

A year ago, the Obama administration touted the newly overhauled T. Don Hutto Residential Center as a model detention facility.

Three years earlier, the facility, located in Taylor, Texas, had come under fire after news broke that a guard had engaged in sexual acts with a detainee—while her young son lay sleeping in the same small cell. Security cameras had caught the man entering and exiting the room. The guard was fired, but he was not prosecuted.

Months later, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) documented the prison-like conditions to which Hutto subjected detainees of all ages: Confining them in small cells for up to 12 hours a day, forcing them to wear prison uniforms, and routinely depriving them of access to education, health care, and privacy.  The ACLU, on behalf of prisoners, sued the Department of Homeland Security over the issue and won.

Last year, administration officials billed the facility as transformed from an inhospitable prison for families into a “person-centered” facility for women. Hutto was supposed to set the stage for the administration’s vision of truly “civil detention reform.” Hutto’s bad reputation made it a good candidate for reform. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the for-profit company that operates Hutto and most other immigration detention centers in this country, worked with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to rehabilitate the facility. It was duly relieved of housing families and revamped to provide women detainees with a less punitive residential experience.

Then this August another guard at the facility, Donald Charles Dunn, was arrested for sexually assaulting several detainees while transporting them for release. To date, no one knows exactly how many women he assaulted before deportation or release. The incident stood standing out as a remarkable failure of justice and publicly revived Hutto’s troubling legacy of bad management and misconduct.

Now, of course, Hutto is a blight on the administration’s vision for detention reform—an ugly reminder that our detention system remains woefully impaired and anything but civil.


“What’s really troubling about what happened here is that Hutto is supposedly a model facility, and yet this individual was able to subject numerous women to abuse on numerous occasions,” says Vanita Gupta, the ACLU deputy legal director charged with investigating the sexual abuses at the detention center.
Gupta, who is in the process of tracking down some of the women Dunn abused, believes that Hutto epitomizes the endemic flaws in our present immigration detention system. While ICE’s patchwork of overcrowded immigration detention centers is plagued by a broad range of systemic ills, the most pernicious of these, by far, is a widespread pattern of sexual abuse.

Rethinking the Detention Experiment

Mass immigration detention is a relatively new phenomenon in the United States, which accounts for some of the flaws in the system. Prior to the 1980s, only those immigrants deemed “a danger to national security” were detained for any period of time. Mass detention as we know it today evolved under the Reagan administration, as a means of deterring large influxes of Cuban, Haitian, and Central American refugees.
In the decades since, concern over emigration from Mexico saw new, stricter laws enacted which collectively expanded the categories of aliens that could be subject to detention. The 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent creation of the Department of Homeland Security further solidified the compulsory use of the long-term detention.

As a result, the detainee population increased at a staggering pace—from 7,500 people per day in 1995 to approximately 33,000 per day in 2010. With few dedicated immigration detention centers available to house the growing number of detainees, authorities began renting out beds in a variety of facilities primarily used for housing criminal convicts under very restrictive conditions. The intermingling and eventual conflation of civil and criminal detainees pushed immigration detention towards the highly punitive model prevalent today. Today nearly 400,000 undocumented immigrants are detained every year.

Victoria Lopez, an ACLU immigration attorney who has worked with detainees in Arizona for nine years notes the change. “It was still pretty bad 9 years ago when I first starting doing this work, but over the years there has been a way more heavy handed approach to prosecuting immigration deportation cases.” Lopez says of the change in immigration policy and practice. “When I first started doing this, there was definitely more room for negotiating cases. Over the last few years it's become much more difficult.”

ICE’s decision in 2001 to begin detaining large numbers of immigrant women, posed new challenges. Due to the overall lack of space, all-women detention quarters were created in facilities that historically had only housed men and were not equipped to accommodate two distinct populations. To date, women in such facilities are routinely denied (or have only limited access to) some of the resources available for men: Educational services, courtyards, craft space, and work rooms.

Women and LGBT detainees particularly at risk

As evidenced by the Hutto incident, sexual abuse in detention has become so pervasive that Human Rights Watch released a report in August that documented sex crimes committed in detention centers across eight states.

At the Willacy Detention Center in Raymondville, Texas, detainees told researchers that guards not only perpetrated sexual assault but, in at least one incident, actually aided a male detainee in raping a woman who was held in the same facility.

In Arizona, a woman reported that she was repeatedly assaulted by a man on the medical staff who continually called her in for vaginal examinations, even though she never complained of having gynecological problems.

And at the San Pedro Service Processing Center in California, a guard forced a transgender woman to repeatedly perform oral sex on him while she waited for her attorney in a holding cell. Even after she reported the incident, the staff took so long arranging for evidence collection that she was forced to wait overnight to wash out her mouth.

Violence against LGBT detainees, in particular, is a growing problem, as they are especially vulnerable within the detention system. In addition to being singled out for harassment as a result of their sexual orientation or gender identity, transgender women often face the added risk. They are often housed with male detainees and supervised by male guards. Under those conditions, transgender women are even more susceptible to violence than those held in women-only facilities.

“The [only] sexual assaults I have documented have been with gay and transgender populations in detention,” ACLU attorney Lopez says. “Within that population, we’ve definitely noted cases of harassment, starting with verbal harassment all the way to physical assault. In a more egregious case, one of the transgender detainees we worked with was sexually assaulted by a guard.”

Unfortunately, efforts to safeguard this particularly vulnerable population have proven distinctly harmful as well. For instance, when the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) conducted site visits of seven Southwest detention centers last year, they were troubled to find that some facilities attempted to protect LGBT detainees by keeping them in solitary confinement—a harshly punitive measure often used in prisons to discipline disobedient criminal inmates. As highlighted by the IACHR, facilities that subject LGBT detainees to the practice are effectively punishing the very individuals they seek to protect.

Poor national standards in place

Many of the incidents of sexual abuse and mistreatment in the detention system experienced by immigrant detainees on a daily basis could be prevented if federal authorities simply assumed appropriate responsibility for the people they detain under federal law.

Of approximately 350 facilities that house more than 380,000 detainees per year, only eight are directly owned and operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The others are contracted out to private companies or state or local facilities—many of which are also operated by for-profit prison corporations.

Outsourcing civil detention raises a number of ethical concerns about the social costs of detaining people for profit. Not only is it expensive (an average $122 per detainee per day, according to Detention Watch Network), it tends to put detainees at increased risk of abuse and mistreatment. The Bureau of Justice has statistics that confirm sexual violence is historically much less prevalent in federal-run prisons than in state prisons or local jails than it is in the U.S. correctional system. At privately run facilities, rates of abuse are four to five times higher than they are federal prisons.

And, while ICE does prescribe a set of National Detention Standards to its facilities, they are variously implemented and not legally binding.

“You have these varying contracts with ICE, and there are no baseline standards that are enforceable for all of these immigration detention facilities,” says Lopez. “ ICE has what it calls Performance Based Standards [which] do not apply in the same way to a county facility that they would apply to a privately contracted facility or an ICE-run facility … They aren’t enforceable, so if there is a violation of one of these standards, there really is no recourse to address the violation.”

The complicated ways in which federal law and ICE standards overlap with facility policies can be unsettling. For example, Human Rights Watch notes that, until 2007, it was not technically illegal for a CCA employee at an immigration detention facility to have a sexual relationship with a detainee. Though sexual contact between guards and inmates is clearly prohibited by federal law, the CCA facility (though contracted by the federal government) did not fall under DOJ authority and was, therefore, exempt from the provision. While that particular loophole has since closed, federal efforts to ensure that sexual assault prevention and intervention is uniform across facilities have been piecemeal, at best.

ICE’s national detention standards did not include a sexual assault provision at all until 2008—a full seven years after the agency began mandatorily detaining women in large numbers. And even with the provision in place, the likelihood of its broad and thorough implementation remains in question.

“I think that [reforms] have been somewhat slow to get to the ground,” Lopez says of the Obama administration’s efforts to improve the detention system. “Frankly, when you’re dealing with the number of people that go through detention facilities in the U.S., and some of the life or death issues in these cases…I don’t know how much longer folks can wait for reforms to trickle down from Washington, D.C., to Eloy, Ariz.”

The Gendered Impact of Detention

Abuse in detention does not occur in a vacuum. Rather, these problems exist on continuum of malfeasance, beginning with discriminatory practices at the lowest level. In the immigration detention system women routinely experience a different standard of care and confinement than men. Not only are many facilities ill-equipped to handle the distinct needs of a female population, the absence of comprehensive and binding industry regulations leaves women susceptible to a variety of prejudices.

Sandra, who asked not to be referred to by her full name,knows this all too well. When she and her husband Carlos were arrested in a worksite raid in Arizona last year, they were distressed to discover how differently they were treated while in confinement.

Sandra, who was held in an all-women jail not far from the facility where her husband was confined, was subjected to mandatory—and humiliating—strip searches on a routine basis. During the three months that she was detained, she and the other women she was housed with were forced to completely disrobe and bend over for examination any time they left their cells—no matter if they came from court, church, or the jail's visitation room. When she told her husband about this, he was appalled. The men in his facility were only subjected to cursory waistband frisking.

Routine, unnecessary strip searches of women detainees are common across detention facilities, even though national detention standards mandate strip searches only when staff has reasonable suspicion to believe that a detainee is concealing contraband. The widespread use of strip searches in direct violation of detention standards highlights the inefficacy of ICE regulation, and stands out as yet another example of harsh prison standards being misapplied to a largely non-violent, non-criminal population.

The practice is particularly detrimental to women who arrive in detention immediately following—or as a result of­—sexual violence or trauma. The United Nations estimates that up to 60 percent of women crossing the southern Mexico border, presumably bound for the U.S., experience some form of sexual abuse during their journey.  [PDF]

The Migration Policy Institute notes that the risk of assault is so high among women border crossers that “before [they] start their journey, some of them inject contraceptives to prevent pregnancy.” Detention facilities in border states, which detain a large number of border crossers, are therefore likely to have in their custody a high number of recent sexual assault victims. For these women, unnecessary and invasive strip searches only augment pre-existing traumas.

Moreover, ICE facilities are rife with victims of domestic and violence. In her 2009 report on women in the Arizona immigration detention, researcher and director of the University of Arizona Border Research Institute Nina Rabin describes several cases in which immigrant women were actually turned into ICE by their abusive partners.

Maria, a 25-year-old Mexican immigrant who came to the United States at 17, told Rabin under the condition her last name wouldn’t be revealed that she entered the system after enduring a physically violent relationship with a man who “kidnapped her, severely beat her, and turned her over to ICE.” While ICE hospitalized Maria before confining her to a detention facility, nobody addressed the circumstances of her arrival or informed her that she was eligible for a special visa for domestic violence victims.

The experiences of women like Maria underscore the gendered flaws in the detention system. The widespread use of needlessly penal practices (like strip searches) only serves to further victimize an already brutalized population.

Things are improving, but too slowly

In recent years, as a result of increasing public awareness and Obama administration efforts, some of these issues have been addressed. Facilities in Arizona, for example, revamped detainee accommodations following Rabin’s much-publicized report.

Lopez, too, has noticed some small changes in the facilities that she monitors. Since news broke of the sexual abuse at Hutto, for instance, the Eloy Detention Center in southern Arizona began ensuring that women detainees were not left alone with male officers, and instead escorted to visitations by other women. “We definitely saw some immediate, noticeable changes in the way they started doing things at Eloy,” Lopez says, though she adds that there is still a long way to go.

The immigration detention system in the United States is ostensibly an ongoing experiment. Under the Obama administration, ICE has made some significant steps in reforming detention, beginning with the creation of the Office of Detention Policy and Planning (ODPP)—an agency that would provide greater federal oversight of the system and work on creating more civil detention facilities. In recent months, officials have also pronounced their commitment to refocusing enforcement efforts on criminal aliens instead of immigrants who had committed no crimes. And as recently as last month, ICE announced plans to release up to 17,000 detainees who had reasonable grounds for remaining in the country.

But the administration’s talk of reform belies the reality that more immigrants have been detained since Obama took office than any other time in history. And as the detainee population increases, so do incidents of abuse. Creating more civil ICE-operated detention facilities is a step in the right direction but—as evidenced by the Hutto case—nicer facilities mean little without legally binding, gender-based detention standards in place to govern them.

“ICE should have more rigorous standards in place to prevent [abuses] from happening," Gupta says, adding that the next major step is to end contracts with prison detention companies, like CCA, which are guilty of repeat offenses.

“CCA was already sued for the way it was treating children in its custody at Hutto, and CCA really messed up that time … Yet ICE continued to contract with CCA, and continues to do so in the aftermath of this latest tragedy,” she says.

What will it take, she wonders, for ICE to finally learn its lesson?

Catherine Traywick is an Arizona-based blogger for The Media Consortium.
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