More Immigrant Deaths in US Detention

Published on
by
Inter Press Service

More Immigrant Deaths in US Detention

by
William Fisher

NEW YORK - In response to a
lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the U.S.
Department of Homeland Security revealed Tuesday that the government
had failed to disclose 11 more deaths in immigration detention
facilities.

In April, Homeland
Security (DHS) officials released what they called a comprehensive list
of all deaths in detention. That list included a total of 90
individuals. With Tuesday's announcement, the government has now
admitted to a total of 104 in-custody deaths since fiscal year 2003.

But
the ACLU is continuing to express doubt that they now have a complete
tally of those who have died while in immigration custody.

David
Shapiro, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project, told
IPS, "Even after the government's announcement yesterday we still can
have no real confidence that each and every death has been accounted
for."

Noting that the government announced last week what it
called sweeping plans to overhaul the immigration detention system,
Shapiro added, "No overhaul can be complete without intentional efforts
being made to infuse accountability and transparency into the system."

He
said, "From our perspective, that would come in the form of legally
binding standards governing basic levels of care and conditions inside
immigration detention facilities. Simply having the government
consolidate its oversight is not enough - there have to be mechanisms
in place to hold the government accountable because, as we've seen,
their track record in terms of immigration detention to date is not
good, to say the least."

"Today's announcement confirms our very worst fears," he said.

The
ACLU sued DHS, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the DHS
Office of the Inspector General (OIG) in June 2008 for failing to turn
over thousands of public documents in their possession relating to the
deaths of immigration detainees held in U.S. custody.

The ACLU
filed the lawsuit after repeated failures by DHS officials to release
those documents in response to requests for critical information about
the deaths of dozens of people in immigration detention.

And in
another FOIA request, submitted by the ACLU to DHS in 2007, the ACLU
sought information about whether ICE – or any independent monitoring
agency – adequately tracks deaths of immigration detainees, who are
often housed in county jails around the country alongside criminal
detainees, or in one of numerous immigration detention facilities
managed by private prison companies.

ICE owns and operates its
own detention facilities, and also rents bed space from county and city
prisons and jails. ICE locks up about 32,000 civil immigration
detainees each day - 400,000 a year. Many of these are pursuing their
immigration cases in the courts.

The ACLU says deficient
medical care is believed to be a leading cause of death in immigration
detention, and is the number one complaint the organisation has
received from ICE detainees.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit in 2007
against the San Diego Correctional Facility (SDCF), an ICE facility run
by Corrections Corporations of America, Inc., the country's largest
for-profit correctional services provider.

In its lawsuit, the
ACLU challenges medical care policies and denial of needed treatment by
ICE and the Division of Immigration Health Services, which it says has
led to suffering and death among detainees.

At the immigration
detention center in Basile, Louisiana, more than 60 detainees have
recently been on hunger strikes to protest conditions. Authorities
there retaliated by putting the hunger strikers in solitary confinement.

And
the Los Angeles detention center has been another target of criticism.
Civil rights groups are suing ICE in federal district court for
detaining immigrants in "egregious and unsanitary conditions" in that
facility.

The lawsuit, filed by the ACLU of Southern California,
the National Immigration Law Centre, and a private law firm, also
charges that the unsanitary conditions have led ICE to deprive
immigrants of due-process rights such as access to mail or attorneys
while in detention.

The Los Angeles facility, known as "B-18,"
is allowed to temporarily house detainees for no more than 12 hours.
But in what the ACLU calls "a perverse distortion of its original
purpose," it says immigration officials have kept detainees for weeks
by shuttling them to local jails in the evenings and on weekends, and
returning them to the facility on the next business day, the lawsuit
said.

The lawsuit also alleged that immigration officials often
fail to notify detainees that they have the right to obtain release on
bail while their cases remain pending.

The lawsuit said B-18 has not provided basic medication besides the lack of sanitary equipment.

It
charges that some of the facilities to which detainees are shuttled
have similar gross deficiencies: Detainees are not permitted to shower
in jail. Up to 50 detainees routinely share one open commode, one
urinal (or two open commodes) and one sink.

At some local jails,
overcrowding and vents that blow extremely cold air on the bunks force
detainees to sleep on mattresses on the floor. At B-18 and other jails,
guards force detainees to remain inside through the entire day, and
only permit them to go outside when shuttling them between detention
centres. They are not permitted to have any physical recreation.

ICE's
city, county and private prisons and jails also house serious
criminals. The ACLU says that immigration detainees are mixed in with
the general prison population, housed in penal-like facilities for
months and sometimes years, with virtually no due process and often
without the most basic safeguards such as hearings to assess the need
for continued detention. These include asylum seekers, legal
immigrants, victims of human trafficking, and immigrants with no
criminal records.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that
private, for-profit prison companies are preparing for a wave of new
business as the economic downturn makes it increasingly difficult for
federal and state government officials to build and operate their own
jails.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons and several state
governments have sent thousands of inmates in recent months to prisons
and detention centres run by Corrections Corp. of America, Geo Group
Inc. and other private operators, as a crackdown on illegal
immigration, a lengthening of mandatory sentences for certain crimes
and other factors have overcrowded many government facilities.

The
Obama administration's newly appointed official supervising ICE, John
Morton, said last week that he wanted to turn immigration detention
into a "truly civil detention system", one focused on safely and
humanely holding people accused of civil immigration violations until
they are deported or released.

The announced reforms include
creating offices and advisory boards to focus on medical care and the
management of centres, reviewing contracts with private prisons and
local jails, and installing managers at the 23 largest centres to make
sure complaints are heard and problems fixed.

He said centres
would face random inspections. Community groups and immigrant advocates
would be invited to offer advice and comment. And the government would
stop sending parents with children to a notorious prison near Austin,
Texas, as it seeks alternatives to the Bush-era tactic of putting whole
families behind bars.

Congress is also expressing interest in
the immigration detention issue. Legislation has been introduced in
both the House and the Senate that would change the laws governing
immigration detention and increase oversight and enforceability of
detention standards.

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