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'Grotesque and Dehumanizing' Conditions of Border Facilities Detailed in Photos and New Report by Inspector General

Watchdog found as many as 81 people packed into cells designed for half that and discovered that border agents were handing out sanitary wipes as a substitute for bathing

Overcrowding of families observed by OIG on June 11, 2019, at the Border Patrol's station in Weslaco, Texas.

Overcrowding of families observed by OIG on June 11, 2019, at the Border Patrol's station in Weslaco, Texas. (Photo: OIG)

A scathing new report from the Office of the Inspector General on Tuesday says that the number of detainees held in U.S. detention centers is at crisis levels and represents an "immediate risk" to the health and safety of everyone in the facilities. 

Overcrowding at Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) facilities is due to the fact that the agency is unable to transfer detainees to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and/or Health and Human Services (HHS) custody, the report (pdf) says.

The conditions were observed by the Inspector General's office on the week of June 10 during visits to five CBP facilities and two ports of entry.

"Currently, because both ICE and HHS are operating at or above capacity," the report explains, "CBP has experienced increasing instances of prolonged detention in its facilities."

The "serious overcrowding" at the centers and the holding of detainees for days and weeks longer than they should, the Inspector General's office says, has led to conditions for children that are reaching critical levels and are in violation of CBP's Transport, Escort, Detention and Search (TEDS) standards.

Those conditions are detailed in a particularly chilling excerpt from the report:

Children at three of the five Border Patrol facilities we visited had no access to showers, despite the TEDS standards requiring that "reasonable efforts" be made to provide showers to children approaching 48 hours in detention. At these facilities, children had limited access to a change of clothes; Border Patrol had few spare clothes and no laundry facilities. While all facilities had infant formula, diapers, baby wipes, and juice and snacks for children, we observed that two facilities had not provided children access to hot meals—as is required by the TEDS standards—until the week we arrived. Instead, the children were fed sandwiches and snacks for their meals. 

Conditions for adults are no better. In captions to photos showing the overcrowded conditions in the cells, the report says that the Inspector General's office on June 12 observed "[51] adult females held in a cell designated for male juveniles with a capacity for 40, and 71 adult males held in a cell designated for adult females with a capacity for 41," and "[88] adult males held in a cell with a maximum capacity of 41."

Many of these adults had not showered for the extent of their detention—in some cases up to a month—while CBP agents were handing out sanitary wipes as a substitute for bathing.

The food was reported as no better.

"Further, although TEDS standards require agents to remain cognizant of detainees' religious and other dietary restrictions, many single adults had been receiving only bologna sandwiches," the report says. "Some detainees on this diet were becoming constipated and required medical attention."

"Two of the facilities obtained a contract for hot meals the week of our site visit," the report acknowledges in a footnote to that point, "but others continued to serve sandwiches."

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Buzzfeed News, in reporting Tuesday, shared additional images showing the level of overcrowding. The amount of people crammed into the cells, Buzzfeed said, is leading to situations where detainees are taking matters into their own hands.

"Adults purposely clogged toilets with Mylar blankets and socks in order to be released from their cells, while some refused to return to cells after they had been cleaned," said Buzzfeed. "Others tried to escape."

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which acts as an umbrella for CBP and ICE, said that the border was in a state of "acute and worsening crisis" and that DHS had "added two tents capable of holding 500 people each in the Rio Grande Valley, and plans to add another to house single adults by July 29, 2019."

The Inspector General's office expresses skepticism on that point. 

"We remain concerned that DHS is not taking sufficient measures to address prolonged detention in CBP custody among single adults," the office says in its conclusion.

Tuesday's report is just the latest in troubling news from the border. On Monday, as Common Dreams reported, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley, (D-Mass.), Joaquin Castro (D-Texas.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), and other members of the House traveled to the border, where they observed firsthand the conditions in CBP prisons. As the congress members informed the media of the conditions, protesters who support the camps attempted to shout over them. 

"I am tired of the health and the safety, the humanity, and the full freedoms of black and brown children being negotiated, and compromised, and moderated," Pressley said in her remarks. "We need a system that works, that is humane, and that is compassionate, and that keeps families together."

In an essay Tuesday morning on that visit and the crisis in general, Splinter deputy editor Jack Mirkinson argued that the conditions at the border make clear that the system is working as it's supposed to and that means it must be dismantled. 

"It's easy to see why people cling to the idea that the system is 'broken,'" wrote Mirkinson. "It's more palatable than accepting the fact that the country you live in is systematically and intentionally abusing people. But it's also dangerous because it accepts the idea that there is a way to un-break the system, if only we weed the bad parts out."

House Democrats will hold hearings on the conditions at the border next week, Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said Tuesday. 

"The Trump Administration's actions at the southern border are grotesque and dehumanizing," Cummings said in a statement. "There seems to be open contempt for the rule of law and for basic human decency."

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