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ACLU Urges Biden to Shut Down Detention Facilities 'Used to Abuse and Traumatize Immigrants'

"It's time to end our nation's newest system of mass incarceration of Black and Brown people."

Human rights advocates in New York City protesting the incarceration of immigrants on July 30, 2020.

Human rights advocates in New York City protesting the incarceration of immigrants on July 30, 2020. (Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The ACLU is urging the Biden administration to shut down over three dozen Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities in light of decreasing numbers of people detained and human rights concerns.

"The Biden administration was elected with a mandate to fix our broken immigration system, and immigrant detention is an early test of its resolve," Naureen Shah, senior advocacy and policy counsel at the ACLU, said in a statement.

The rights group laid out its demand in a letter sent Wednesday to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas that singles out 39 detention facilitates for closure. Spanning 15 states, the facilities were either opened by the Trump administration without adequate justification, are in a location that limits detainees' access to legal counsel or medical care, or have been the site of "egregious patterns of inhumane treatment or conditions," according to the ACLU.

Included in the list are facilities on the Detention Watch Network's "First Ten" campaign. The ACLU is a cosponsor of that campaign, and said in the letter it endorses the network's roadmap for detention shutdowns.

Among the facilities named is the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, where detainees say they were subjected to forced medical procedures and abuse.

From the letter:

In September 2020, whistleblowers at Irwin filed a complaint alleging "jarring medical neglect," including forced hysterectomies and an alarming number of  involuntary gynecological procedures for women detained at the facility, as well as Covid-19 protocol violations and the shredding and fabrication of medical records. In response, the U.S. House of Representatives called for an investigation and halted the deportation of individuals who had received "any" medical procedure at Irwin. Detained people at Irwin have long reported significant abuses, including a lack of medical and mental healthcare, due process violations, and  unsanitary living conditions. ICE's own inspections resulted in reports of sexual abuse, hunger strikes, and suicide watch lists. Irwin, located 188 miles from the nearest metropolitan area, has one of the lowest rates of immigration attorney availability of any detention facility in the country.

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Also problematic is another facility in Georgia, the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, according to the letter.

More detained people have died at Stewart than at any other ICE facility in the last four years. Since May 2017, eight detainees have died in custody at Stewart, including four due to Covid-19 and two suicides by individuals who were put in solitary confinement. More than 490 people had been infected with Covid-19 as of spring 2021. Multiple investigations have reported inadequate medical and mental healthcare, use of solitary confinement, and abuse. These issues have been apparent for several years: in 2013, CRCL conducted a site visit and made 17 recommendations, including increasing physician oversight of medical care, ceasing to segregate detained individuals with medical and mental health needs, and putting an end to faith tests to determine an individual's eligibility for religious meals. Located three hours from the nearest major city, Stewart has one of the lowest immigration attorney availability rates of any detention facility in the country.

The ACLU further pointed to the unnecessary "enormous taxpayer expense" for the detention centers given that there are currently "thousands of empty beds," for which, according to an NPR analysis this month, ICE pays $1 million a day. The reporting attributed the lower numbers to ICE's release of hundreds of people to lower the risk of Covid-19 and the fact that the Biden administration is arresting and detaining fewer "unauthorized immigrants."

"Closing detention sites should be an easy decision," said Shah. She urged President Joe Biden to seize what she called "a unique moment to shrink the infrastructure that's been used to abuse and traumatize immigrants for decades."

"It's time to end our nation's newest system of mass incarceration of Black and Brown people," said Shah.

The Detention Watch Network issued a similar message Wednesday.

"The evidence for why the administration needs to take immediate action on ICE detention is overwhelming," said Silky Shah, the group's executive director. "We urge the Biden administration to release people from detention, shut down detention centers, and end detention contracts now."

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