Why Detention Reform Is Desperately Needed
Last October, the Obama administration’s announced their intention to reform the detention system—to improve the management, medical care and accountability within detention centers, and make better use of low-cost alternatives to detention.
But one year later, a new report by the Detention Watch Network reveals that the “truly civil” detention system once promised by the administration has truly failed to materialize. And while the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been crowing over its record number of deportations, it’s suspiciously mum when it comes to the record number of detainees that still languish in woefully mismanaged detention facilities.
DHS gets an “F”
Elise Foley at the Washington Independent notes that, despite DHS’s assurances that “visible changes have been made” to the system, immigrant rights advocates are critical of the purported reforms.
The Detention Watch Network, which graded DHS on each of its proposed reform initiatives, concluded that the agency has achieved minimal progress and has not substantively improved conditions for the nearly 400,000 immigrants detained every year under “cruel and unusual,” prison-like conditions. DHS received particularly low marks on its promise to utilize low-cost and humane alternatives to detention, such as ankle bracelets or bond release.
Underscoring the case for alternatives to detention, Foley details the story of Pedro Perez Guzman, a 30-year-old undocumented immigrant who came to the U.S. at the age of eight. Guzman, who is married to an American citizen and has a young son, has been in detention since last year, when he was picked up on a deportation order. As a father, breadwinner, and long-time (albeit undocumented) resident, Guzman should be a good candidate for bond release or some other alternative to detention. But because DHS has failed to broadly implement such alternatives, he’s spending his last months in the U.S. behind bars instead of with his family.
Reform hasn’t curbed sexual abuse in detention
The administration’s failure to meaningfully reform the broken detention system has particularly pernicious consequences for women detainees. As I detailed in a special report for Campus Progress, women in detention are routinely subject to a variety of mistreatment that ranges from gender discrimination to rape.
The T. Don Hutto detention facility in Texas stands out as a prime example of how failed reforms have disproportionately impacted women. Four years ago, the facility came under fire after a guard was caught having sexual relations with a woman detainee—an act which, thanks to a loophole in federal law, wasn’t technically a crime in privately-operated ICE facilities.
Last year, DHS overhauled the Hutto detention center, publicly touting it as model facility that embodied the administration’s vision for “truly civil” detention reform. Then, this August, a Hutto guard was arrested for sexually assaulting several detainees while transporting them for deportation. To date, no one knows how many women he assaulted, or whether other guards have done the same.
Clearly, a DHS facelift wasn’t enough to correct a long-standing pattern of mismanagement, poor oversight, and discrimination that ultimately resulted in the victimization of an unknown number of immigrant women.
Traffic violations = mandatory detention
The ills plaguing the immigration detention system are further exacerbated by the growing number of detainees, which has reached a record of 33,000 per day and nearly 400,000 per year.
As Monica Fabian points out at Feet in Two Worlds, a significant proportion of these detainees have been pulled into the system by Secure Communities, a program which targets undocumented immigrants by allowing law enforcement to share fingerprints with federal authorities. Though Secure Communities is purported to target dangerous criminals, it has actually resulted in the detentions and deportations of a number of immigrants who had no criminal record or who were guilty of minor violations:
According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) records obtained by the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network through a Freedom of Information Act request, 79% of individuals deported through the Secure Communities program from October 2008 through June 2010 had no criminal record or were arrested for minor offenses like traffic violations.
Consequently, the detention system is swollen with scores of non-dangerous, non-criminal immigrants whose mandatory detention is not only expensive but excessively punitive.
Maricopa County steps forward
Some of the worst detention conditions documented by immigrant rights advocates have been in Maricopa County, AZ—under the purview of the infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio. While Arpaio is notorious for treating his prisoners inhumanely, his deputies’ treatment of pretrial immigrant detainees has ranged from racial discrimination and harassment to physical abuse and death.
Needless to say, federal reforms have not trickled down to Arpaio’s jails, and they likely never will. A lack of legally enforceable baseline detention standards, as well as varying contracts between ICE and municipal jails, virtually ensure that reforms won’t be comprehensively enacted or enforced.
Fortunately, the ACLU and other civil rights groups are stepping in where the government has failed to act.
Julianne Hing at Colorlines reports that the ACLU has received a favorable ruling in a lawsuit filed against Arpaio:
On Wednesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling by a lower court that charged Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio with mistreatment of detainees in his jails for serving them spoiled food and neglecting their health.
Yesterday’s ruling will set legal precedent, and help protect prisoners’ rights who are in Arpaio’s jails today. The order only applies to pre-trial detainees—those who cannot afford bail or are being held without bond, but have not been convicted of anything. According to the East Valley Tribune, that population is about 75 percent of the 8,000 people being held in Maricopa County jails.
While the ruling may be a step forward for detainee rights in Maricopa County jails, it’s hardly progress for Arizona as a whole. Like most others states which house immigrant detainees, Arizona boasts a number of variously owned and operated detention facilities whose standards of care and confinement range widely (often to the detriment of detainees). Immediate and comprehensive detention reform is critical.
As Victoria Lopez, an immigration attorney for the ACLU of Arizona, explained to me: “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, AZ.”
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