Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Napolitano and Morton Outline ICE Reforms

Yesterday, Secretary Napolitano and Assistant Secretary John Morton met with the press to reveal their plans to overhaul the U.S. immigration detention system. These plans include intentions to renovate motels and nursing homes to serve as detention facilities. These facilities would, Napolitano says, be less restrictive than current detention facilities. The agency also plans to build two new ICE detention facilities to serve as models for others.

As Napolitano and Morton have expressed, these reforms are meant to centralize the detention system, which is currently decentralized and lacking oversight. As it stands now, detainees are held in a mix of ICE detention centers, privately managed facilities, and county jails. ICE reforms are also intended to improve efficiency and cut costs.

I hold mixed feelings about these details of the ICE reforms - on one hand, I am heartened to learn that Morton intends to improve oversight and create less-restrictive detention facilities for detainees who do not pose a risk to themselves or others. I also hope that these reforms will help to deconstruct the profit-oriented prison-industrial complex that exists today. However, on the other hand, I have not yet heard any viable plans on the part of ICE to pursue true community-based alternatives to detention.

Having detainees wear ankle bracelets is not an alternative to detention - it is merely another form of custody. Vulnerable populations and other detainees who do not pose a risk to themselves or others should be enrolled in community-based alternatives to detention programs or released as their cases are processed. Detention should be a last resort, not a default.

A good first step in this direction would be for ICE to conduct a comprehensive risk and needs assessment of its detainee population. Such an assessment would give ICE a clearer picture of which detainees could be eligible for less restrictive forms of custody, alternatives to detention, or release.

In addition, ICE needs to make a stronger commitment to immediately providing needed medical treatment for all detainees. It is unconscionable for detainees to die or experience permanent disability because recommended medical treatment was withheld.

See this New York Times editorial for some more thoughts on yesterday's announcement.

A bit of background: John Morton had assigned Dora Schriro, a corrections expert, to do a thorough review of the detention system. After eight months, Schriro submitted her report to Morton, but then left the agency to become the commissioner of correction in New York City. In August, following Schriro's report, Morton announced ambitions plans to reform ICE to shift from a penal system to a truly civil detention system. At that point, Schriro's report had not been made public and the details of the ICE reforms were unclear. Now, Secretary Napolitano's meeting with the press yields some clarity. The 35-page Schriro report will be made available to the public online this afternoon.

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