Friday, November 6, 2009

Inside the Walls: Detention Conditions

Stories from Detention - Week 4

Imagine that you are on your way to pick your son up at school and you run a red light. A police officer pulls you over and arrests you because he suspects that you are an undocumented immigrant. After processing, you are held in a local prison. The prison is overcrowded so, two days later, you are put in leg and belly chains and transferred to an immigration detention facility in a remote location in rural Texas. What do you do?

You don't know whether your son is safe. Your visa proving you are legally permitted to live in the United States is back at home in the drawer. Your blood pressure medication, which you need to take every day, is on the table at home too. You only have the $27 in your pocket when you were arrested. You are afraid that you will be deported.

Many of the 440,000 people who will be detained in the immigration detention system this year face situations similar to this one. They are caught up in a system that has weak guidelines and little oversight. Even their basic needs often go unmet.

The conditions in many immigration detention facilities are terrible. Detainees do not receive adequate health care, have trouble contacting their families, and are frequently transferred - without warning - to detention centers far away from their homes. In today's video clip, we will learn the story of a young immigrant woman who was placed in seven detention centers over three years.

Even though Agatha Joseph's daughter is a green card holder, she was detained for a minor offense on her record for which she had already paid a fine. In the last post in this series, we discussed how mandatory detention policies punish immigrants retroactively and disproportionately for minor crimes they have committed in the past.

This young woman was transferred to seven different facilities in three years. Such transfers are common and make it extremely difficult for immigrant detainees to stay in touch with their families and their lawyers. In addition, guards sometimes threaten to transfer detainees to another facility if they complain about conditions.

Frequent transfers also complicate medical treatment. Immigrant detainees find it very difficult to get any medical care at all, much less timely care for any illnesses or injuries. In addition, immigrant detainees who have experienced torture, abuse, or other trauma often also need mental health care. These detainees may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. They are actually at risk of re-traumatization while in detention, since the conditions in detention may remind them strongly of their past traumatic experiences.

Immigrant detainees face a number of other unreasonable restrictions while in detention, many of which amount to violations of human and civil rights. Just to give you a sense of the range of violations…

  • Over 57% of immigrant detainees are held in county or city prisons where they are mixed in with the local prison population. They are not adequately protected against physical, verbal, or sexual abuse. Many of these facilities are overcrowded as well.
  • In many facilities, immigrant detainees lack access to fresh air and exercise. Some facilities do not allow detainees to spend any time outside. Some only permit exercise two or four days a week while others schedule exercise at unreasonable hours of the day.
  • Many immigrant detainees lack access to religious services, pastoral care, and a diet in keeping with their religious practices. In one detention center, detainees observing Ramadan had fasted during the day and requested hot water in the evening with which to make soup to break their fast. The guards refused and, when the detainees objected, the guards threatened to put them in solitary confinement if they continued to complain.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, 84% of immigrant detainees are not represented by a lawyer. As they prepare to argue their own cases, they lack access to necessary resources and materials. Detainees rely on the facility's telephones in order to contact family members, law offices, and consulates. However, they may be required to wait as 40 or 50 detainees share 2 or 3 phones. In addition, they are unable to make free calls to pro bono legal services. The detention facilities' law libraries do not often have immigration-related legal materials in appropriate languages and translation and interpretation services are nearly non-existent. Legal orientation programs are rare. In sum, immigrant detainees are often reliant on ICE officers for information about their case - a clear conflict of interests.
The conditions in immigration detention centers are abysmal by nearly any standard. By expressing your concerns on the conditions in these facilities, you can urge Congress and the Obama administration to take three steps to fix this broken system.

First, you can urge ICE to provide detainees with adequate medical treatment including initial medical screenings, primary care and emergency care. This step would avoid needless and preventable detainee deaths.

Second, you can urge Congress to pass legislation on detention standards. In the House, there are two bills on this subject: the Immigration Oversight and Fairness Act and the HELP for Separated Children Act. In the Senate, there are two bills as well: the Strong STANDARDS Act and the Protect Citizens and Residents from Unlawful Detention Act. These bills would create binding, clear, enforceable standards to ensure that the conditions in detention facilities are improved.

Third, you can urge the Department of Homeland Security to create independent oversight of detention facilities. This step would promote accountability and ensure that all immigrant detainees are treated fairly and humanely.

Improving the conditions in detention centers is an important step in fixing the immigration detention system. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Ultimately, ICE must no longer detain as many people as it does currently. Stay tuned for more posts in this series that will discuss how to safely and humanely reduce the number of immigrants in detention.

No comments:

Post a Comment