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How US Immigrant Detention Facilities Get Away with Being Complete Hellholes

A new report says that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement inspectors have routinely overlooked critical safety concerns at immigrant detention facilities in recent years.
Photo via Reuters

In the fall of 2008, Emmanuel Owusu, a 62-year-old barber from Ghana, hanged himself inside Eloy Detention Center, an immigrant detention facility in Arizona. But officials told reporters that Owusu — who had spent the past two years battling deportation from inside the facility — died from heart failure, and they did not report his suicide until years later.

Owusu was not alone: At least five other men detained in Eloy have killed themselves since 2003. More people have died there recently than in any other immigrant detention center in the US. When US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) inspectors visited in 2012, they found "structures or smaller objects that could be used in a suicide attempt" in the suicide-watch room, the very space designated to protect at-risk detainees. Nevertheless, ICE inspectors reported that Eloy passed suicide-prevention standards.


Skewed inspection documents are shockingly common — in fact, ICE has routinely overlooked critical safety concerns while inspecting immigrant detention facilities in recent years, a new report from the National Immigrant Justice Center and the Detention Watch Network reveals. The report includes inspection documents of five major facilities from 2007 to 2012, information that took three years to obtain through Freedom of Information Act requests.

At the Houston Processing Center, inspectors in 2012 cited no concerns about medical care standards, but failed to note that two detainees had died the previous year, including a 31-year-old man who had spent three of his six days incarcerated vomiting uncontrollably. The inspection also neglected to mention that staff had placed Daniel Jameson, a detainee with schizophrenia and frequent panic attacks, in solitary confinement for nine months, blatantly flouting appropriate isolation standards.

Related: How Private Prisons Are Profiting From Locking Up US Immigrants

And at the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, inspectors in 2012 noted six incidents of sexual assault and then minimized or dismissed them. One detainee reportedly beat up another who refused to give him sexual favors, but inspectors reclassified the incident from sexual assault to physical assault.

The report's authors found that ICE gave staff advance warning of inspections, allowed facilities to negotiate with inspectors to improve their ratings, and did not share their findings with the public.


'Visits are announced and prescheduled, which is a really huge problem.'

Some 400,000 immigrants pass through ICE-monitored facilities each year. On any given night, 34,000 people are kept in custody by the agency.

Inspections determine whether the facilities should remain open. If a facility fails twice in a row, ICE is mandated to stop funding it. But the report shows that since 2009, ICE has failed a total of one facility, and only once.

"The process is set up so facilities can pass their inspections and ICE can justify spending funds, even when close analysis reveals they may not be up to standards and there are well-documented abuses," said Claudia Valenzuela, NIJC's director of detention services and a coauthor of the report.

The inspections follow a checklist model of concrete amenities at each facility, without taking into account the voices of detainees, visitors, or outside investigations, Valenzuela added.

Related: The US Has Found a New Way to Keep Immigrant Families Locked Up

"Visits are announced and prescheduled, which is a really huge problem because we have time and again observed that facilities will put on their best face when they know they're going to be inspected. Part of why it's so easy for facilities to put on a good face is the checklist culture," Valenzuela said. "There are documented instances of sexual assault but no process or way for inspections to capture that."


Inspectors often helped facilities fulfill the checklist requirements even when they clearly failed to do so. Two facilities that had no outdoor recreation areas met the requirement because they had rooms with "natural light and air circulation."

Watch the VICE News documentary Immigrant America: The High Cost of Deporting Parents:

At times, ICE didn't even use current detention standards, but used standards from the year 2000, which did not yet address sexual assault provisions.

ICE's reports often allegedly ignored problems found in inspections by the Office of Detention Oversight (ODO), an independent commission designed to monitor facilities. At Eloy, ICE's 2011 inspection claimed staff offered adequate medical care, while an ODO inspection two months later found that a physician did not review detainees' physical exams or medical screenings as required by ICE standards. ICE's inspection ratings are the only factor that determines whether facilities are funded — meaning a facility could fail multiple ODO inspections and still remain open.

Facility managers could also negotiate with ICE to edit their ratings. In 2012, for instance, ICE gave passing ratings to Karnes County Civil Detention Center and Pulaski County Jail despite inspectors' initial recommendations to fail the facilities.

Related: Escaping Into Prison: The Battle Over Immigrant Mothers and Children Detained by the US


Danielle Bennett, ICE spokesperson, wrote in response to VICE News' request for comment that ICE "will review this report. ICE remains committed to ensuring that all individuals in our custody are held and treated in a safe, secure and humane manner, and that they have access to legal counsel, visitation, recreation, and quality medical, mental health and dental care."

Jonathan Burns, the director of public affairs for Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the private prison company that runs Eloy, responded to VICE News' request for comment by noting that ICE "contracts for and oversees the comprehensive medical and mental health care services that are provided for all residents. CCA is not the health care provider…. The Eloy facility has never been found noncompliant with ICE standards."

Currently, ICE pays contractors to conduct the inspections, but immigrant rights advocates said an independent body is necessary to hold the facilities accountable.

'This report illustrates just how far ICE has to go in creating humane conditions in detention facilities'

"I'd like to see inspections conducted by a true third party, to be unannounced, and for there to be real consequences for failing inspections," said Mary Small, policy director of Detention Watch Network and a co-author of the report.

Denise Gilman, co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, warned that such "internal accountability" at detention facilities placed immigrant detainees in dangerous environments.


"The risk is that facilities don't meet minimum standards and immigrants will be in serious danger of mental and physical harm," Gilman said. "We need really genuine inspections in order to ensure the government and private prison companies are upholding obligations to treat detainees with dignity and care."

Carl Takei, a staff attorney at the ACLU's National Prison Project, suggested that the whole inspection process should be overhauled to provide more thorough scrutiny of facilities.

Related: Undocumented Immigrants Pay Billions in Taxes to Fund Programs They're Banned From Using

"The inspections are not in-depth at all and run on this checklist style that tends to lead to facilities' getting passing grades when there are problems," Takei said. He said inspectors should be highly trained in every component of the standards, and echoed Small's insistence that inspections be unannounced.

"Any inspection process that looks at a suicide-watch room determines that there are hanging points and then gives the facility a passing grade on suicide prevention is not a credible inspection process," Takei said. "I think overall this report illustrates just how far ICE has to go in creating humane conditions in detention facilities, and in holding detention facilities to its own standards."

Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter: @merhoffman