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Federal Overhaul of Detention Falls Short

New America Media, News Analysis , Marcelo Ballv Posted: Aug 07, 2009

Editor's Note: The new federal overhaul of immigration detention does not address the lack of alternatives to detention and the lack of legally enforceable minimum standards for detention centers. NAM contributor Marcelo Ballv reports.

The new federal overhaul of immigration detention falls short of providing for real accountability in a system that has come under fire for poor conditions and preventable detainee deaths, advocates say.

"It's not going to be sufficient to really achieve the fundamental reform the administration is seeking," said Jacqueline Esposito, policy director at Detention Watch Network in Washington, D.C. "We need congressional action."

Yesterday, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) announced the creation of two new government offices, one to oversee ongoing reforms to the detention system, and another to monitor and inspect detention centers.

Additionally, the largest detention facilities will have ICE agents assigned to them to monitor treatment of detainees. Together, the 23 detention centers to receive in-house inspectors hold 40 percent of the estimated 400,000 detainees ICE has in custody annually.

Also, ICE announced it would no longer be sending immigrant families for detention to the heavily criticized T. Don Hutto Family Residential Facility in Texas.

The overhaul was needed because of the growth in the immigrant detention system, which has tripled in size in the last decade, according to ICE.

"This growth has presented significant challenges to a system that was not fundamentally designed to address ICE's specific detention needs," said John Morton, who leads the agency and is assistant Homeland Security secretary.

But this overhaul fails to substantively address two fundamental problems with the government's detention policy, say advocates: the lack of alternatives to detention, and the lack of legally enforceable minimum standards for detention centers.

In the current system, four-fifths of detainees are held in over 300 privately owned prisons or local and regional jails under government contracts, so the quality of conditions can vary widely.

In some places, detainees have begun to protest against conditions. Last month, detainees at the South Louisiana Correctional Center staged five three-day hunger strikes to protest what they said were intolerable conditions, including lack of medical care, rat- and insect-infested cells, scarcity of soap and toilet paper, and isolation from lawyers and family. And in February, immigrant detainees at a facility in Pecos, Texas, rioted and set fires.

The problems with immigration detention can be traced to lack of accountability, according to advocates. The government standards currently in place governing issues such as health care, outdoor recreation and contact with lawyers, are little more than guidelines, and so lack the teeth to ensure acceptable conditions at detention facilities. Although the new overhaul provides for more inspections and oversight, it's still based on the ineffective guidelines that are not binding.

"The fact that DHS is unwilling to be accountable to legally enforceable rules gives us pause," says Paco Fabin, communications director for America's Voice, a pro-immigrant group in Washington, D.C.

U.S. senators Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation July 30 that seeks to protect immigrant detainees from death or abuse by making detention standards the law.

The standards of medical care offered to immigrant detainees have been under intense scrutiny after a string of recent deaths. In the last six years, 90 detainees died while in ICE custody, 76 for health-related reasons and 13 through suicide, according to Dora Schriro, special advisor to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

"In several recent instances, the medical and custodial care that those detainees received before expiring appeared to be contrary to ... policy," said Schriro in March 2009 testimony to the U.S. Congress. "In my view, there is reason for concern," she added.

Schriro, who once headed Arizona's correctional system under then-governor Napolitano, has now been appointed to head ICE's new Office of Detention Policy and Planning, which is charged with designing and implementing reforms to the immigrant detention system.

One of the immigrant detainee deaths attributable to lack of proper medical attention was that of German-born Guido Newbrough, who died late last year of a treatable bacterial infection while detained at Farmville, Va., jail. An independent medical review concluded he did not receive care after reporting early symptoms, and was then placed in "disciplinary segregation" without any medical monitoring.

Another issue unaddressed by the reform is the need to find alternative ways of managing deportable immigrants, other than housing them in expensive detention centers, say advocates.

"Expanding the use of cost-saving alternatives to detention will take some of the pressure off of the overburdened system and make immigration enforcement more in tune with the nature of the civil violations immigrant detainees are accused of," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.

Under the government plan, the new office of detention planning is charged with finding alternatives to detention such as "community supervision," similar to probation for criminal offenders. But ICE has given no indications it plans to scale down its immigrant detention system, and in fact, Napolitano has said it will likely grow in size.

Related Articles:

Recent Hunger Strikes Highlight Need to Improved Detention Centers

Immigrant Detainees Stage Hunger Strikes in Louisiana

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