DHS OIG Finds Troubling Conditions at Several ICE Detention Facilities

Eliza Grinberg's picture

Introduction

On December 11, 2017, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) released an interesting and troubling report titled “Concerns about ICE Detainee Treatment and Care at Detention Facilities.” The DHS OIG report “identified problems that undermine the protection of detainees' rights, their humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment” at four detention facilities during unannounced inspections. In this post, we will detail the DHS OIG findings and examine the corrective action that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has begun to undertake.

Our article will be based on the DHS OIG report itself [PDF version]. You may also read the DHS OIG press release on the report which succinctly highlights its key points [PDF version].

Immigration Detention

Origins and Method of Investigation (Pages 1-3)

The DHS OIG was prompted to investigate conditions at detention facilities “[i]n response to concerns raised by immigrant rights groups and complaints to the [DHS OIG] Hotline about conditions for detainees held in [ICE] custody…” On page two of its report, DHS OIG explained that the ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) “oversees the confinement of detainees in nearly 250 detention facilities that it manages in conjunction with private contractors or state or local governments…” The DHS OIG chose six facilities for unannounced inspections based on its “professional judgment,” identifying those of particular concern “based on [OIG] complaints, reports from non-governmental organizations, and open-source reporting.” The DHS OIG made unannounced visits to the following six detention facilities:

  • Hudson County Jail (mixed gender) [PDF version];
  • Laredo Processing Center (female-only) [PDF version];
  • Otero County Processing Center (male-only) [PDF version];
  • Santa Ana City Jail (mixed gender);
  • Stewart Detention Center (male-only) [PDF version]; and
  • Theo Lacy Facility (male-only) [PDF version].

Of the six, only the Laredo Processing Center, Otero County Processing Center, and Stewart Detention Center are dedicated Intergovernmental Service Agreement (IGSA) facilities. IGSA facilities are state and local facilities operating under an agreement with ICE that hold only ICE detainees.

It is worth noting that DHS OIG released a management alert on the Theo Lacy Facility on March 6, 2017 [PDF version]. You may read that report to learn about serious problems unearthed at that facility. Because DHS OIG had already addressed its findings at the Theo Lacy Facility in detail, this new report focused only on its findings at the other five facilities. Accordingly, this is why we will refer to “five facilities” inspected instead of “six” for the rest of the article.

At each of the six facilities, DHS OIG examined the following:

  • Medical units;
  • Medical modular housing;
  • Kitchen, including food preparation, food storage, and equipment cleaning areas;
  • Intake and outtake processing areas;
  • Special Management Units (segregation); and
  • Modular housing units, including individual cells.

In addition, the DHS OIG “analyzed grievance procedures and evaluated staff-detainee communication practices.”

DHS OIG Findings

On page 3 of the report, DHS OIG set forth its findings. Of the five facilities inspected, DHS OIG stated that only the Laredo Processing Center modeled quality operations. DHS OIG “identified significant issues at the four other facilities.” In the foregoing subsections, we will examine some of the problems found at these four facilities (note, some of the facilities exhibited some of the problems but not others).

Intake Issues (Pages 2-3)

First, DHS OIG identified intake issues at several facilities. It explained that, under ICE policy, incoming detainees are supposed to be classified according to their crimes. Based on “verifiable and documented information,” a detainee may be classified as high- or low-risk. The purpose of this classification system is to separate high- and low-risk detainees in the facility. DHS OIG found that the Stewart Detention Center had misclassified incoming detainees with high-risk criminal convictions as low-risk, thus placing them with low-risk detainees. These errors were due to staff at the facility assigning some incoming detainees without having received their criminal history reports.

DHS OIG also found that Stewart Detention Center, a male-only facility, did not have enough male personnel to pat down detainees. The staff attempted to compensate by using alternative measures, “such as a magnetometer wand.” However, DHS OIG noted that these alternative measures would not suffice for identifying non-metallic items, drugs, or other contraband.

DHS OIG found that the Santa Ana City Jail had a policy of performing strip searches on all incoming detainees. Furthermore, the staff did not document the strip searches in detainee files. DHS OIG noted two concerns. First, a uniform strip search policy for all detainees contravenes ICE policy, which permits strip searches only in limited cases where there is “reasonable suspicion” based on “specific and articulable facts that would lead a reasonable officer to believe that a specific detainee is in possession of contraband.” Second, because the staff did not document the strip searches, there is no way to determine which searches were justified based on standing ICE policy.

Language Barriers (Pages 3-5)

DHS OIG encountered several failures in providing language assistance to non-English speaking detainees at facilities it visited.

First, under ICE policy, detainees are supposed to receive the ICE National Detainee Handbook and a local handbook for the facility. At three of the four problem facilities, DHS OIG found that detainees were not always provided with handbooks in a language they could understand. These handbooks contain important information, “such as the grievance system, services and programs, medical care, and access to legal counsel.” DHS OIG noted that this interpretation failure “could prevent detainees from fully comprehending basic facility rules and procedures.”

DHS OIG noted that language barriers at the procedures also prevented detainees from understanding medical staff. It found that medical staff did not always use language translation services when dealing with detainees who did not speak English. Furthermore, “[s]ome medical consent forms were not always available in Spanish, and staff did not always explain the English forms to non-English speaking detainees.”

Grievance System (Page 5)

The ICE has procedures in place for detainees to file formal grievances. The DHS OIG explained that the resolution of grievances “depends on facility staff properly handling and addressing grievances without deterrents…” Unfortunately, DHS OIG identified deterrents at several of the facilities it inspected. Some detainees interviewed by DHS OIG “reported that staff obstructed or delayed their grievances or intimidated them, through fear of retaliation, into not complaining.”

DHS OIG provided a couple of specific examples of issues it identified. At the Stewart Detention Center, it “found an inconsistent and insufficiently documented grievance resolution process.” This made it difficult, if not impossible in some cases, to ascertain if grievances had actually been investigated and whether they had been properly resolved.

DHS OIG explained that detainees are supposed to have access to telephones to make free calls to the DHS OIG. However, the Otero County Processing Center had non-working telephones in the detainee processing areas. When investigators at the Stewart Detention Center tried to call the DHS OIG Hotline, they “received a message that the number was restricted.”

Improper Treatment of Detainees (Page 6)

In general, detainees at the Laredo Processing Center “were generally positive about staff treating them with respect.” However, detainees at the other four facilities “alleged poor treatment…”

DHS OIG was able to corroborate detainee complaints at the Santa Ana City Jail concerning an incident when a guard yelled at detainees for several minutes and threatened to lock the detainees down. Several detainees at the Stewart Detention Center “reported that staff sometimes interrupted or delayed Muslim prayer times.”

Potential Misuse of Segregation (Page 6-7)

Staff at detention facilities may separate detainees from the general population and place them in either disciplinary segregation or administrative segregation. This may be done for a number of reasons, “including violations of facility rules, risk of violence, or to protect them from other detainees.” DHS OIG reported that most, but not all, of the cases it examined involved administrative segregation.

DHS OIG found that the Otero County Processing Center, Stewart Detention Center, and Santa Ana Jail had violated policies regarding segregation and lock-down of detainees. Among the issues, DHS OIG found that staff at these facilities “did not always tell detainees why they were being segregated, nor did they always communicate detainees' rights in writing or provide appeal forms for those put in punitive lock-down or segregation.” The DHS OIG found that these facilities, in some instances, put detainees in segregation or lock-down “without adequate documentation in the detainee's file to justify the disciplinary action.” In one troubling report, it found that a detainee was locked down in his cell for multiple days “for sharing coffee with another detainee.” Several detainees were held in administrative segregation without required periodic reviews.

Finally, DHS OIG found that documentation of daily medical visits and meal records for detainees held in segregation was often missing or incomplete.

While DHS OIG noted that some of these issues may be the result of mere inadequate documentation, it added that “they could also indicate more serious problems with potential misuse of segregation.”

Medical Care Issues (Page 7)

DHS OIG noted that all five facilities provided health care services, as required. However, “some detainees at the Santa Ana City Jail and the Stewart Detention Center reported long waits for the provision of medical care, including instances of detainees with painful conditions…” Furthermore, DHS OIG found that “not all medical requests detainees claimed they submitted or the outcomes were documented in detainee files or facility medical files.”

Lack of Cleanliness and Limited Hygienic Supplies (Page 7)

DHS OIG found that detainee bathrooms at the Otero County Processing Center and Stewart Detention Center were in poor condition. Additionally, “detainees reported water leaks in some housing areas.”

Detainees at the Hudson County Jail and Stewart Detention Center complained about the lack of basic hygienic supplies, “such as toilet paper, shampoo, soap, lotion, and toothpaste…” One detainee stated that when they used up their internal supply of certain personal items, they were advised to purchase more at the facility commissary. Under ICE policy, personal hygiene items are required to be replenished as needed.

Potentially Unsafe Food Handling (Page 8)

The DHS OIG identified several problems with food handling and food safety at four of the facilities. Among these problems, they “observed spoiled, wilted, and moldy produce and other food in kitchen refrigerators, as well as food past its expiration date.”

Recommendations and ICE Response (Page 8-14)

DHS OIG recommended that ICE “ensure that [ERO] field offices that oversee the detention facilities covered in this report develop a process for ICE field offices to conduct specific reviews of these areas of operations: detainee classification, use of language services, use of segregation and disciplinary actions, compliance with grievance procedures, and detainee care including facility conditions.”

ICE concurred with the report recommendations. DHS OIG found that ICE's response “addresses the intent of the recommendation.” ICE has stated that it has begun taking corrective actions. DHS OIG will leave the recommendation open “until ICE provides evidence it has integrated special assessments of the operational areas identified as concerns.”

In an interesting note, ICE discontinued its contract with the Santa Ana Jail in early 2017. Accordingly, detainees are no longer housed at the Santa Ana Jail.

Conclusion

ICE has the responsibility of protecting the rights of detainees and ensuring that they are treated humanely when they are in immigration detention. The report described troubling examples of violations of detainee rights and inhumane treatment at four of five facilities examined. It is certainly encouraging to see that ICE responded favorably to the report's findings and recommendations. However, it will be important to monitor going forward whether ICE, and ERO specifically, take the necessary corrective action to ensure that the mistreatment of detainees found at several of their detention facilities is not repeated or on-going elsewhere.

An alien who is in detention or otherwise facing immigration charges should seek to consult with an experienced immigration attorney immediately. Please see our website's sections on Removal and Deportation Defense [see category] and Immigration Detention [see category] to learn more about relevant issues.

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