Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has not been able to keep itself out of hot water recently. Between the agency’s own admissions of mismanagement, a leaked memo, records highs in deportations, and the recent sexual assault cases in detention centers calling for greater oversight, ICE has been under a lot of fire from civil rights advocates to fulfill their delayed promises of overhaul and detention reform.
In the context of ICE’s multiple misadventures, an internal ICE email obtained by the Houston Chronicle a few days ago comes as a huge relief to advocates as it announces a series of concrete changes that ICE is planning to implement at several privately owned detention centers. The 28 changes listed in the email range from superficial changes like “softening the look of the facility” with new paint, new bedding, hanging plants and “fresh carrot sticks,” to more substantive ones like eliminating pat-down searches, lock-downs and lights-out for low risk detainees, providing unmonitored phone calls and email access, extending the duration that visitors can stay, increasing attorney access and allowing low-risk detainees to wear their own clothing or non-penal attire.
Beth Gibson, ICE’s senior counselor to Assistant Secretary John Morton and a leader of the detention reform effort, has committed to some of the changes being carried out within 30 days, while others will take up to 6 months to be effected. The changes outlined in the email are slated to be implemented in nine detention facilities in Texas, Arizona, New Jersey, California and Georgia, all owned and managed by the Corrections Corporations of America, one of the nation’s biggest private contractors that ICE uses for immigrant detainees. It does not seem like a complete coincidence that ICE and CCR decided on these changes while CCR is under investigation for allegations of sexual assault against one of their guards at a Texas facility, who allegedly groped female detainees on their way to being deported.
Most important is the much needed shift in philosophy behind immigrant detention that ICE senior counselor Beth Gibson attested to when speaking about the changes. Speaking about the purpose of detention facilities, she said-
When people come to our custody, we’re detaining them to effect their removal…It’s about deportation. It’s not about punishing people for a crime they committed.
Increasing recreational activities for low-risk detainees and introducing dance, cooking, computer classes as well as movie nights and and a dinner menu that has expanded to include a vegetable bar might seem like minor changes, but are, in fact, hard fought victories for immigrant advocates. Lory Rosenberg, policy and advocacy director for Refugee and Migrants’ Rights for Amnesty International was pleased with the changes. She said-
A lot of these measures are what we’ve been advocating for. Many of these points are very important to changing the system from a penal system, which is inappropriate in an immigration context, to a civil detention system.
As expected, there has already been opposition to the reforms from various quarters. Union members are worried for the safety of the staff at the detention facilities, and feel that the absence of pat-down searches and lock-downs could be potentially dangerous as “some detainees may be classified as low-risk because they have no serious criminal history but still may be gang members that haven’t been caught doing anything wrong yet.”
When it comes to local jails that house immigrant detainees, it is precisely this argument of jail administrators and union members that seems to have won. Ironically, while ICE makes detention reform plans that lean towards a more humane and less penal detention system, the agency has simultaneously relaxed their ban on the use of stun guns or Tasers on detainees in local jails. When a Sheriff’s Deputy in a Sherburne County jail used a stun-gun on Salaad Mahamed (a pre-trial immigrant detainee who had come to the U.S. seeking political asylum) in 2007, the action was in violation of federal immigration standards for the treatment of immigrant detainees. ICE had banned the use of Electro-Muscular Disruption Devices (Tasers) for safety reasons in 2003, and gave the Sherburne County jail in Minnesota an evaluation rating of “deficient” for its use of stun-guns on detainees.
However, while Mahammed, who was shot in his hand and testicles for arguing with a guard over a TV channel, suffers from incontinence, impotence, mental trauma and blackouts as a result of his ordeal, in August of 2009, ICE seems to have relaxed its ban on Tasers and reversed its previous “deficient” rating for Sherburne County jail to “acceptable.” This shift seems largely attributable to pressure from local law enforcement that runs these jails, and their insistence on having the same rules apply for “civil detainees and jail inmates who live under the same roof.” Worse still, ICE only communicated this change in policy directly to the individual jails it deals with, without making a public announcement of it. Helen Harnett, director of policy for the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago, which monitors detainee treatment was shocked at the change. She said-
It’s a radical shift. I think the reason it’s so surprising is Secretary Napolitano and ICE assistant secretary John Morton announced a series of changes. They called it ‘an overhaul to the immigration system to make it truly civil,’ and there’s a lot of staff at ICE national working on this change right now.
As long as ICE continues to rely on the disparate combination of government-run detention centers, private facilities and local jails to house immigrant detainees, there will continue to be extreme inconsistencies in detention conditions across the board. Moreover, promising reforms supporting a more humane civil detention system, while sanctioning violence against detainees at the same time shows a drastic contradiction in detention policy from within ICE itself that needs to be addressed before more and more people suffer life-long trauma and even death at the hands of immigrant detention.
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