Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, North America

MIGRATION-US: More Deaths in Detention

William Fisher

NEW YORK, Aug 19 2009 (IPS) - In response to a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security revealed Tuesday that the government had failed to disclose 11 more deaths in immigration detention facilities.

In April, Homeland Security (DHS) officials released what they called a comprehensive list of all deaths in detention. That list included a total of 90 individuals. With Tuesday’s announcement, the government has now admitted to a total of 104 in-custody deaths since fiscal year 2003.

But the ACLU is continuing to express doubt that they now have a complete tally of those who have died while in immigration custody.

David Shapiro, staff attorney with the ACLU National Prison Project, told IPS, “Even after the government’s announcement yesterday we still can have no real confidence that each and every death has been accounted for.”

Noting that the government announced last week what it called sweeping plans to overhaul the immigration detention system, Shapiro added, “No overhaul can be complete without intentional efforts being made to infuse accountability and transparency into the system.”

He said, “From our perspective, that would come in the form of legally binding standards governing basic levels of care and conditions inside immigration detention facilities. Simply having the government consolidate its oversight is not enough – there have to be mechanisms in place to hold the government accountable because, as we’ve seen, their track record in terms of immigration detention to date is not good, to say the least.”

“Today’s announcement confirms our very worst fears,” he said.

The ACLU sued DHS, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the DHS Office of the Inspector General (OIG) in June 2008 for failing to turn over thousands of public documents in their possession relating to the deaths of immigration detainees held in U.S. custody.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit after repeated failures by DHS officials to release those documents in response to requests for critical information about the deaths of dozens of people in immigration detention.

And in another FOIA request, submitted by the ACLU to DHS in 2007, the ACLU sought information about whether ICE – or any independent monitoring agency – adequately tracks deaths of immigration detainees, who are often housed in county jails around the country alongside criminal detainees, or in one of numerous immigration detention facilities managed by private prison companies.

ICE owns and operates its own detention facilities, and also rents bed space from county and city prisons and jails. ICE locks up about 32,000 civil immigration detainees each day – 400,000 a year. Many of these are pursuing their immigration cases in the courts.

The ACLU says deficient medical care is believed to be a leading cause of death in immigration detention, and is the number one complaint the organisation has received from ICE detainees.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit in 2007 against the San Diego Correctional Facility (SDCF), an ICE facility run by Corrections Corporations of America, Inc., the country’s largest for-profit correctional services provider.

In its lawsuit, the ACLU challenges medical care policies and denial of needed treatment by ICE and the Division of Immigration Health Services, which it says has led to suffering and death among detainees.

At the immigration detention center in Basile, Louisiana, more than 60 detainees have recently been on hunger strikes to protest conditions. Authorities there retaliated by putting the hunger strikers in solitary confinement.

And the Los Angeles detention center has been another target of criticism. Civil rights groups are suing ICE in federal district court for detaining immigrants in “egregious and unsanitary conditions” in that facility.

The lawsuit, filed by the ACLU of Southern California, the National Immigration Law Centre, and a private law firm, also charges that the unsanitary conditions have led ICE to deprive immigrants of due-process rights such as access to mail or attorneys while in detention.

The Los Angeles facility, known as “B-18,” is allowed to temporarily house detainees for no more than 12 hours. But in what the ACLU calls “a perverse distortion of its original purpose,” it says immigration officials have kept detainees for weeks by shuttling them to local jails in the evenings and on weekends, and returning them to the facility on the next business day, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit also alleged that immigration officials often fail to notify detainees that they have the right to obtain release on bail while their cases remain pending.

The lawsuit said B-18 has not provided basic medication besides the lack of sanitary equipment.

It charges that some of the facilities to which detainees are shuttled have similar gross deficiencies: Detainees are not permitted to shower in jail. Up to 50 detainees routinely share one open commode, one urinal (or two open commodes) and one sink.

At some local jails, overcrowding and vents that blow extremely cold air on the bunks force detainees to sleep on mattresses on the floor. At B-18 and other jails, guards force detainees to remain inside through the entire day, and only permit them to go outside when shuttling them between detention centres. They are not permitted to have any physical recreation.

ICE’s city, county and private prisons and jails also house serious criminals. The ACLU says that immigration detainees are mixed in with the general prison population, housed in penal-like facilities for months and sometimes years, with virtually no due process and often without the most basic safeguards such as hearings to assess the need for continued detention. These include asylum seekers, legal immigrants, victims of human trafficking, and immigrants with no criminal records.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that private, for-profit prison companies are preparing for a wave of new business as the economic downturn makes it increasingly difficult for federal and state government officials to build and operate their own jails.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons and several state governments have sent thousands of inmates in recent months to prisons and detention centres run by Corrections Corp. of America, Geo Group Inc. and other private operators, as a crackdown on illegal immigration, a lengthening of mandatory sentences for certain crimes and other factors have overcrowded many government facilities.

The Obama administration’s newly appointed official supervising ICE, John Morton, said last week that he wanted to turn immigration detention into a “truly civil detention system”, one focused on safely and humanely holding people accused of civil immigration violations until they are deported or released.

The announced reforms include creating offices and advisory boards to focus on medical care and the management of centres, reviewing contracts with private prisons and local jails, and installing managers at the 23 largest centres to make sure complaints are heard and problems fixed.

He said centres would face random inspections. Community groups and immigrant advocates would be invited to offer advice and comment. And the government would stop sending parents with children to a notorious prison near Austin, Texas, as it seeks alternatives to the Bush-era tactic of putting whole families behind bars.

Congress is also expressing interest in the immigration detention issue. Legislation has been introduced in both the House and the Senate that would change the laws governing immigration detention and increase oversight and enforceability of detention standards.

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