Inspections of immigrant detention centers overseen by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are ineffective and often facilitate favorable ratings at centers with reported human rights abuses, according to a report released Wednesday by rights advocacy groups.
Detention center inspections matter because they generate ratings that determine whether ICE continues using taxpayer dollars to fund public and private entities that detain immigrants, the report said.
“The failures of the inspection system ... really do make ICE complicit in obscuring human rights violations in detention facilities,” said Claudia Valenzuela, the director of detention at the National Immigrant Justice Center, which published the report with the Detention Watch Network (DWN).
The inspections are “laughable,” said Mary Small, the policy director at the DWN. She said reports contain “barely any relation between documented deficiencies and overall ratings a facility gets.” Despite these violations, public and private contractors continue to profit from these centers without adequate oversight, the report said.
According to the report, “Lives in Peril,” in 2014, Florida’s Baker County Detention Center had 14 deficiencies and received a rating of good from ICE inspectors, and the following year, the center registered five deficiencies but its rating fell to acceptable.
Some deficiencies were identified as administrative- or security-related violations, like the opening of immigrants’ mail without the appropriate protocols, the report said. But the DWN said it found more worrisome problems, including denial of visitation rights and exorbitant charges for making phone calls. It also said it found that certain facilities did not allow detainees access to fresh air and sunlight.
"We have to ask whether these ratings are based on anything at all," Small said.
The report focused on five other detention facilities with reported human rights violations, uncovering instances in which ICE inspections allowed facilities to obscure poor conditions.
Given the alleged violations, the report said, it was expected that the facilities’ inspection reports would show a failure to meet standards in medical care, suicide prevention and sexual assault prevention.
Arizona’s Eloy Detention Facility has not failed an inspection since 2006, the report noted. The center, however, has witnessed the most deaths at a detention facility, with six reported suicides since 2003. And frequent reports of sexual assault at Eloy — which ICE often fails to report, according to a 2013 GAO report — prompted Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., to launch an investigation in June.
Furthermore, inspection documents obtained by the report’s authors via a Freedom of Information Act request reveal ICE’s complicity in covering up Eloy’s failure to address its violations, the report said.
“The ICE inspection system is inadequate and has failed to resolve the substantial and pervasive human rights violations detained immigrants face in ICE custody,” the report concluded.
The U.S. immigrant detention system has quadrupled in the wake of 9/11, with at least 400,000 people now passing through ICE custody each year. At least 83 people died in ICE facilities from 2003 to 2008, and detainees have launched hunger strikes over conditions and human rights abuses at the facilities.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will review this report,” agency spokeswoman Danielle Bennett told Al Jazeera. “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.”
She added that ICE has implemented a “major effort to enhance management and oversight of detention facilities” in 2009 by creating the Office of Detention Oversight.
The report recommends improvements to the inspection process, including more independent oversight and transparency as well as consequences for failing to address human rights violations.
“We have to create real consequences for these failures,” said Small.