Hunger and Cold Stalk Immigration Detainees in U.S.

A new report has detailed the shocking conditions in which immigrants and asylum seekers — men, women and children — are being detained in the Midwest of the United States. It offers a snapshot of six facilities,  but the conditions they found are replicated across the country.

“Over 320,000 immigrants locked up each year not only face tremendous obstacles to challenging wrongful detention or winning their immigration cases, but the conditions in which these civil detainees are held often are as bad as or worse than those faced by imprisoned criminals,” says the report.

The report found:

· Detainees going hungry from lack of food
· No heating through harsh Mid-Western winters
· Complaints ignored and those complaining placed in segregation
· Intimidation by staff
· Inadequate and dirty uniform clothing provided
· Inadequate or absent health care, placing lives at risk
· Poor or absent hygiene

Not Too Late for Reform, authored by Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) and the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights (MCHR), focuses on three county jails — Jefferson County Jail and Tri-County Detention Center in Illinois and Boone County Jail in Kentucky.

Need a doctor? Pay for it.

In Jefferson, conditions are punitive and inhumane and breach national standards on how immigration detainees are supposed to be treated. Detainees spend the day hungry because they lack food and report getting a hot meal only once every two weeks. Even in the summer, individuals huddle under blankets because of cold temperatures and inadequate clothing. Detainees with medical and mental health issues are told that they need to pay to see a doctor, which indigent individuals cannot afford.

Tara Tidwell-Cullen, director of communications at Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center, told International Business Times:

The important thing to note straight off with the detention standards is they’re not law so not enforceable. If the detention facilities ignore them there’s not really a legal process by which they can be challenged so it doesn’t really provide a whole lot of oversight so we see them consistently violated with few to little consequences.

Often, detainees at Jefferson are required to buy basic hygiene items. They receive jail uniforms and undergarments that are torn, stained and threadbare. Because laundry service is inconsistent, detainees are forced to wear soiled clothes week after week. Staff is rude and condescending, and detainees are too intimidated to report grievances. In the rare instances when grievances are filed, complaints are ignored or dismissed without merit.

At Boone detainees fear for their safety because they are often intermingled with criminal detainees. Like Jefferson, the jail is kept cold year-round and officials are discriminatory and nonresponsive to requests for assistance.

A NIJC client said:

Within one day of my arrival at Boone, I told the nurse that I am HIV-positive. She said that she would call the clinic to obtain my medical history. I also complained of depression and high blood pressure and informed a second nurse that I am HIV-positive. This nurse also promised to make a doctor’s appointment, but now almost six weeks have passed and I have never received any medication. Nothing has changed since I was moved to Tri-County. I told the nurse right away about my HIV status but still no exam and every day goes by without my pills.

All of the facilities are remote and their location reinforces the lack of access to justice for those detained in a situation where legal support is not provided and detainees often rely on pro-bono lawyers who are thin on the ground. Isolation from attorneys, social service providers and immigrant communities means that at-risk people are often deported before they are able to contact their families or seek legal counsel. Compounding this, detainees at one facility, Tri-County Detention Center, report being blocked from access to a law library.

NIJC says that many of those they deal with are able to remain legally in the US and should not have been detained.

Around half of those detained have committed no offense and according to government policy are supposed to be a low priority.

In a typical example, ‘Alexander’ (NIJC client whose name has been changed) was stopped by police for driving over the 30 miles-per-hour speed limit. His family was also in the car and became distressed, particularly his eldest son who suffers from a medical condition. Alexander was taken into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody and his family was left alone on the sidewalk with no way home.

Promised changes not available

Two years ago, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and ICE committed to shift the immigration detention system away from its longtime reliance on jails and jail-like facilities, to facilities with conditions more appropriate for civil immigration law detainees. A 2009 report by National Immigration Law Center warned that the swiftly expanding system was “woefully unregulated.”

The government’s commitment followed years of findings from bipartisan groups including the Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Council on Foreign Relations task force on immigration policy, and the Constitution Project’s Liberty and Security Committee – as well as the DHS Special Advisor charged by DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano with reviewing the immigration detention system – that jails and jail-like facilities are inappropriate and unnecessarily costly to hold asylum seekers and other civil immigration detainees. Nationally, around half of detainees are held in such facilities.

For profit detention

The new report criticized the planned construction under an ICE contract of a detention facility in Crete, Illinois by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a private company that has a record of “egregious human rights violations,” including the death of an immigrant detainee and incidents of sexual abuse, even as its profits have grown in past years. Rather than rely on more costly jails or private contractors, the report’s authors urged the use of alternatives to detention programs for immigrants who do not pose a flight risk.

American taxpayers will spend more than $2 billion to maintain this system in 2012 – more than 28 times ICE’s budget for more cost-effective Alternatives to Detention, which save more than $110 per detainee per day.

CCA aggressively lobbies Congress and DHS in favor of immigration detention. Between 1999-2009, the major private prison contractors, including CCA, spent more than $20 million on lobbying.

“Instead of pursuing contractual relationships with repeat-offender correctional partners,” says the report, “DHS should initiate a movement toward the  ’case management’ model. In this model, case workers who have the expertise to address the needs of a civil detention population and have the capacity to foster a non-correctional culture would refer individuals who pose no threat to the community into alternative to detention (ATD) programs, at significant cost-savings to the federal government.

“The administration has plans to create more appropriate conditions for about 14 percent of their immigration detention beds, but the transformation away from the jail model still has a long way to go,” said Human Rights First’s Ruthie Epstein in October.

Related stories:

Appalling Treatment of Transgender Asylum Seeker Draws Lawsuit

Immigration Activists Protest Parental Deportation (Video)

Republican Group Admits We Need Immigration Reform

Picture by Carrie Sloan


Sarah Metcalf
Sarah M5 years ago

This breaks my heart so much.

Ernest R.
Ernest R5 years ago

@ Keevin S.—“the non voters have no room to complain simply because they didn't vote” An excellent post overall but I disagree with that statement. The problem is the corporate oligarchy. You vote for that whether you vote for Repugs or Democrats in the corporate owned congress. Your vote then gives legitimacy to a corrupt process. If your vote is a lost protest, you still have the satisfaction of withdrawing support to a sham.

Ernest R.
Ernest R5 years ago

@ Emily P.. “It doesn't matter what law they broke, they do not deserve to be treated worse than animals. for shame!” It's true that their situation is almost as bad as that of homeless unemployed US army veterans and others like Gitmo inmates indefinitely held on suspicion, or the soldier in solitary for revealing crimes to wikileaks. But I am really offended at your suggestion that innocent animals should be treated worse than criminals ! For shame !

Paul canning
Paul canning5 years ago

Yeah Mary. Amazing how quickly people will fall into regarding a whole class of other people as 'less than human' and worthy of this sort of treatment.

I wonder if there's precedent in history for that ... ?

Mary L.
Mary L5 years ago

The hate is amazingly the same on this comment thread as any other involving people unjustly detained and then treated worse than an injured animal.

I truly hope that all the haters don't claim to be christian in any way shape or form.

I most especially hope they never sing the song God is love.

Merry Christmas? Try the shortest verse in the New Testament for this Jesus Wept. So should we.

Emily P.
Emily P5 years ago

It doesn't matter what law they broke, they do not deserve to be treated worse than animals. for shame!

Diane Mckinney
Diane Mckinney5 years ago

yeah, hello Carol, wake up & smell the coffee. They would not be having ANY problems had they not BROKEN THE LAW & entered this country illegally. Are our own homeless Americans treated better? At least the illegals get a roof over their heads. Why do they keep detaining these people, why are they not being sent to the boarder? Pose not threat my rear, they all broke the law. Significan savings to the federal government...get them the hell out of this country and send their anchor babies with them. The guy with HIV is a real tear jerker, coming over here for free medical care. Hell, I can't get it but he can??

Steven Hemstreet
Steven Hemstreet5 years ago

Illegal is illegal - go home!

George Boggs
George Boggs5 years ago

Give them all a Christmas present, Send them home . It's where they should be in the first place. Put them in a buss and haul them across the border. They do not deserve to be treated as citizens. They are a drain on our taxes. To bad the Congress does not fall into this category.

Karen and Ed O.
Karen and Ed O5 years ago

"The important thing to note straight off with the detention standards is they’re not law so not enforceable." Oh, I see, "they're not enforceable" so therefore we don't have to treat these people like human beings. This reminds me again of Joseph Welch's statement to Joseph McCarthy: "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"