On Monday, a group of more than 70 Democratic members of Congress sent a letter urging federal officials to investigate sexual assault claims in immigrant detention facilities.
The letter cited a civil rights complaint filed in April by Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), which states that between January 2010 and July 2016, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) within the US Department of Homeland Security received more than 33,000 “complaints of sexual and/or physical abuse” involving “DHS component agencies” within immigration detention facilities. The OIG investigated just 225 of the abuse complaints, according to CIVIC.
Immigrants held in detention filed the most complaints (44.4 percent) against Immigration and Customs Enforcement, followed by Customs and Border Protection (31.1 percent).
Of the more than 1,000 sexual abuse or assault complaints filed by detainees between May 28, 2014 and July 12, 2016, the OIG only opened investigations into 24 complaints.
In their letter, the legislators called on federal officials to launch a special OIG committee to look for PREA violations within immigrant detention facilities.
The lawmakers also called for a special committee from the US Department of Justice to conduct a pattern or practice investigation into sexual assault in these detention facilities.
In addition, DHS should compile and publicly release data on the complaints (while maintaining confidentiality), including the outcomes of the investigations conducted, the lawmakers said.
Finally, the letter blasted ICE’s request for permission to start regularly destroying records–including records about sexual assaults over the last two decades. The report urged the agency to either back off of the effort to destroy the records, or to make the records digital and release them to the public before destroying anything.
Sexual assault behind bars is “absolutely unacceptable,” said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), who spearheaded the letter with Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.). “We need an investigation, more oversight, and reform to ensure that we are protecting those in our care.”
A report released last week by the Department of Homeland Security’s OIG found troubling conditions within immigrant detention facilities after conducting unannounced inspections at six lock-ups.
The OIG inspected two California facilities—Santa Ana City Jail, and Theo Lacy Facility in Orange County—as well as Hudson County Jail in New Jersey, Laredo Processing Center in Texas, Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico, and Stewart Detention Center in Georgia.
At the Santa Ana jail, the OIG found that staff strip-searched all incoming detainees without reporting in the detainees’ individual files, and despite the fact that ICE’s 2008 Performance Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS) say staff are not to strip-search those in custody without “specific and
articulable facts that would lead a reasonable officer to believe that a specific detainee is in possession of contraband.”
The Theo Lacy findings were detailed in a separate report released back in March. In the March audit, the OIG revealed that immigrant detainees held in Orange County’s Theo Lacy Facility were being served spoiled lunch meat, and were forced to use moldy showers.
Officers also reportedly misused segregation at the detention facilities. The inspectors found multiple instances in which detainees were disciplined using segregation or lock-down without guards documenting justification for the discipline. In one facility, a man was placed in lock-down for several days because he shared coffee with another detainee, according to the report.
“All ICE detainees are held in civil, not criminal, custody, which is not supposed to be punitive,” the OIG report stated. “ICE confines detainees administratively to process and prepare them for deportation.”
Yet, detainees also told the OIG that guards blocked or delayed grievances they tried to submit, or intimidated them so that they feared they would face retaliation if they complained.
The OIG found also improper food safety at several of the other facilities, besides Theo Lacy. “We observed spoiled, wilted, and moldy produce and other food in kitchen refrigerators, as well as food past its expiration date,” the report states. “We also found expired frozen food, including meat, and thawing meat without labels indicating when it had begun thawing or the date by which it must be used.”
At the Georgia lock-up, staff improperly housed detainees with criminal convictions with low-risk detainees, in violation of ICE’s detention standards.
Medical care was delayed days or even months for some immigrants at the Santa Ana jail and the Stewart facility, according to the report.
In addition, detainees at the Stewart and Otero facilities had to shower in bathrooms that had mold or peeling paint on walls, floors, and in the showers, the OIG found. A number of detainees at both the Hudson and Stewart lockups told the OIG that once they had run out of the initial basic hygiene supplies—toothpaste, toilet paper, shampoo, etc.—replacements did not come quickly. Sometimes, detainees were told to buy their own supply from commissary, in violation of the ICE standards of care.
According to the OIG, the facilities were selected to be inspected based on complaints received by the OIG, as well as reports from immigrant rights groups and the media.
“ICE has a challenging and highly visible role in enforcing our nation’s immigration laws,” said Acting Inspector General John Kelly. “Just as important is ICE’s role in detaining and housing the undocumented persons it apprehends. Treatment of detainees in ICE facilities should be humane, adhere to all regulations and be above reproach.”