Monday, October 24, 2011

Outsourcing Immigration Detention: A Recipe for Abuse

The private immigration detention industry has long been criticized for the widespread human rights abuses perpetrated by its employees, from mysterious deaths to inadequate medical care to confinement of children in prison-like conditions. The numerous failures in oversight lead to serious concern about the dramatic global growth of the industry. Last week, the ACLU's National Prison Project publicized its findings on yet another cause for worry: sexual abuse of immigration detainees.
A Freedom of Information Act request filed in January 2011 uncovered nearly 200 complaints of sexual abuse since January 2007. While these complaints were not all substantiated, so may provide an inflated estimate of such incidents, it's significantly more likely, given the power imbalance between immigration detainees and their guards, that this number represents just the tip of the iceberg. And that's the tip, of course, of just the American iceberg; the global implications are titanic.
As I've posted before, Immigration and Customs Enforcement's lack of written standards for the treatment of detainees creates an environment that fosters abuse. Comprehensive and privately enforceable policies and procedures for private immigration detention facilities should be the end goal. Unfortunately, the Obama administration appears to be headed in the opposite direction; the Department of Justice has reportedly proposed regulations that would exclude immigration detainees from protection under the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003.
In the meantime, civil lawsuits may offer one approach to preventing further abuses. Last Wednesday, the ACLU of Texas filed suit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Corrections Corporation of America, and a guard for his sexual assaults against detainees, including three asylum seekers, at the T. Don Hutto detention facility in Texas. Apart from holding out the possibility of damages for the claimants, the publicity around the suit may help to prod ICE to reform the Hutto facility, and more suits of its kind might even prompt revision of the entire detention outsourcing system. As the numbers of immigration detainees rise, the need for a systemic -- indeed, global -- solution becomes ever more pressing.

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