New Direction for Detention?

By Michelle Chen Aug 07, 2009

As the Obama administration pledges to reform the federal government’s vast immigration detention system, advocates might see some hope in ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton’s acknowledgment that "We need a system that is open, transparent and accountable.” But one of the first major symbolic moves toward reform, revamping the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Texas, may be more an effort to paper over controversy rather than to fix it. Though the government will stop sending families to the center, Hutto, which is run by the private prison firm Corrections Corporation of America, will continue to house immigrant women. And for now, it appears ICE’s policy of detaining families will remain essentially unchanged. (Families will be shuttled to Berks Family Shelter Care Facility in Pennsylvania.) Without a sea change in the way the ICE bureaucracy responds to the unique needs of women in detention, setting up a new women’s facility will likely create new opportunities for human rights violations. According to a Human Rights Watch investigation of several detention facilities, detained women face enormous perils in obtaining the most basic health services

Detained women did not have accurate information about available health services. Care and treatment were often delayed and sometimes denied. Confidentiality of medical information was often breached. Women had trouble directly accessing facility health clinics and persuading security guards that they needed medical attention. Interpreters were not always available during exams. Security guards were sometimes inside exam rooms, invading privacy and encroaching on the patient-provider relationship. Some women feared retaliation or negative consequences to their immigration cases if they sought care. A few were not given the option to refuse medication or received other inappropriate treatment. Full medical records were not available when the detained women were transferred or released. Written complaints about medical care through facility grievance procedures went ignored.

A similar report on detained women in Arizona found that detainees, including many suffering from psychological trauma, routinely suffered from inadequate medical and mental health services, humiliating treatment, and restricted communications with children. If the conversion of Hutto to an all-women’s facility signals a shift toward detaining mothers alone, without children, what action is the administration taking to address the separation of families impacted by raids and deportation? Reports of the children of undocumented immigrants being neglected or placed in the child welfare system show that detention has ripple effects beyond the ICE bureaucracy. The mass incarceration of immigrants has deeply destabilized the communities from which they are torn. While ICE seeks to centralize control over its facilities, the trauma inflicted by detention continues to widen. Image: Hutto detention center (Donna McWilliam / AP)