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A Detention Center Mea Culpa

The U.S. government is imposing greater restrictions than necessary on most aliens held in custody for immigration violations, according to a charge made by ... the U.S. government.

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The U.S. government is imposing greater restrictions than are necessary on most aliens detained for immigration violations, according to a charge made by — surprisingly enough — the U.S. government.

The mea culpa is included in a report compiled by Dr. Dora Schriro, the former Director of the Office of Detention Policy and Planning, released in late 2009. During fiscal year 2008 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) held in its custody or supervised about 378,500 aliens, which the report says isn’t exactly the agency’s job. According to the study, ICE “is comprised primarily of law enforcement personnel with extensive expertise performing removal functions, but not in the design and delivery of detention facilities and community-based alternatives.”  

Instead, the study adds, ICE reverts to incarceration standards “designed for pre-trial felons and on correctional principles of care, custody, and control,” which carry fewer rights for prisoners and incur more costs than are necessary.

As of September 1, 2009, ICE was detaining 31,075 aliens in more than 300 facilities throughout the United States and its territories. Fewer than 10 percent had committed crimes categorized as “violent” by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.

At that time, ICE was also supervising 19,160 aliens in alternative-to-detention programs, defined in the report as “the community-based supervision strategies that make up a significant portion of less restrictive conditions of control.”

Critics of government and privately run detention centers have assailed the facilities with an onslaught of studies that allege their policies violate the civil rights of detainees. One of the most vocal and organized outfits against immigration detention facilities, however, sees progress in the findings, specifically because they are based on observations made by a government official.

“I think that (the highlights are) addressing some of the condition issues and recognizing that the far-flung future of the detention system is not appropriate and that we have people locked up in county or other facilities with little or no oversight,” said Bob Libal, the Texas coordinator for Grassroots Leadership, a North Carolina-based non-profit outfit with an office in Texas. The group bills itself as a “multi-racial team of organizers who help Southern community, labor, faith, and campus organizations think critically, work strategically and take direct action to end social and economic oppression.”

Members of the Texas chapter are fixtures at public outings organized to protest private prisons and specific detention initiatives, including the 287(g) program, a controversial strategy that allows local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws, and the Criminal Alien Program (CAP), which sets its sights on identifying aliens incarcerated in local and state-run facilities. The programs’ combined efforts are responsible for 60 percent of all the aliens detained by ICE.

“ICE should move toward the risk-assessment model for people to assess whether (aliens) should be detained or not, rather than a blanket detention policy,” said Libal, though he noted the report could loosely be called “progressive” due to the government’s critique of its own policies.

By its own admission the government, through the Criminal Alien Program and 287(g) initiative, throws more aliens than it should in to the hoosegow.

“Although these programs are focused on criminal aliens, not all aliens encountered through these programs have criminal convictions,” states the report. Of the estimated 44,700 initial alien book-ins through the 287(g) program in fiscal year 2009, 65 percent were deemed “non-criminal.” Of the estimated 187,600 book-ins as a result of the CAP initiative, 57 percent were categorized the same way.

Though the government claims to separate and categorize criminal and non-criminal aliens, the efforts are not reflected in the makeup of most detention facilities.

“Non-criminal aliens and non-violent criminal aliens are frequently housed together, as are non-violent criminal aliens and violent criminal aliens. Moreover, these disparate groups are often managed similarly. The present custody classification system needs to be refined,” cites the Schriro study.

Since the report Schriro has left ICE and is now the corrections commissioner for the State of New York. Despite her departure there is hope within the immigrants’ rights community that detention reform will be an item addressed by the Obama’s administration this year. If those wheels are set into motion Texas could be a likely staging ground for those reforms. The majority of detention demand results from arrests made in eight of the country’s 24 field offices: San Antonio, Houston, Atlanta, Miami, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York and Phoenix. San Antonio and Houston top that list at 9 and 8 percent, respectively. San Antonio also tops the detention-capacity list at 14 percent. And though some aliens are shuffled around due to a lack of facilities, especially those originally arrested in California and the Northeast region of the U.S., most aliens are remanded to facilities in the region they were detained.

Critics of current immigration-detention policies have also argued that increased enforcement and the propensity for local and federal partnerships has overloaded federal court dockets. The Executive Office of Immigration Review maintains responsibility for docketing the cases, and currently employs 253 immigration judges nationwide. The report states that only 28 more positions have been allocated for fiscal year 2010.

The study also takes aim at the medical care capabilities in detention facilities, claiming the current system lacks adequate records management and screening processes.

“ICE does not have an electronic medical records system for all facilities or uniform paper reporting requirements and little reliable medical care information is available about the population as a whole,” according to the report. “There is no medical classification system other than a limited use coding of healthy and unhealthy, and there is no mental health classification system.”

The current system also lacks an adequate mental health assessment, the study found, and lacks adequate ADA-compliant equipment and in-house capabilities for detainees with psychiatric problems.

Though the report is critical of many areas of detention immigration, it only gives a brief overview of the current accountability system, which many argue is the most egregious aspect of immigration detention.

The report states that “accountability is key to reform” and that ICE “strives” toward that accountability. It does not state outright what Libal and others say are current accountability problems — specifically the lack of oversight in and the disparate practices currently used by local, state, federal and privately run facilities. It does, however, concede that a reassessment of the current Performance Based National Detention Standards, an ICE operations manual that outlines policies for admission and release, classification, transport and myriad other areas, is due. It also advocates for the creation of a federal detainee locator system in the ICE Web site, as well as quarterly updates of its key performance indicators.

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