Few Tangible Changes for Detainees as ICE Detention Reforms Anniversary Approaches

Washington, DC One year after U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced its intention to reform the immigration detention system, Human Rights First is urging the agency to fulfill that promise. The group commended ICE for the steps it has taken to develop its overhaul strategy, but noted that more must be done to revamp the nation’s sprawling detention system, which holds up to 400,000 immigrants annually in more than 200 jails and jail-like facilities.

“Despite steps in the right direction during the past year, we are disappointed that many detained asylum seekers and other immigrants in custody have seen little change.  Refugees seeking asylum in the United States should not be held in jails or jail-like facilities while their claims for protection the U.S. are adjudicated. The conditions faced by asylum seekers and other immigrants in detention should reflect the limited purpose of immigration detention to ensure that immigrants show up for their hearings and to protect the public safety,” said Human Rights First’s Ruthie Epstein. “The immigration detention system should not be modeled after the correctional system.”

Dr. Dora Schriro, who ran the corrections departments in Arizona and Missouri for 14 years and now serves as commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction, concluded in the study she conducted for DHS last year that “ICE relies primarily on correctional incarceration standards … [that] impose more restrictions and carry more costs than are necessary to effectively manage the majority of the detained population.”

Specifically, Human Rights First today urged ICE to implement its planned improvements on the ground by the end of the 2010 calendar year, and to move forward in its promise to shift away from a penal model of detention toward a civil model that better reflects the purpose of immigration detention. Among the key reforms for existing facilities recommended by Human Rights First are the following:

  • Permit contact visits for detainees with family and friends;
  • Increase outdoor recreation time in a true outdoor recreation space;
  • Increase freedom of movement for detainees;
  • End the use of prison jumpsuits for detainees.

The group also urged ICE to ensure that all facilities comply with existing detention standards regarding adequate visitation space, prompt mail delivery, affordable and adequate phone access, up-to-date law libraries, availability of legal orientation presentations, and clear grievance procedures.

In an April 2009 report, U.S. Detention of Asylum Seekers: Seeking Protection, Finding Prison, Human Rights First found that the United States was detaining asylum seekers in penal facilities for months and sometimes years, often without basic safeguards like hearings to assess the need for continued detention. In its report, Human Rights First recommended that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stop detaining asylum seekers and other immigrants in penal facilities, and create nationwide alternatives to detention. It also recommended that DHS work with the Department of Justice to provide all detained asylum seekers with access to custody hearings so that the need for their continued detention can be assessed by an immigration court.

“If immigrant detainees must be held in custody, it should be in a system that is more humane and in line with the civil purposes of immigration detention and basic human rights standards,” concluded Human Rights First’s Annie Sovcik. “We are pleased that ICE has taken important steps to reform management and accountability structures and to seek input from all stakeholders on how best to fix the system. Now it’s time for the detainees themselves to see change.”


Published on August 6, 2010


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