Jails No Place for U.S. Immigration Detainees, Report Says

Washington, DC – A report issued today by Human Rights First reveals that despite a 2009 commitment made two years ago today to overhaul the immigration detention system, the United States continues to hold the overwhelming majority of its nearly 400,000 detained asylum seekers and other civil immigration law detainees in jails and jail-like facilities across the country. The facilities are expected to cost American taxpayers more than $2 billion in 2012. The report, “Jails and Jumpsuits: Transforming the U.S. Immigration Detention System – A Two-Year Review,” notes that former prison officials and other corrections experts have found that less penal conditions in detention can actually help improve safety inside a facility, a finding echoed in multiple studies. It outlines steps that the administration should take to end its reliance on facilities with conditions that are inappropriate for asylum seekers and other civil immigration law detainees, and to bring U.S. detention practices into compliance with international human rights standards. Two years ago today, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) committed to shift the immigration detention system away from its longtime reliance on jails and jail-like facilities, to facilities with conditions more appropriate for civil immigration law detainees. The government’s commitment followed years of findings from bipartisan groups including the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Council on Foreign Relations task force on immigration policy, and the Constitution Project’s Liberty and Security Committee – as well as the DHS Special Advisor charged by DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano with reviewing the immigration detention system – that jails and jail-like facilities are inappropriate and unnecessarily costly to hold asylum seekers and other civil immigration detainees. “The administration has plans to create more appropriate conditions for about 14 percent of their immigration detention beds, but the transformation away from the jail model still has a long way to go,” said Human Rights First’s Ruthie Epstein, the report’s primary author. “Right now, the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers and other immigrants are still held in jails or jail-like facilities, where they wear prison uniforms and have limited if any real outdoor access.” The report found that, if all of ICE’s planned new facilities with less penal conditions open as designed and as scheduled, approximately 14 percent of the detained population would be housed in these less penal conditions – including greater outdoor access, contact visitation with family, and a more normalized environment with the detention facility. Asylum seekers and other immigrants would still wear uniform clothing, even at these new facilities – and the remaining 86 percent of ICE detainees would still be held in jails and jail-like facilities. In the course of Human Rights First’s assessment over the past two years, the organization visited 17 ICE-authorized detention facilities that together held more than 10,000 of the 33,400 total ICE beds, interviewed government officials, legal service providers, and former immigration detainees, as well as a range of former prison wardens, corrections officials, and other experts on correctional systems. Among the key findings contained in today’s report are the following:

  • Asylum Seekers and Other Immigrants Are Still Overwhelmingly Held in Jails and -Jail-like Facilities. In 2009, about 50 percent of immigration detainees held in actual jails, and two years later that proportion has not changed. Most of the remaining 50 percent are held in jail-like facilities. U.S. taxpayers will spend more than $2 billion to maintain this system in FY 2012 – more than 28 times ICE’s budget for more cost-effective Alternatives to Detention, which save more than $110 per detainee per day.


  • ICE Continues to Rely on Detention Standards Modeled on Correctional Standards. Despite the commitment by both DHS and ICE to develop new standards to reflect the environment and conditions appropriate for civil immigration detention, immigration detention facilities are still inspected – as they were in 2009 – under standards that are modeled on those used in jails, and that impose more restrictions and costs than are necessary to effectively manage the majority of the immigration detention population.


  • Less Restrictive Conditions Can Help Ensure Safety in Both Corrections Facilities and Immigration Detention Facilities. Most of ICE’s proposed changes actually already exist in the corrections context, and are actually touted as best practices. Corrections experts have confirmed that a normalized environment – one that replicates as much as possible life on the outside – helps to ensure the safety and security of any detention facility. Multiple studies on the impact of prison design and operations on safety draw the same conclusion.

  Today’s report focuses primarily on the commitment to shift away from penal conditions, though it outlines some steps taken by U.S. authorities to improve the existing immigration detention system, as well as persistent challenges. It also offers a detailed set of recommendations to improve U.S. detention policies and practices in general and for the victims of persecution who seek this country’s protection. Among these recommended steps:

  • Stop Using Prisons, Jails, and Jail-like Facilities, and When Detention Is Necessary Use Facilities with Conditions Appropriate for Civil Immigration Law Detainees.
  • ICE should end the use of prisons, jails, and jail-like facilities to hold detainees.
  • After an individualized assessment of the need to detain, ICE should use facilities that provide a more appropriate normalized environment. Detainees should be permitted to wear their own clothing, move freely among various areas within a secure facility, access true outdoor recreation for extended periods of time, access programming and email, have some privacy in toilets and showers, and have contact visits with family and friends.
  • ICE should develop and implement new standards not modeled on corrections standards to specify conditions appropriate for civil immigration detention.


  • Prevent Unnecessary Costs by Ensuring that Asylum Seekers and Other Immigrants Are Not Detained Unnecessarily.
  • ICE should create an effective nationwide system of Alternatives to Detention for those who cannot be released without additional supervision and Congress should ensure that cost savings are realized in the program’s expansion by reallocating part of the detention and removal budget to an increase in the ATD budget.
  • DOJ and DHS should revise regulatory language and/or Congress should enact legislation to provide arriving asylum seekers and other immigration detainees with the chance to have their custody reviewed in a hearing before an immigration court.
  • Congress should revise laws so that an asylum seeker or other immigrant may be detained only after an assessment of the need for detention in his or her individual case, rather than through automatic or mandatory detention.

Published on October 6, 2011


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