August 25, 2010

Summary

In May 2010, reports surfaced that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was investigating allegations that a guard at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, an immigration detention center in Texas, had sexually assaulted several female detainees.[1] The guard, who was arrested on August 19, 2010 on suspicion of official oppression and unlawful restraint, allegedly groped women while transporting them to an airport and a bus station where they were being released. [2] While largely covered in the media as an isolated incident, this is only the latest in a series of assaults, abuses, and episodes of harassment that have quietly emerged as a pattern across the rapidly expanding national immigration detention system. Due to a shortage of publicly available data and the closed nature of the detention system, the extent to which ICE detainees are subject to sexual abuse nationwide is unclear, but the known incidents and allegations are too serious and too numerous to ignore. They point to an urgent need for investigation and for swift action to correct glaring gaps in detention policy, practice, and oversight.

The allegations of abuse at Hutto are all the more disturbing because of where they occurred. One year ago, in August 2009, the Obama administration announced plans to overhaul the immigration detention system. Hutto was a model for the detention reform plan that followed. Previously a family detention facility,[3] Hutto was to become an all-female detention center.[4] It was to be an example of the enhanced oversight ICE planned, and the “softer” form of detention that was to reflect the non-criminal nature of immigration custody.[5] The detention reform announcements also identified the agency’s response to sexual abuse as an area for improvement. A report by detention expert Dora Schriro, which formed the basis for the reforms, stated: “The system must make better use of sound practices such as … practices that comply with the Prisoner Rape Elimination Act.”[6]

A year later, the alleged sexual assault of women at Hutto serves as a stark reminder of how far detention reform has yet to progress. While ICE has made significant steps towards reform—including drafting new detention standards with the input of immigrant and detainee rights advocates—further steps, including publication of those standards and improvements in oversight and accountability to see that they are implemented, are still needed to ensure the safety and fair treatment of immigrants in detention.

Methodology

In researching this report, Human Rights Watch gathered reported incidents and allegations of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment in ICE detention from a range of sources, including press reports, governmental and nongovernmental studies, a public hearing, court documents, and Human Rights Watch interviews. The research focused solely on reports and allegations of incidents since 2003, when ICE assumed control of immigration detention functions from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Secondary accounts were collected primarily through a search of news and legal databases and through consultations with immigrants’ rights advocates. Information was also drawn from two interviews that Human Rights Watch conducted in April and May 2008 with individual women detainees about the medical care they received in detention and about their other detention-related concerns. To protect their privacy and alleviate concerns regarding retaliation, Human Rights Watch assured women that their real names and the potentially identifying details of their interview would not appear in our report. For this reason, the names of all women interviewed have been replaced with pseudonyms, and the exact dates and precise locations of the interviews have been withheld. For all of the included incidents and allegations, we have included the country of origin of the detainee or detainees whenever it was publicly available.

[1] Suzanne Gamboa, “ICE investigating alleged sexual assault of detainees,” Associated Press, May 28, 2010; Julian Aguilar, “A Private-prison Employee Is Accused of Assault,” Texas Tribune, June 1, 2010; Seth Fred Wessler, “Sex Assault Charges Back in ICE Detention Centers,”Colorlines, June 3, 2010, http://colorlines.com/archives/2010/06/immigration_and_customs_enforcement_announced.html (accessed July 15, 2010).

[2] Isadora Vail, “Former supervisor charged in sexual assaults of detainees,”Austin American-Statesman, August 20, 2010, http://www.statesman.com/news/local/former-supervisor-charged-in-sexual-assaults-of-detainees-869333.html (accessed August 20, 2010); “Detention officer admits groping women,” KXAN.com, August 19, 2010, http://www.kxan.com/dpp/news/local/williamson/detention-officer-admits-groping-women (accessed August 19, 2010);

[3] From May 2006 to September 2009, the T. Don Hutto Residential Center was one of two facilities used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as housing for families in the agency’s custody. During that time, Hutto was the subject of litigation over detention conditions and the site of multiple protests by groups objecting to the detention families. When ICE decided to cease using Hutto to hold families, ICE expedited processing of the cases there and families there were deported, released into the US (permanently or pending the outcome of their immigration case), or transferred to the much smaller Berks Family Residential Center in Pennsylvania, now the only facility that ICE uses to hold families. For further background on ICE family detention, see Women’s Refugee Commission, Locking up Family Values: The Detention of Immigrant Families, February 2007, http://womensrefugeecommission.org/component/docman/doc_download/150-locking-up-family-values-the-detention-of-immigrant-families-locking-up-family-values-the-detention-of-immigrant-families?q=locking+family+values (accessed August 6, 2010).

[4] ICE, US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), 2009 Immigration Detention Reforms Factsheet, August 6, 2009, http://www.ice.gov/pi/news/factsheets/2009_immigration_detention_reforms.htm (accessed August 6, 2010).

[5] ICE, DHS, T. Don Hutto Residential Center Factsheet, March 24, 2010, http://www.ice.gov/pi/news/factsheets/huttofactsheet.htm (accessed August 6, 2010).

[6] Dora Schriro, ICE, DHS, “Immigration Detention Overview and Recommendations,” October 6, 2009, http://www.ice.gov/doclib/091005_ice_detention_report-final.pdf (accessed July 15, 2010), p. 22.