August 25, 2010

Known Incidents and Allegations

The recent allegations of sexual abuse in detention are far from unprecedented. The summaries below reflect complaints of abuse from detention facilities around the country, including from Texas, Florida, New York, California and Washington State. While most of the reported incidents have involved the abuse of female detainees, including transgender women, men have also reported sexual abuse. The reports highlighted here occurred since the formation of ICE in 2003, however, reports of problems of sexual abuse in detention date back to ICE’s predecessor agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service.[34]


Five women detained at the Port Isabel Service Processing Center in Texas were assaulted in 2008 when then-guard Robert Luis Loya entered each of their rooms in the detention center infirmary, where they were patients, told them that he was operating under physician instructions, ordered them to undress, and touched intimate parts of their bodies. In April 2010, just one month prior to the most recent alleged assaults at Hutto, a federal judge sentenced Loya to three years in prison to be followed by community supervision for the assaults against the female immigration detainees.[35] According to the Department of Justice, Loya, who had been employed by a private contractor to work at the facility, admitted to sexually touching the five women. He stated in his guilty plea that he sought out duty in the detention center’s medical unit in order to gain access to the medical isolation rooms. The known assaults occurred in March and April of 2008, but Loya had worked as a guard for six-and-a-half years before he was dismissed when these assaults came to light.

In May 2007, when Hutto still functioned as a family detention center, a young boy was sleeping in a crib inside his mother’s cell when a guard entered and had sexual contact with her. Video surveillance captured the guard, employed by private contractor Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), crawling out of the cell in the middle of the night in an apparent failed attempt to evade security cameras.[36] CCA fired the guard, but he never faced criminal prosecution by either state or federal authorities. According to an ICE spokesperson, the police investigation concluded that the sexual contact had been consensual.[37] In any Bureau of Prisons facility in the US, the same incident would have constituted a crime because federal law criminalizes sexual contact between guards and those in their custody.[38] However, at the time, that particular provision of the federal criminal code applied only to facilities under the authority of the Department of Justice. Immigration facilities had been under the authority of the DOJ until 2003, but then authority passed to the newly created Department of Homeland Security. Consequently, the statutory provision did not cover sexual misconduct in ICE facilities at the time of the incident at Hutto. Later in 2007, a legislative amendment was passed to make the provision cover all federal facilities.[39]

The South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall, Texas has also been dogged by reports of sexual abuse of detainees.[40] In 2008, media outlets reported detainees attesting to frequent sexual abuse. One such report stated that documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request described an investigation into an alleged assault of a detainee from Mexico by a private security guard which led to his firing but did not result in prosecution.[41] According to the report, the documents also said that another detainee had reported multiple sexual assaults.[42]

In the summer of 2009, the Women’s Refugee Commission received numerous reports of sexual assault at the Willacy Detention Center in Raymondville.[43] In at least one case, a lawsuit was filed by the victim, who was transferred to the Port Isabel center after the allegations were made. The allegations received by the Women’s Refugee Commission included not only assaults by guards on women, but also one alleged incident in which a guard locked a female detainee in a room with a male detainee to whom he “owed a favor,” so that he could rape her. These reports came from various sources, including former staff at the facility who wished to remain anonymous. These alleged incidents were reported to Dora Schriro in August of 2009 and she responded by immediately going to Willacy herself to investigate and conduct interviews.

Children, too, have apparently been subject to alleged abuse in Texas immigration detention facilities, although their care is overseen by the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), rather than ICE. Nine Central American children, one of whom was identified as 16 years old, reported sexual and physical abuse while in the custody of Texas Sheltered Care, a facility in Nixon, Texas, contracted by DHHS.[44] According to claims submitted in a lawsuit, the children were fondled, groped, and forced to perform oral sex on one guard, and some were beaten by other guards. Although one guard was eventually prosecuted and convicted of sex abuse, the suit claims that the children’s allegations were initially met with retaliation and cover-up attempts by facility officials. Children who complained were reportedly transferred punitively to other facilities, denied food, made to sleep on the ground, and deprived of access to medical care.


In September 2007, a female detainee was being transported between two Florida detention facilities when the ICE agent transporting her took her to his home and raped her. "I was scared for my life," the woman said in an interview with The Miami Herald. "He had a gun. He's a big man, and I was in his custody. I expected him to protect me, not to take advantage of me."[45] The woman, a mother of two and a 12-year resident of the US originally from Jamaica, told another detainee at the second facility what had happened and that detainee told the authorities. The ICE agent, Wilfredo Vazquez, was fired and brought up on federal charges for the assault. In 2008, Vazquez and the prosecution reached an agreement that dropped the more severe charge of aggravated sexual abuse but in which he was sentenced to more than seven years in prison for sexual abuse.[46]

Michelle N., [47] a trafficking victim, was sexually assaulted in 2007 in a Florida jail in which ICE had a contract for bed space.[48] At this facility, immigration detainees were housed in the same dormitory as individuals arrested on criminal charges. Another detainee told her attorney that women held on criminal charges had sexually abused Michelle N. while she was partially incapacitated by sedatives, which had been prescribed by the jail health staff for her mental health concerns. Michelle’s attorney immediately reported the allegations to the jail and to ICE in writing. Although the jail moved Michelle to another dormitory, the authorities did not contact the attorney and, to the attorney’s knowledge, did not take any further action.

Washington State

Two detainees at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, reported to student, faculty, and nongovernmental organization researchers that they experienced sexual harassment. The harassment included one guard asking about detainees’ sexual activity and referring to their genitals, and another making perceived advances on a detainee and rubbing the detainee’s buttocks “in an effort to ‘wake him up.’”[49] The incidents were documented in a July 2008 report by the Seattle University School of Law International Human Rights Clinic and OneAmerica based on interviews with detainees between September 2007 and April 2008. The report also discussed complaints from five detainees about strip searches, some of which took place following attorney visits. One female detainee quoted in the report said, “Here we were stripped completely naked, a female officer told me to open my legs wide and she peeped into my vagina and later, she asked me to turn my back-side and expose my anus [by separating the cheeks with her hands], I was told to cough several times while in this position—with the officer looking at my private parts. We were forced to subject ourselves to this dehumanizing treatment. For several days afterward I wept and have continued to have nightmares about this treatment.”[50] 


In mid-2006, Lydia S.,[51] a 41-year-old domestic violence survivor and mother of two, was being held by ICE in a contracted detention center in Arizona.[52] Also contracted to other government agencies, the detention center accepted a large transfer of prisoners in criminal custody from California during Lydia’s period of detention. The facility transferred the criminal justice prisoners into the same dormitory that housed the ICE detainees. When the prisoners arrived, the guards conducted a search for contraband that still made Lydia shudder when she recounted it in an interview with Human Rights Watch two years later. She said that the guards required everyone in the dorm, including the immigration detainees who had already been in custody in the center, to strip completely naked and walk in a circle in front of the female guards. Lydia resisted but was commanded by one of the guards to remove her clothes. After walking in a circle, the women were instructed to bend over and cough to determine whether they were carrying drugs. The indignity of the search deeply upset Lydia and led her to withdraw from engaging with facility staff. “I didn’t file a request for two whole weeks,” she said. “All I could do was cry. I was in shock.” 

Rose L.,[53] held by ICE for over 14 months in 2007 and 2008, was called three times for vaginal examinations by a particular male member of the medical staff at a detention facility in Arizona.[54] On none of the occasions had she complained of a gynecological problem, and on none was a nurse present when the male staff member conducted the exam. She told Human Rights Watch that she and six other detainees who had similar experiences filed a grievance. “I decided I’m going to grieve that man because I felt like he is truly hurting my pride as a woman,” she said. The grievance was effective in the immediate term: she reported that two days later, he was fired and escorted from the building. However, nothing further was done to follow up with her about the effect the abuse had on her.

New York

In the course of a confidential assessment by the American Bar Association, two detainees at a Queens detention facility reported that a guard “displayed extremely unprofessional behavior towards detainees over a period of several years, including taking some of his clothes off and simulating sexual acts with detainees, stating jocularly that he wanted to have sex with detainees, and cursing routinely in his speech. When detainees complained, the [facility] tour commander and security chief dismissed the concerns, stating that [the officer] was crazy and that they could not help.”[55] Neither the detainees’ grievance lodged with the facility nor the copy directed to the DOJ received a response. The detainees’ allegations became public in a July 2009 report from the National Immigration Law Center that revealed information from hundreds of documents obtained through discovery in litigation with the government, including the previously confidential ABA assessment from 2004.[56] 

New Jersey

Immigration detainees at the Hudson County Correctional Center reported to DHS inspectors that a guard used a camera phone to take pictures of them leaving the shower and the bathroom and when they were sleeping.[57] After receiving the reports from the detainees in July 2005, the DHS Office of Inspector General interviewed the officer, who denied the allegations, and referred the incident to the ICE Office of Professional Responsibility.


A Thai woman detained on immigration charges at a Wisconsin jail was sexually assaulted by other detainees but received no help from the jail guards to whom she reported the abuse, according to a 2007 briefing paper prepared by the National Immigrant Justice Center, which provided the woman with legal representation.[58] The center reports that the woman was unable to tell her attorney of the assaults for three months because the jail did not give her the opportunity to have a private telephone conversation. During that time, the guards did not provide her with help to escape the abuse, even after one incident led to her hospitalization.


Before a hearing of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission in December 2006, Mayra Soto (whose name is now Esmeralda Soto) testified about her experience being sexually assaulted and otherwise mistreated as a transgender woman in ICE custody.[59] Soto was detained at the San Pedro Service Processing Center in December 2003. While she waited in a holding cell to speak with her attorney, she said a guard came in and forced her to perform oral sex on him. He left for a short time and then came back and commanded her to do it again.

In her testimony about the assault, Soto emphasized the trauma caused by not just the assault, but by the events that followed her reporting of it. She said she continued to have flashbacks of having to wait overnight to wash out her mouth because of delays in arranging for evidence collection. The distress and depression she experienced following the assault went largely untreated and she had difficulty eating and sleeping. She felt hostility and pressure to retract her accusation from the other guards at the detention center. The guard who assaulted her was fired, but took a plea in the criminal case, resulting in a sentence of just six months, plus probation.

When she was detained again at the same facility in May 2005, following her deportation and subsequent return to the US, she was told that another transgender detainee who had been released had been mistaken for her and murdered in apparent retribution for the rape charges brought against the guard. When Soto was detained this second time, the facility housed her in a unit with the general male population, where she was subject to sexual harassment. After being physically injured in a fight between two detainees who claimed to “own her,” she was placed in protective custody. The protection, however, amounted to solitary confinement.

In another incident, a woman detained at a contract facility run by CCA in San Diego reported being raped by a guard while on work detail.[60] According to the Office of the Inspector General at DHS, which documented the report in an audit of five facilities published in December 2006, the guard was fired following an investigation, but the Department of Justice declined to pursue criminal charges.[61] The audit also found a complaint from December 2004 alleging that a guard had conducted a “physically abusive ‘pat down’ search that was followed up by a strip search conducted within view of other detainees.”[62]

[34] See e.g., Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children (now Women’s Refugee Commission), Behind Locked Doors: Abuse of Refugee Women at the Krome Detention Center (October 2000); FIAC, INS Detainees in Florida: A Double Standard of Treatment (December 2001); FIAC, INS Detainees in Florida: A Double Standard of Treatment (Supplement) (January-April 2002); Mark Dow, American Gulag, 2004, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, pp. 3, 52, 143, 239.

[35] Department of Justice, Office of Public Affairs, “Detention Officer Sentenced for Repeated Sexual Abuse of Detainees,” April 7, 2010, (accessed July 15, 2010).

[36] Tessa Moll, “Crime without punishment: Sexual assault at T. Don Hutto falls through cracks of justice system,” Taylor Daily Press, January 21, 2008, (accessed July 15, 2010).

[37] Patricia J. Rutland, “WilCo's Latest Snafu,” Austin Chronicle, November 2, 2007, (accessed July 15, 2010).

[38] 18 U.S.C.A. § 2243(b) (Lexis 2010).

[39] Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2008, Pub. L. No. 110-161, Div E, Title V, 121 Stat. 2082, § 554, Dec. 26, 2007.

[40] Brian Collister, “Claims of Sexual at Immigration Facility,”, May 6, 2008, (accessed July 15, 2010); Brian Collister, “Guards Confirm Sexual Assault Claims at Immigrant Prison,”, May 16, 2008, (accessed July 15, 2010); Brian Collister, “More Sex Assault Allegations at Immigrant Detention Center,”, December 29, 2008, (accessed July 15, 2010).

[41] Brian Collister, “More Sex Assault Allegations at Immigrant Detention Center,”, December 29, 2008.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Email communication from Michelle Brané, detention and asylum program director, Women’s Refugee Commission, to Human Rights Watch, August 1, 2010.

[44] Hernán Rozemberg, “Children claim repeated sex abuse,” San Antonio Express-News, February 16, 2008.

[45] Alfonso Chardy and Jay Weaver, “Agent charged with raping woman,” The Miami Herald, November 17, 2007.

[46] Jay Weaver, “Ex-ICE agent: I had sex with immigration detainee,” The Miami Herald, April 4, 2008, (accessed July 15, 2010).

[47] Michelle N. is a pseudonym used to protect the woman’s privacy.

[48] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Florida attorney, June 29, 2010.

[49] Seattle University School of Law International Human Rights Clinic and OneAmerica, “Voices from Detention: A Report on Human Rights Violations at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington,” July 2008, (accessed July 15, 2010), p.43.

[50] Ibid., p. 44.

[51] Lydia S. is a pseudonym used to protect the woman’s privacy.

[52] Human Rights Watch interview with Lydia S. (pseudonym), Arizona, May 2008.

[53] Rose L. is a pseudonym used to protect the woman’s privacy.

[54] Human Rights Watch interview with Rose L. (pseudonym), Arizona, May 2008.

[55] Ibid., p. 63.

[56] National Immigration Law Center, et al., “A Broken System: Confidential Reports Reveal Failures in U.S. Immigrant Detention Centers,” July 2009, (accessed July 15, 2010).

[57] Office of Inspector General, DHS, “Treatment of Immigration Detainees Housed at Immigration and Customs Enforcement Facilities,” December 2006, (accessed August 13, 2010), p. 29.

[58] National Immigrant Justice Center, Briefing Paper for the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrants re: The Situation of Women Detained in the United States, April 16, 2007, (accessed July 15, 2010).

[59] Mayra Soto, Testimony before the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission Testimony, Los Angeles, December 13, 2006, (accessed July 15, 2010).

[60] Office of Inspector General, DHS, “Treatment of Immigration Detainees Housed at Immigration and Customs Enforcement Facilities,” December 2006, p. 28.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Ibid.