In a report released today, Human Rights Watch charges that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is now holding more than half of its detainees in jails where they are subjected to punitive treatment and may be mixed with criminal inmates.
With its own detention facilities overwhelmed, the INS is placing its administrative detainees in jails, even though they are not serving criminal sentences. Those detained include asylum seekers, undocumented individuals picked up by the INS on the street or during workplace raids, and individuals with previous convictions who are now awaiting deportation.
"The INS is shipping immigrants off to local jails where they don't belong," said Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. "This practice violates international standards, and it must stop."
The 84-page report, Locked Away: Immigration Detainees in Local Jails in the United States, reflects research conducted over an eighteen-month period, including visits to fourteen jails in seven states and interviews with more than 200 INS detainees. Human Rights Watch has also received hundreds of letters and scores of telephone calls from detainees describing poor conditions and mistreatment in jails around the country. The seven states visited are: Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia.
Detainees report problems ranging from bad or insufficient food to more dramatic charges, such as the July 1998 incident in which guards at the Jackson County Correctional Facility in Florida allegedly used electrified batons and shields to shock detainees. Among other abuses identified in the report are: the denial of appropriate medical care; frequent, unexplained transfers to other jails; lack of outdoor exercise; correctional officers without language or other skills necessary to deal with an INS detainee population; excessive or inappropriate discipline; commingling with accused or criminal inmates, and isolation from family and friends through restrictive telephone, correspondence, and visitation policies. Immigration detainees, whether held in INS detention facilities or in local jails, have a right to legal counsel, yet holding them in jails makes it more difficult for them to obtain legal assistance. "The INS has abdicated responsibility for people under its care," said Roth.
At an average cost of $58 per day per detainee, the INS spends nearly a half-million dollars each day to house its detainees in local jails. This arrangement provides a source of profit for county governments; in some, county debts have been paid and some taxes eliminated due to revenue from holding immigrants in local jails.
Roth noted that immigration detainees who cannot be deported, because neither their own country nor any third country will accept them, are effectively serving an open-ended criminal sentence. Immigrants from countries such as Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iraq, and Iran may be held for years without resolution of their cases; Human Rights Watch interviewed several detainees who had been held for three years or longer and had no idea when, or if, they would be released or deported.
Asylum seekers are protected by international refugee law and deserve special treatment. They are usually victims fleeing abusive governments, but under the care of the INS, they face a new kind of abuse. Because the INS's detention records do not indicate which detainees are asylum seekers, they are simply mixed with other INS detainees and local jail populations. "In most cases, the INS should not be detaining these people at all, much less in jails," said Roth. "But they should certainly never be held in remote facilities, where they can't get access to legal counsel or psychological counseling services."
Among the report's recommendations:
Detention facilities used by the INS should reflect the non-accused, non-criminal status of all INS detainees. Therefore, the INS should not house its detainees in local jails, prisons, or any other facilities intended to hold criminal populations.
Asylum seekers, as a general rule, should not be detained. The right to seek and enjoy asylum is a basic human right; individuals must never be punished for seeking asylum in the United States.
Given the shortage of detention space readily available to the INS and the tremendous human and financial costs of contracting with local jails, non-custodial alternatives to detention should be explored before any decision to detain an individual is final.
The INS must implement detention standards immediately and must require that any jail with which it contracts meets the treatment and condition requirements. The standards should be promulgated as federal regulations.
All decisions to detain immigrants should be automatically and promptly referred for review to a judicial or other competent authority.
The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division should investigate complaints of poor treatment and conditions of confinement of INS detainees in local jails.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees should continue to revise and strengthen its Guidelines on the Detention of Asylum Seekers.