(New York) - Plans to reform immigration detention management and oversight, announced today by the US government, should quickly be translated into actual policy change and accountability, Human Rights Watch said today.  The plans focus on centralizing control of facilities used to hold detained immigrants.

"Immigrants are detained in standalone jails with little supervision, and their rights often fall through the gaps," said Alison Parker, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's US Program. "If the move toward centralization is about closing those gaps and protecting their rights, rather than just cutting costs, then it should be an improvement."

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also announced a shift away from the current network of contracted jail and private prison space toward government-run civil detention centers. Research has shown, however, that immigrants may face abuse in both public and private detention centers.

The safety of the men, women, and children in custody depends on legally enforceable detention standards, Human Rights Watch said. The administration has thus far declined to issue such standards.

Immigration detention, the fastest-growing form of incarceration in the United States, has come under extensive criticism for the conditions in which detainees are held pending the outcome of their civil immigration cases. More than 100 detainees have died since Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was created in 2003. Reports have documented gross failures in the medical care provided to detainees and raised numerous concerns regarding their due process rights.

A March 2009 Human Rights Watch report documented dozens of cases in which women detainees struggled to obtain pap smears, mammograms, pre-natal care, counseling for survivors of violence and even basic supplies such as sanitary pads or breast pumps for nursing mothers. In the announcement today, DHS said it would move female detainees from several Texas facilities to the Hutto detention facility in Taylor, Texas, to "better monitor the needs of and develop programs specific to this population."

"Recognition of the specific health needs of women detainees is important and long overdue," said Parker. "We are eager to see the specific programming planned for Hutto, and to see whether appropriate medical care and detention conditions are going to be provided for women throughout the system."

A December 2007 Human Rights Watch report found that the department does not collect basic information to monitor immigrant detainees with HIV/AIDS, has sub-standard policies and procedures for ensuring appropriate care and services, and inadequately supervises the care  provided.

It is unclear whether the proposed reforms will address another costly and chaotic aspect of immigration detention: the widespread shuffling of detainees between facilities, often located in remote parts of the country. In a soon-to-be released report, Human Rights Watch found that ICE is increasingly transferring detainees to remote detention centers as a response to overcrowding. Many immigrants are initially detained close to their attorneys and witnesses, in locations such as New York or Los Angeles, but are then transferred to detention centers in rural Texas or Louisiana.

According to ICE data analyzed by Human Rights Watch, 1.4 million detainee transfers occurred between 1999 and 2008. The transfers interfere with detainees' rights to counsel, to defend against deportation, to present witnesses and other evidence, and to be free from arbitrary and prolonged detention.