Immigration detention hasn’t featured much in the current reform debate. That needs to change.

Each year, the US holds more than 400,000 immigrants in a far-flung network of detention facilities, not as punishment for criminal offenses but for civil immigration violations. A lot of them stay locked up for months, some for years, waiting for a court hearing or deportation. Too many are detained without regard for whether they are actually dangerous – which most aren’t – or a flight risk.

Life inside detention centers can be grim. Human Rights Watch has documented inadequate medical care, physical and sexual abuse (often unaddressed by authorities), poor living conditions, and limited access to legal representation. The United Nations has said that immigration detention “should gradually be abolished,” and, when used, should be strictly a last resort.

In 2009, the Obama administration announced plans to refashion immigration detention into “a truly civil” system. Large-scale detention would continue, said then-director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) John Morton at the time, “but it needs to be done thoughtfully and humanely.”

Large-scale detention certainly has continued, not least thanks to a “bed mandate,” requiring that ICE facilities, most of which are privately run, fill more than 34,000 beds on any given day, at an annual cost of US$1.7 billion.

The administration has touted improved conditions, but severe problems persist. The nonprofit Detention Watch Network last year identified the 10 worst facilities in the country, where it said “acute and chronic human right violations” routinely occur. One of those sites, the Polk County detention facility in Texas, which houses 400-500 asylum seekers from Latin America, was the subject of a protest in Austin today, with protesters demanding it be closed, the Texas Observer reports.

Shutting down facilities that tolerate abuses would be a good start. But the US ought to reform the immigration detention system top to bottom. ICE should ensure that detainees are held in humane and safe conditions and have access to adequate medical care. More broadly, the US should detain only those immigrants who are dangerous or unlikely to appear for hearings unless they are locked up. Too many people are being detained unnecessarily, at great cost to themselves, their families, and US taxpayers.