By Meghan Rhoad, women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch
(Washington) - The US government needs to strengthen its protection of people in immigration detention to prevent sexual abuse and to ensure justice for victims, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 24-page report, "Detained and at Risk: Sexual Abuse and Harassment in United States Immigration Detention," describes documented incidents and allegations of abuse. It also discusses recent proposals by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to address the issue. Human Rights Watch emphasized that the agency should make improvements swiftly to improve oversight of the entire detention system and ensure accountability.
"ICE has finally recognized the need for stronger protection of people in detention against sexual abuse, but it needs to play catch up quickly," said Meghan Rhoad, women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "ICE needs to get new rules in place and make sure the rules have the teeth to ensure compliance from the hundreds of facilities across the detention system."
Human Rights Watch also expressed concern that the changes ICE proposes will have limited impact if ICE only makes changes to its standards. It has refused to issue binding legal regulations to address problems with detention conditions.
ICE has proposed many of the policy changes since allegations emerged in May that a guard employed by a contractor, Corrections Corporation of America, at the T. Don Hutto immigration facility in Texas had sexually assaulted several detainees. 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.
The proposed policy changes include prevention measures such as prohibiting guards from searching detainees of a different gender and setting restrictions on when guards may transport detainees of a different gender. ICE also plans to publish a revised detention standard on sexual assault that contains improvements in required medical procedures in rape cases and improved procedures for data collection about incidents of abuse.
Human Rights Watch said that further policy improvements are needed to limit unnecessary searches of detainees and to ensure that victims of abuse are informed of the availability of visas that would allow them to stay in the US so that they can cooperate with law enforcement in criminal cases related to abuse.
"Giving detention standards the force of law is critical for remedying a host of abuses," Rhoad said. "ICE's reluctance on this point sends the wrong message to detention facilities, and to the detainees who are at their mercy."
The frequency with which sexual assault, abuse, and harassment occur in detention is largely unknown. The Bureau of Justice Statistics collects some data on the problem that includes incidents in facilities run by or exclusively for ICE. But it does not tabulate the numbers of assaults on immigration detainees held in state and county jails where ICE rents a portion of the bed space.
In its June 2009 report, the congressionally mandated National Prison Rape Elimination Commission said that immigrants in detention face particular challenges in reporting abuse, including a lack of information about rules governing staff conduct and fear of speaking out against the same authority that is seeking their deportation.
"The incidents we know about could easily be the tip of the iceberg because the people who may have been victims of abuse are, more often than not, deported," Rhoad said. "We urgently need ICE to improve the system for taking reports of abuse from detainees and to publish information that will clarify the scope of the problem."
Based primarily on a review of governmental and nongovernmental studies, media reports, and lawsuit filings, the Human Rights Watch report compiles documented incidents and allegations of sexual assault, abuse, and harassment in immigration detention since the formation of ICE in 2003.
In one incident, five women detained at the Port Isabel Service Processing Center in Texas were assaulted in 2008 when a guard, Robert Luis Loya, entered each of their rooms in the detention center infirmary where they were patients. Loya told them that he was operating under physician instructions, ordered them to undress, and touched intimate parts of their bodies.
In 2007, a trafficking victim was sexually assaulted in a Florida jail with which ICE had a contract to rent bed space for immigration detainees. Women detained on criminal charges who were housed in the same dormitory assaulted the trafficking victim while she was partially incapacitated by prescribed sedatives.
Key recommendations from the report include:
To the Department of Homeland Security
* Institute legally binding detention standards applicable across all types of immigration detention facilities.
* Appoint a Prison Rape Elimination Act coordinator.
* Publish information on reported incidents of sexual assault.
To Immigration and Customs Enforcement
* Ensure that reports of sexual abuse are thoroughly investigated.
* Improve the monitoring of compliance with detention standards by detention facilities.
* Expedite implementation of the detention standard on preventing and responding to sexual assault and abuse across all facilities holding ICE detainees.
* Require detention centers to facilitate on-site access for local community providers of support services for sexual assault survivors.
* Standardize procedures for ensuring access to appropriate relief measures for victims, including release from detention and visas to remain in the United States and assist law enforcement.
* Require detention facilities to have reasonable suspicion of infractions before conducting pat-down searches of detainees.
* Ensure that detainees are fully informed about their rights with respect to sexual assault, abuse, and harassment.
To the Department of Justice
* Issue regulations based on the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission's recommendations without delay.
* Review the department's experience in prosecuting sexual assault and abuse in immigration detention with a view to improving procedures and prosecution rates.
To the US Congress
* Demand disclosure of ICE records related to sexual assault, abuse, and harassment in detention.
* Pass legislation setting standards for detention conditions.