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No More Secret Prisons

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On January 22, 2009, President Obama ordered the closing of Guantanamo within one year, an overhaul of detention policies, and an end to torture and secret prisons around the world. He also called for the creation of a task force to study United States detention policy overseas. In particular, he declared that the "apprehension, detention, trial, transfer, release, or other disposition" of individuals must not violate either the interests of national security or the interests of justice. And he ordered that our policies must comply with the Geneva Conventions, including Article 3 which stipulates that detainees be treated humanely and prohibits "outrages upon personal dignity." Human rights advocates around the world applauded the President's executive orders.

It was gratifying to see the White House take a stand in favor of humane treatment and an end to secret prisons overseas, but conscience and consistency dictate that we apply the same standards at home. Across the United States, tens of thousands of immigrants are being held in detention facilities that violate basic standards of humanity. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE -- a division of the Department of Homeland Security created in 2003 through a merger of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the U.S. Customs Service), will not disclose information about the location of detention facilities and the conditions detainees face. Human rights groups engage in costly work simply to map the location of detention centers. Families sometimes cannot find loved ones who are seized during raids for days or weeks, and often those detainees are flown hundreds of miles away. ICE's network of facilities lacks accountability, consistent regulation, and oversight -- and it is rapidly expanding. Ten years ago approximately 100,000 people spent time in detention each year; today that number has tripled to more than 300,000. ICE's detention of immigrants is a civil, administrative matter, and thus differs in important ways from the detention of individuals at Guantanamo -- yet the same issues of human rights and dignity are at stake in either case.

The 2007 death of Hiu Lui Ng, an engineer from China who died in a Rhode Island detention facility after being denied medical care for cancer and a fractured spine, has drawn attention to the prevalence of abuse. Supervisors at the jail refused Mr. Ng a wheelchair when he was too ill to walk; finally he was dragged out of his cell, screaming from the pain throughout the ordeal. His case has been documented in unusual detail because of the horrifying mistreatment involved. But Ng was only one of 80 individuals to have died while detained by ICE in the last five years. Abdouli Sall died in a Farmville, Virginia jail in 2006 after he was denied medication for a serious kidney ailment. Boubacar Bah, a tailor from Guinea who overstayed his tourist visa, fell and injured his head in a privately-run detention center in New Jersey in 2007. Although the accident left him incoherent and vomiting, he was shackled and placed in solitary confinement for thirteen hours. It took his family five days to find him. By then he had been taken to a local hospital for an unsuccessful operation and had slipped into a coma from which he never recovered.

More subtle, but still deeply troubling, is the common denial of mental health support to detainees who are suffering from various degrees of trauma. Immigrants who come to the U.S. seeking asylum, some of them survivors of violence and torture, are routinely sent to detention centers. The extra stress of detention makes it imperative that they receive medical treatment, but rarely is it provided.

Detainees complain of -- and human rights groups have documented -- widespread and repeated insults to personal dignity, lack of medical care, and an inability to communicate with their families. Detainees are often not informed of their rights, nor given access to attorneys. That many detention facilities are now privately run for profit and that many detainees are housed in an odd hodge-podge of local and regional jails, has only intensified the problem.

And as of January 7, 2009, the rights of immigrants are even more endangered. On that day, with less than two weeks left to his tenure in the Bush Administration, Attorney General Michael Mukasey shockingly declared that immigrants and asylum seekers do not possess a right under the Constitution to representation by a lawyer before they can be deported. With that one decision, Mukasey overturned decades of legal precedent. In the past, detainees often received insufficient information about their rights to an attorney, and unlike those charged with a crime, they had to pay their own legal expenses, but at least they were presumed to possess that right. Now individuals caught within a system that is rapidly expanding and already in crisis will be made even more isolated and vulnerable.

These conditions profoundly offend American principles of justice and fairness. It is well past time for reform. President Obama should begin by immediately creating a task force to examine U.S. domestic detention policy and ensure that it guarantees equal justice for all. The United States must follow through, as Obama declared in announcing his first executive orders as President, on "an understanding that dates back to our Founding Fathers, that we are willing to observe core standards of conduct -- not just when it's easy but also when it's hard." American ideals require that we observe those core standards of conduct at home as well as abroad.