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A Closer Look Inside Arizona Detention Centers: Calling for More Access and Oversight

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Driving up to the Central Arizona Detention Center (CADC), all you see is a vast empty stretch of desert reaching south to the U.S/Mexico border. Electric fencing and concertina wire ring the facility and armed guards patrol the grounds under the unyielding Arizona sun. When you enter, all your belongings must be left in lockers before you walk through metal detectors. From what I can tell, these days there is no real difference between a detention center and a jail -- especially since many of these facilities house both criminal and non-criminal populations.

My colleagues and I went to Arizona to meet with immigrant detainees nearly a year after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced its commitment to overhaul immigration detention. We planned this trip in order to get a sense of how these new policies and procedures were being carried out on the ground. We know through our years of research and advocacy on this issue that there is no better way to understand this than to meet with detainees and staff inside these centers. Access and transparency are critical to our work.

We visited the Eloy Detention Center and CADC--two facilities ICE has contracted with to hold immigrant detainees -- where we were able to meet with detainees privately and listen to their stories. The reason these individuals are being detained varies -- some have been picked up by Customs and Border Patrol while trying to cross the U.S./Mexico border and others are seeking asylum, having fled political persecution or domestic violence and abuse.

Inside CADC, we met a young woman named Ana whose story, unfortunately, is not unlike that of many mothers now sitting in detention centers across the country. We sat down with Ana in a small room alongside the female detainees' pod -- a large room made up of smaller cells -- which just so happened to be adjacent to the unit where the U.S. Marshall Service holds male sex offenders and pedophiles.

Ana is from Mexico originally but has lived in the U.S. since she was a child. She was desperate to talk to us -- recounting the years of domestic violence she endured and the countless nights she feared for her and her children's safety. Today, while Ana is detained in CADC, her children remain in their abusive father's custody. She is terrified for her children and feels she has no means of protecting them. Every day she lives with the fear of being deported and losing custody of her kids.

Ana told us that without her children she feels depressed and hopeless. When she asked to meet with CADC's psychologist, her request was never answered. She said that the medical clinic is too far away from the women's cells, keeping women from receiving timely attention and care. Ana was finally given an appointment to see a doctor months after her initial request, but when she explained her history of abuse the doctor dismissed her concerns, telling her to "go to recreation" to feel better.

Why NGO access to detention centers is critical

Meeting with women like Ana is the very reason that we visit detention centers across the country -- it is essential to our work. Their stories help us better understand and identify what's working and what's not -- and which issues need the most attention. We advocate on behalf of these detained women and carry their stories back to Washington to help shape new policies that will better protect them.

The Women's Refugee Commission has worked hard to establish a constructive and collaborative working relationship with ICE and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). We meet with DHS and ICE leadership on a regular basis to provide guidance and recommendations for new policies and procedures that would better protect the rights of detained women and children seeking asylum. We depend on access and transparency in order to do this work. Allowing nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) access to their facilities in the field is an opportunity for ICE -- we can help the agency ensure that its field operations are falling in line with headquarters' policies and reforms.

Although ICE headquarters has made the commitment to detention reform, our trip showed a real gap between the spirit of reform at the national level and actions at one of the field offices we visited. Inside CADC, we struggled with access to detainees -- kept from meeting women who had asked to speak with us, but were ultimately not allowed to do so. In the weeks after our trip, we were contacted by several of the women we could not speak with. Their stories only further confirm the patterns of neglect we observed in our interviews.

A need for more meaningful oversight and accountability

The apparent lack of oversight and accountability between ICE headquarters and the field only underscores the need for NGOs to be allowed access to DHS operations at the local level. Just before our trip, ICE disclosed that a guard at the T. Don Hutto facility in Texas was accused of sexually assaulting several women--the latest such incident among several over the past few years. We appreciate the disclosure, and the steps ICE took to investigate the case and prosecute the offender. But the underlying problem remains that without greater independent access and oversight, such events have a higher likelihood of continuing. The fact that CADC housed ICE's female detainees--some of whom did not need to be detained in the first place--next to sex offenders two weeks after the sexual assault at Hutto is a clear example of ineffective internal monitoring.

ICE has taken some steps to increase detention oversight and accountability, including creating the Detention Services Manager position. These managers are now posted at detention facilities nationwide and are responsible for monitoring compliance with detention standards. However, the managers we met in Arizona had all been staff at the detention center before assuming their new position, thus undermining their ability to be impartial and independent. It's not surprising then that non-compliance remains a problem.

Today, at the headquarters level, ICE is formulating new detention standards, including new standards to prevent incidents of sexual assault and improve conditions of confinement. We are pleased that ICE has accepted NGO input in developing these standards, as they could play a significant role in protecting detained women -- including in the event of an assault. However, NGOs must be permitted to tour facilities and speak with detainees and detention center staff in order to make sure these new policies are implemented fully and effectively.

Change of this magnitude always meets resistance. But if ICE Assistant Secretary Morton's efforts to reform a broken system are to succeed, transparency and access must play a key role.

The names in this post have been changed to protect privacy.