Immigrants Held in U.S. Often Kept in Squalor

Hemnauth Mohabir

In Depth

Jailed Immigrants Allege Abuse: Explore NPR's 2004 investigation of allegations that immigrant detainees were beaten by guards and bitten by dogs at two jails in New Jersey used by Homeland Security.

Some non-U.S. citizens detained by the government for violating immigration laws are kept in rat-infested, cramped detention centers, fed noxious food and denied basic hygiene items such as clean socks and underpants.

Those are the findings of a new study from the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, the agency's internal watchdog. The report found that the agency violated the government's own guidelines on the treatment of immigrant detainees in jails and prisons.

Christina Deconcini helped write the Justice Department's official guidelines for the treatment of immigrant detainees in the 1990s. She says the average U.S. citizen would be appalled by the allegations in the report and failure to respond to grievances which it documents.

"I think they'd be amazed by some of the allegations of abuse and the lack of response to that," Deconcini says.

The Homeland Security Department detains hundreds of thousands of non-citizens every year in county jails and federal prisons. Most of these people are being held on charges of violating civil immigration laws. Thousands of others are detained while they apply for asylum.

Allegations of Beatings by Guards, Dog Bites

In November 2004, NPR reported that guards at one federally funded detention center, in New Jersey, were using attack dogs to terrorize immigrant detainees. Guards at another facility in the same state were accused of beating detainees while they were handcuffed.

The day after NPR's broadcast, U.S. immigration officials ordered detention centers to stop using dogs, and officials at the jail where guards beat up detainees promised to discipline them. Soon after, the Homeland Security inspector general's office announced that it would conduct its own investigation of how detainees are treated.

His report, which was released this week, examined five jails and prisons used to detain immigrants. (There are more than 300 such facilities across the country). The study seems to confirm what detainees and activists have been charging for years: Life in some detention centers is miserable.

Report Finds Unsavory Living Conditions

Investigators found that two jails were infested with rats and roaches. The supposedly hot meals at one detention center were served cold. Detainees got food poisoning. The ventilation system didn't work.

Some detention centers were so crowded that detainees were stacked up high, on triple bunk beds. They had to clamber up and down without ladders, because the jails refused to buy them. The inspector general reported that some detainees were injured because they fell off those bunks. And some facilities didn't provide immigrants with clean socks and underpants, the way they are supposed to.

But Deconcini says some of the most serious violations dealt not with hygiene but with access to telephones.

Immigrant detainees are the only group of prisoners in America who do not have a constitutional right to a free, government-appointed lawyer. Deconcini says that's why U.S. detention standards, which she helped write, mandate that detainees have an easy way to make phone calls to their families, embassies and private lawyers.

But the inspector general found chronic problems with the phone systems. For instance, one jail did provide detainees with a list of lawyers and phone numbers, as the guidelines require, but none of the numbers the investigators tested actually worked.

Immigration Officials Say Problems Are Exceptions

Officials at Homeland Security who run the detention system are displeased with the inspector general's report. Marc Raimondi, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says that the investigation was not scientific: Investigators posted flyers in detention centers, urging detainees who had complaints to contact them. He says that any problems found in the inspector general's report are exceptions.

"We're fully committed to maintaining a safe, secure and humane detention condition, and we invest heavily in the welfare of our detained alien population," Raimondi says.

This isn't the last word on detention centers. The investigative branch of Congress, the General Accountability Office, is conducting its own investigation. Among other things, the GAO will examine whether detainees have been getting sick and dying from medical neglect.

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