A federal inspection of detention centers made public Thursday found that immigrant detainees were often subjected to strip searches without a reason being provided and were threatened with prolonged confinement in their cells or isolated from other detainees without justification.
The Department of Homeland Security's Office of the Inspector General conducted the inquiry in response to concerns raised by immigrant rights groups and complaints received on the inspector general's own hotline.
“Overall, the problems we identified undermine the protection of detainees’ rights, their humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment,” the report said.
The report recommended that Immigration and Customs Enforcement draw up guidelines to be followed by its field offices on when to use segregation as a disciplinary tool and how to respond to grievances. It also said ICE should set up procedures for regularly assessing the conditions of its detention facilities and taking actions to correct deficiencies when they are detected.
ICE said it welcomed the recommendations and that its procedures already ensured safe treatment of detainees.
“Based on multi-layered, rigorous inspections and oversight programs, ICE is confident in conditions and high standards of care at its detention facilities,” said Carissa Cutrell, an ICE spokesperson. “As such, ICE concurs with the IG’s recommendation to further enhance compliance monitoring as part of our already robust inspections program.”
Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center, called the report's recommendations “incredibly insufficient.” She said past efforts to rely on field office directors to inspect their operations for deficiencies had failed to generate meaningful change.
“As Congress pours billions of taxpayer dollars into maintaining the flawed immigration detention system, the Inspector General found that companies and local governments responsible for protecting the most basic human rights of the people in their care have failed as they have profited,” McCarthy said.
“Sadly, these findings are not new. ICE’s inability to provide for the safety and health of the tens of thousands of immigrants in its custody has been documented for years.”
The report noted that immigrant detainees are held in civil, not criminal, custody, which is not supposed to be punitive. ICE oversees nearly 250 detention facilities, many of them through private contractors or local governments.
The inspections took place at the Hudson County Correctional Facility in New Jersey, Laredo Detention Center in Texas, Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico, Santa Ana City Jail in California, Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, and Theo Lacy Facility in California.
At the Santa Ana City Jail, investigators confirmed detainee reports that jail guards strip-searched all detainees upon admission, which they did not document in files as required. According to ICE’s own standards, detainees are not to be strip-searched unless there is reasonable suspicion that they are carrying contraband.
“Without documentation, there is no way to ascertain whether these searches were justified or whether they infringed on the privacy and rights of detainees,” the report said.
Language barriers were also an issue, the report said. Detainees were not able to understand medical staff, who often did not use translation services available by phone during medical exams.
Some detainees reported that staff obstructed or delayed their grievances or intimidated them through fear of retaliation, the report said. At four of the five facilities, detainees said in interviews that guards yelled at detainees and used disrespectful and inappropriate language.
Investigators confirmed one complaint that a Santa Ana City Jail guard yelled at detainees for several minutes and threatened to lock them in their cells at his discretion. The incident was caught on surveillance footage, which the report said depicted a “hostile and prolonged rant and threats of a lock-down.”
Detainees at the Stewart Detention Center also reported that staff sometimes interrupted or delayed Muslim prayer times.
The Otero County Processing Center, Stewart Detention Center, and the Santa Ana City Jail were also found to be violating ICE’s own detention standards when it came to segregation.
Staff didn’t always tell detainees why they were being segregated or notify them of their rights in writing, the report said. In multiple instances, detainees were disciplined by being segregated from other detainees or being locked down in their cells without justification.
“One detainee reported being locked down for multiple days for sharing coffee with another detainee,” the report said. “We also identified detainees who were held in administrative segregation for extended periods of time without documented, periodic reviews that are required to justify continued segregation.”
Lourdes Ortiz, a spokesperson with the Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee, called the report "just the tip of the iceberg." She said conditions at the Otero Processing Center deprive people of their right to justice.
"Attorneys struggle to have access to their clients," she said. "There are no contact visits, and attorneys have had to wait for up to three hours before being allowed to see their clients."
Documentation of daily medical visits and meal records for immigrants held in segregation were often missing or incomplete, the report said.
Immigrant detainees at the Santa Ana City Jail and Stewart Detention Center reported long waits for medical care, including delays of days before treatment of painful conditions such as infected teeth and a knee injury.
“Personnel at one facility reported staffing shortages, and, according to officials, it can be difficult for remote facilities to provide medical care to detainees,” the report said.
At the Stewart Detention Center, some bathrooms had no hot water and some showers had no cold water. Detainees reported water leaks in some housing areas. The report noted that bathroom walls and shower floors were covered in mold.
Immigrants were also told that once they used up basic hygienic supplies, like toilet paper, soap, and toothpaste, they had to purchase more from the commissary — contrary to ICE’s detention standards, which state they should be replenished as needed.
Investigators also saw spoiled, wilted, and moldy produce in kitchen refrigerators, in addition to food past its expiration date.
"The realities documented by the OIG inspectors, and many more, are endemic to the entire detention system,” said Mary Small, policy director at Detention Watch Network. “The findings of the report support our ongoing call to immediately release people from detention, as ICE has proven time and time again to be incapable of meeting basic standards for humane treatment."
Read the report
Adolfo Flores is a national security correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He focuses on immigration.
Contact Adolfo Flores at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.