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2/11: 2013 GAO Report on Sexual Abuse in Detention Centers SEXUAL ASSAULTS GO UNREPORTED
Released 24 February 2014  By Devon G. Peña

Detaining profits update Continued abuse and assault of immigration detainees

2013 GAO Report on Sexual Abuse in Detention Centers SEXUAL ASSAULTS GO UNREPORTED

Devon G. Peña Seattle, WA
February 11, 2014

This is an update in my efforts to follow developments in the detention and prison industry. In October 2011, I posted one in a series of reports I have prepared on the private prison and detention industry, “Detaining profits.” In that posting, I drew from the Human Rights Watch report, Detained and at Risk in which allegations first surfaced about the sexual abuse and rape of detainees. The specific case involved the T. Don Hutto residential center, a misnomer if ever there was one. This update focuses on the failure of the federal agencies – and especially Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to address these conditions. Indeed, since the settlement agreement between the ACLU and ICE overt the sexual abuse of detainees in Texas, the news cycle has been rather too quiet.

So, it was no surprise that the Government Accountability Office finally released a report this past November 2013 that has been wildly underreported. The report, Immigration Detention: Additional Actions Could Strengthen DHS Effort to Address Sexual Abuse, concluded that ICE does not have reliable data because of serious underreporting and lack of coordination between regional and central headquarters. Specifically, the GAO report notes:

"The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sexual abuse and assault allegations data are not complete, a fact that could limit their usefulness for detention management. ICE’s data system described 215 allegations of sexual abuse and assault in facilities that had over 1.2 million admissions from October 2010 through March 2013; however, ICE data did not include all reported allegations. For example, GAO was unable to locate an additional 28 allegations detainees reported to the 10 facilities GAO visited—or 40 percent of 70 total allegations at these 10 facilities—because ICE field office officials did not report them to ICE headquarters."

According to the report, close to 20 percent of immigration detainees are housed in seven facilities owned and operated by private companies under direct contract with ICE (GAO 2013:Table 1, p. 10). Another six facilities are owned by ICE but operated by a mix of ICE employees and private contractor staffs; there is no current method to determine this mix.

Those of us familiar with the movement to end violence against women know that too often the police are also guilty of mismanaging and mishandling evidence and files related to sexual assaults and abuse. This is also the case with the ICE data management system (if we can call it that). The GAO report is highly critical of this failure to keep accurate and complete records of assault and abuse cases:

"Our review of the facilities’ investigative files for all 70 allegations of sexual abuse and assault occurring from fiscal years 2010 through 2012 at the 10 facilities we visited, however, showed that the files did not consistently document and track information supporting the investigation of the sexual abuse incidents…Of the 15 files we reviewed in more detail, 9 files from 5 facilities did not include supporting documentation, and 8 files from 5 facilities did not include information about the outcomes of the investigation. (GAO 2013:25-26)"

The lack of forensic evidence makes prosecution of these cases impossible and that, I surmise, has been part of the ‘thin blue line’ protecting abusers within an organizational culture focused on treating immigrants as criminals.

The federal government, in typical fashion, has an over-abundance of rules and guidelines to assist detention center management to address SAAPI provisions (Sexual Assault and Assault Prevention and Intervention).

Unsurprisingly, there is an excess of guidelines, a failure to act, and multiple and contradictory jurisdictions. The report lists ten different entities – within DHS – that have jurisdiction over the implementation of SAAPI in detention centers (GAO 2013:Table 3, p. 13).

This confusing organizational maze is to be made amenable to circumvention by detainees seeking to report assault and abuse incidents but the GAO found that this outlet, through a direct line for detainees to the Office of the Inspector general (OIG) has been thwarted, perhaps systematically:

"During our site visits to 10 facilities and review of phone records from approximately 200 detention facilities, we observed indications that detainees may sometimes face barriers to accessing the DHS OIG hotline for reporting abuse at some of the facilities we visited. Although detainees report most sexual abuse and assault allegations to local facility management, consistent with the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission’s recommendations to facilitate reporting by detainees who may feel uncomfortable reporting internally, ICE requires that detainees at all facilities have access to make free phone calls to the OIG to report abuse, including sexual abuse and assault allegations. During our site visits, we attempted to connect to the OIG hotline using phones in detainee housing pods and had mixed success in reaching the hotline. Specifically, in 5 out of 19 total attempts using phones at 10 facilities, we were unable to reach the OIG hotline (4 instances) or were unable to leave a message for the OIG (1 instance). (GAO 2013:22-23)."

So much for detainee’s 14th Amendment rights of due process and equal protection. One explanation considered for this failure is that the OIG hotline is not always staffed with live operators. This is a significant source of the underreporting of sexual assault and abuse since many detainees indicated they feared for their safety if they reported incidents to the local managers.

Additional problems stem from a failure for ICE, or private contractors, to prepare, train, and supervise detention center staff. Few of the contracts for private detention centers “have reliable information about the standards cited in their contracts and agreements with ICE” (GAO 2013:33). The excuse used by many private contractors is that they are fully informed or knowledgeable of the SAAPI standards, as if ignorance of the law is a valid excuse for avoiding prosecution under the law. As a result, too often management decides that SAAPI guidelines do not apply to their facilities (GAO 2013:42). Thus, assaults and abuse are also frequently classified as “harassment” and this allows managers to assume the incident can be ignored and left unreported.

The horror of sexual assault and abuse is not exclusively directed at women detainees. According to ICE, more than 90 percent of the detainees are male and so men are also often the targets of violent assaults. This recently came to light in November 2013 when the case of Audemio Orozco-Ramirez came to light. According to the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), Orozco-Ramirez was raped while in immigration detention in a jail in Montana. NIJC filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on behalf of Orozco-Ramirez, a case that we are still following.

Many of the survivors of sexual assault and abuse in detention facilities are transgender persons. Appendix II in the GAO report provides a summary of substantiated sexual abuse and assault allegations between October 2009 and March 2013 (GAO 2013:60-62). Of the 15 cases illustrated in the appendix, 3 involved transgender detainees. According to a recent report in Aljazeera-America, LGBT immigrant detainees are 15 times more likely to face assault and abuse. Efforts to address this issue face institutional barriers since DHS/ICE rules do not include a transgender identity category and all detainees are classified according to the strict male/female binary.

There are also serious concerns over the treatment of HIV-positive detainees and the failure of the system to provide them with access to medicine including anti-retroviral drugs. There was case in 2007 involving the death of VictoriaArellano, an HIV positive female transgender detainee, who died in a men’s mass detention cell because she was refused medical attention and treatment. Transgender detainees are also frequently denied hormone treatment while detained.

The concept of the state of exception that we have presented here over the years seems especially relevant. When the sovereign power can suspend the rule of law with impunity to render entire categories of persons as unprotected, it is little surprise that we have a persistent pattern of assault and abuse targeting immigration detainees.

The continued assault on the body and dignity of detainees epitomizes everything that is wrong with our immigration, detention, deportation, and naturalization policies and practices. This is a system that criminalizes the immigrant and allows the real criminals – the rapists and abusers in the detention centers – to get away with their actions due to an inattentive bureaucracy that is driven my its obsession with the apprehension and deportation of immigrants and shows little concern or respect for Constitutional rights.

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