Human Rights Watch Report Highlights ‘Systematic Failures’ in US Immigration Detention Centres


The United States has established itself as the country with the highest incarceration rate. Its population accounts for 4.4 percent of people on earth, but its prisons hold 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. Since the surge of neoliberalism in the 1980s, the mass incarceration rate has increased exponentially primarily through the privatisation of formerly state-owned or -administered prisons and correctional facilities. According to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2011 named economic neoliberalism as a “major contributor” to mass incarceration because it feeds a for-profit prison industry, which, in conjunction with bloated state budgets, wields extensive corporate-lobbyist influence on the largely accommodating federal government. It is no surprise, then, that many concerned critics view the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group as part of a corrupt prison-industrial complex. Perhaps the most damning indictment of America’s unreformed prison system is its inhumane treatment of immigrant detainees in its network of detention centres.

New evidence has surfaced in reports from Human Rights Watch and the CIVIC group, which reveal the startling conditions of immigrant detainees. The evidence obtained reveals a systemic problem within the facilities; mainly, the appalling subpar medical care that endangers the thousands of immigrants registered in the facilities. The 104-page report, aptly titled “Systemic Indifference: Substandard Medical Care in Immigration Detention,” paints a grim picture of the negligent and dangerous conditions detainees are forced to live in. The facilities are unaccountable since the government has refused to reform or address the issue. According to Grace Meng, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, many people died preventable deaths in detention centres, in spite of the previous administration’s belated attempts at reform the system. The number of preventable deaths will likely increase with President Trump’s penchant for strict law enforcement, deportation and expansion of detention facilities. The report, which leans heavily on independent medical experts’ analyses of records from ICE investigations, testimonies from over 90 advocates, former detainees, family members and attorneys, reveals how at least 18 deaths were caused by the sorry state of medical care the and negligible presence of qualified staff. Common occurrences include the withholding of vital medications, staff operating beyond their level of expertise, the misuse of solitary confinement and sluggish emergency responses. The most harrowing tales involve the case of Morales-Ramos, who despite his pleas for care died in agony of cancer afflicted organ failure because there was no diagnosis of symptoms that appeared two years earlier. Psychological and mental distress among detainees appears also to be a debilitating problem as shown by the tragic case of Tiombe Carlos in Hudson County Correctional Facility, who after two and a half years of detainment died in her second suicide attempt in the absence of a mental health treatment plan.

Legal and Advocacy Director of Project South, Azadeh Shahshahani, offers more corroborating reports in the recent May 2017 “Immigrant Justice: Inside Two Georgia Immigrant Detention Centers.” The reports show how detainees are given only painkillers for broken bones, how there is substandard medical care, a lack of trained doctors and medical personnel, inedible food sometimes containing maggots and a general lack of provisions. What is more upsetting in this report is that immigrants are often compelled to join ‘voluntary’ work programs that are purported to be optional but in reality designate cheap labour chores to immigrants who are receiving meager sub-minimum wages ($1 to $4 per day). Most jobs doled out, such as facility maintenance, should be the responsibility of the employees of the prison-corporations.

There is now a general consensus among Human Rights Watch and the CIVIC group that there is no effective oversight body to manage the American prison system. This is further highlighted by bureaucratic maladministration in the Department of Homeland Security’s oversight body, the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which after sending ICE 49 recommendations to improve conditions in an Arizona facility have not satisfactorily addressed 30 of the issues. This worrying social phenomenon of mass incarceration that has become emblematic of 21st century America will become more pronounced under the Trump administration. Recently, the administration empowered ICE with supplemental funding to the tune of $1.2 billion for increased detention capacity by an extra 11,700 beds. Trump’s misguided faith that gung-ho charismatic CEOs heading private corporations will instinctively resolve these systemic problems will ensure a continuation of the same destructive policies.