A disturbing April 13 Star Tribune story recounted how an 18-year-old high school student being held in Sherburne County jail under federal immigration rules was repeatedly sexually assaulted by his cellmate — a registered sex offender.
And during the past six months, Chicago-area immigrant advocates reported that four people being held under federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) rules were sexually assaulted when housed with more violent criminals.
The attacks in the Midwest are part of a troubling pattern. Similar crimes have been committed across the country at federal facilities and local jails that contract with ICE. Clearly, officials operating the facilities must do a better job of protecting and separating detainees in custody from other prisoners. And that’s only part of what needs to change. The federal system should fully overhaul the way detention is handled.
In the April 13 story, reporters Mark Brunswick and Alejandra Matos documented problems with ICE detention practices. They reported that Sherburne County houses 85 immigration detainees, many of whom haven’t been charged with a crime but are routinely commingled with prisoners serving time. Sherburne is one of several Minnesota counties that contracts with ICE to hold federal detainees while they await court appearances and possible deportation.
An American Civil Liberties Union study found nearly 200 allegations of abuse from detainees in American detention facilities between 2007 and 2011. Last year, a Government Accountability Office report said that more should be done to protect people from sexual abuse in ICE’s 250 detention facilities — including those run by state and local governments.
Recognizing the problem, Congress in 2003 passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act to set a “zero-tolerance standard’’ for prison rape. The law includes guidelines to hold correctional facilities responsible for protecting inmates. But until recently, the rules did not apply to facilities overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, which includes ICE. And even with the recent change, county and privately run facilities may not have to comply for years, arguing that their contracts with ICE were set before the new rules were in place.
To their credit, Sherburne County jail officials say they separated detainees from the regular jail population after the most recent attack. But all facilities should be compelled to do so.
After a March news story about immigration court backlogs, the Star Tribune received a letter signed by more than 50 current ICE detainees. They described numerous concerns about being held in jails, ranging from being assaulted by other prisoners to receiving poor medical care.
The detainees wrote that some have legal status in the United States through asylum or permanent residence and that they should have the same civil-proceeding rights as regular citizens. Instead, they are often denied basic rights and housed with violent offenders but are often too frightened to complain. Similar stories have been documented in other cities, leading to a number of lawsuits and civil rights complains.
It should be obvious that jails should do everything possible to ensure the safety of those being held. And someone who overstayed a visa or was stopped for a missing taillight shouldn’t be locked up with violent criminals.
For those foreign-born detainees who are not considered criminally dangerous, there are better, more humane ways to handle their cases than incarceration, including electronic monitoring.
“When you mix immigrant detainees with criminal detainees, it just ups the risk factor of there being actual assaults and people being put in harm’s way,” Linus Chan, director of the Detainee Rights Clinic at the Center for New Americans at the University of Minnesota, told the Star Tribune.
As this page has argued numerous times, the nation’s immigration laws are in need of extensive reform. Clearly ICE detention practices must be part of that overhaul.