Immigration Detention Reform in the US?

Hunger Strike May Spur Federal Reform to Immigration Detention

BY GEORGE LAVENDER, In These Times (Source)

WEDNESDAY, MAY 14, 2014, 5:00 PM

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), whose district includes the Northwest Detention Center where hundreds of detainees took part in a hunger strike earlier this year, introduced new legislation last week that he believes will provide greater oversight of immigration detention. The Accountability in Immigration Detention Act would guarantee minimum nutritional standards, minimum pay rates for work, as well as mandate unannounced inspections of detention facilities. The Prison Complex spoke with Rep. Smith about the legislation, the hunger strike, and the prospect of comprehensive immigration reform.

Can you start by explaining what the Accountability in Immigration Detention Act will do?

The (current) problem is the detention facilities are run by the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) under the Department of Homeland Security. For federal prisoners there is federal legislation that sets minimum treatment standards for the inmates but in detention facilities under the ICE there is no federal law it’s set by ICE. The ones who run the prison basically set the rules for how to conduct it, there’s no oversight. One of the other problems is we have now contracted-out the running of the detention facilities so that private companies actually own and operate the facilities and this has lead to some very bad conditions in some of these detention facilities including the one in my district in Tacoma (where) a hunger strike started a few months back because of these conditions. The main complaints were: the food’s terrible, highly inconsistent in terms of the quality, inedible at a certain point… you can understand it because that food service is subcontracted out by a private contractor and the less money they spend on food the more money they make. In the absence of specific regulations requiring things they have a great deal of flexibility on that. There is also concern about the privately run commissary where if inmates earn money working they can go buy things but the prices were too high (and) the items were not things the inmates wanted. Then there were complaints about the fact that if you did voluntary work where you earned money the wages for that are substantially less than what they are at federal prisons. The wages were a dollar a day. No matter how long you worked you get a dollar. So basically there was a lack of protections for the detainees in these facilities. My legislation would set minimum standards modeled largely off federal law that already exists for federal prisons. Inmates should have minimum standards that are legislatively set and not just set by the people who are running the detention facilities.

You visited the Northwest Detention Center where the recent hunger strike took place, what did you learn from that visit?

I talked with a number of the inmates. I would say it’s not so much what I saw in a one hour visit, it’s based on the inmates I spoke to in the hunger strike, things I was told. What the inmates told me was how awful the food was, how they couldn’t eat it for days at a time. They told me about the abuse of the dollar a day (wage). In a federal prison you’re not paid much but you’re paid by the hour. They would say that they would be required to work 10 or 11 hours a day. And they thought that that system was being abused. There was also a general complaint about the treatment by the guards, that it was very rough and borderline abusive. That people were thrown into solitary far too often, it was used as a threat so they were concerned about that. I heard enough from the detainees to be concerned about the conditions. I will say that since the hunger strike and since a number of groups including my office have brought attention to it, most of the detainees say the conditions have improved as a response to the focus on their concerns, so that’s a positive. But at the time I visited about three weeks ago, there was deep concern about the quality and the conditions.

Part of your legislation is aimed at encouraging the use of alternatives to detention. Will that conflict with the congressional “bed mandate” requiring ICE to keep an average of 34,000 detainees in custody each day?

The minimum bed requirement is bad law in my opinion.  There should not be a requirement we lock up a minimum number of people. Whether or not you detain somebody should depend on public safety not on some minimum requirement. I did not actually put that in this piece of legislation because we want to try to do it through the appropriations process but we definitely need to get rid of the minimum bed requirement. One of the other big concerns (is) that there’s not enough bail and there’s not enough discretion being exercised by the ICE in terms of who they put into these detention centers. We detain people we don’t need to detain and we do it in large part because of this private prison incentive.

You’ve pointed out that many of these detention centers are run by for-profit companies including GEO and the Corrections Corporation of America, do you think that needs to be changed?

I do. I think privately run prisons (are) a bad idea in general. The problem we have is that the private corporations own the facilities. That was part of the incentive to do this was to get the private company to build and fill it. If at this point we were to go back to the ICE running these facilities, not private companies, what would happen to the buildings? I’m trying to figure out how that would work but I definitely think that the lessons we learned here is that privatizing prison is not a good idea. You do not want to place an incentive in US law to lock up more people. I think it was a bad idea that we need to work on reversing, but it’s not going to be easy given the fact that these facilities are owned by the private companies.

What opposition do you expect to face to this legislation?

Off the top there shouldn’t be any huge opposition to this except from the process. I’ve got to get this through the Republican house and they’re not as concerned about how detainees are treated. We have not heard any specific opposition yet, but then again Congress right now is not passing a great deal of legislation right now regardless of what it is. Republicans are keeping a very, very tight control of the agenda so we’re going to roll it out there and see. I have not heard of any specific opposition but I’m mindful of the fact that the legislative process can be long and slow so we’re going to have to be persistent on it.

You mentioned reforming the minimum bed requirement, are there other steps you would like to see in terms of more widespread reform?

The biggest thing we do here is comprehensive immigration reform where we don’t detain and deport as many people. Comprehensive immigration reform is a huge part of this, to give the existing undocumented population a pathway to citizenship. The other big piece is re-introducing more judicial discretion of who gets detained and deported. The big thing here in all of this is the undocumented population of the United States of America is a lot more of an integral part of our communities than most people are willing to admit. There are people who have been here, in some cases for decades who are raising families, working, paying taxes, being positive members of our community and to lock them up and deport them and break up families and break up communities is not in our best interests. Right now we don’t have enough discretion in handling that, which is why we need comprehensive immigration reform, that’s the bigger picture, (to) stop seeing deportation as the overarching goal of our immigration policy.


Detained asylum seekers launch wave of protest in UK

Immigration detention is an increasingly serious issue. As the phenomenon increases so to does resistance from inside and outside immigration detention centres. I’ve already mentioned the ongoing struggles in Canada. Like in the UK, private companies – private security firms in particular – profiteer from immigrant detention. Here is a comparative report from Australia on asylum seekers’ average detention time

Taking refuge in struggle: protests and hunger strikes in four asylum seeker detention centres across the UK

by Caiman del Barrio,, May 9 2014 (source)

A wave of protests and repression has spread across the UK’s expansive asylum seeker detention complex, with four centres reporting unrest thus far. Detainee support groups report hunger strikes, sitdown protests and a flurry of organising in Harmondsworth, Colnbrook, Brook House and Campsfield, against both their lack of legal recourse and the squalid conditions in the detention centres.

The protests started last Friday (2nd May), when anywhere in between 100-200 detainees at Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre in Middlesex declared themselves on hunger strike and occupied the courtyard en masse. Officials from GEO, the company charged with running the centre, quickly ceded their demand to hold a meeting with someone from the Home Office and promised a meeting for the following Tuesday. As a result, the detainees returned to their rooms and taking food by 9pm.

However, the meeting never materialised and instead, on Tuesday, while around 200 had assembled in the IRC courtyard, as many as 20 protesting detainees were issued with either flight tickets (for deportation) or refusal letters (classifying them as ‘failed asylum seekers’), in a process full of irregularities. One removal letter had had the date changed in pen, while another had been delivered before the detainee’s asylum appeal hearing, which is unlawful (since the detainee clearly has an ongoing case).

GEO were keen to present the Harmondsworth protest as merely a complaint about the detainees’ immigration status, and therefore a matter for the Home Office, but the detainees explicitly stated that – as well as their objections to the controversial Detained Fast Track process – they were also upset over conditions in the centre, particularly the lack of healthcare provision.

The Harmondsworth protestors’ stories make for particularly hard listening: one detainee – escaping homophobic persecution in his country of origin – was apprehended after he made the apparent mistake of calling a suicide helpline. Police promptly arrived at his address to check his papers. A second entered a police station as a victim of crime after being attacked in his workplace, only for the police to investigate his status and later arrest him. Despite the insistence of GEO that most detainees are only held for a couple of months, some testified that they had been inside for as much as a year.

Beyond Harmondsworth, unrest has also been reported in neighbouring Colnbook, where a meeting of detainees was apparently broken up by Serco guards, who placed five ‘ringleaders’ in ‘the lock’ (a solitary cell with no access to telephones or other detainees). Here also, around 20 detainees declared themselves on hunger strike, and an unconfirmed number of flight tickets were issued.

In Brook House, near Gatwick Airport, an estimated 20 detainees gathered in the courtyard and refused to return to their wings overnight (Tuesday-Wednesday), with G4S guards responding by placing 16 of them in ‘the lock’.

The latest centre to join the wave was Campsfield in Oxfordshire, where 50 men started a hunger strike on Wednesday, explaining their reasons in aYoutube video. The strikers’ spokesman cited one example of a detention guard threatening a Pashto-speaking detainee with ‘the lock’ unless he signed a voluntary deportation order. Mitie is the company who run Campsfield.

Solidarity demonstrations have taken place outside Harmondsworth (on Monday) and Campsfield (Thursday night).

More generally, migrants’ supporters have to think carefully about what can be done to practically help these vulnerable, isolated people. They have repeatedly insisted that hunger striking is a last resort, an act of desperation, since they have nothing else. They have no recourse to legal aid, limited contact with the outside world, and often, as little as nine days to build their case. On top of that, there are numerous accusations of irregularities and ‘errors’ committed by the Home Office: lost appeal files, mislaid passports, circumvention of even the meagre rights afforded to the asylum seekers. A picture starts to emerge of a state that seems to consciously mistreat the refugees in the hope of convincing them that the UK is even crueller than their countries of origin, where many of them face certain death. By detaining (imprisoning) them – despite them having committed no criminal offense, despite there being no evidence of them being any threat to society, and despite many of them seeming unlikely to abscond – in horrifically isolated and disorientating conditions, they are trying to break them.

The other side of the coin is the role of the private prison industry in all of this. Mitie, G4S, Serco and GEO are all billionaire, multinational enterprises, who directly profit from both the herding of refugees into detention and the immiseration of the conditions therein. They should be considered complicit in the anti-PR campaign and psychological manipulations of the British state against those who – after all – have reluctantly left their homes for a strange place.

The struggle continues and we await nervously further updates on the conditions of the hunger strikers and other detainees. Follow the Unity Centre for news.

Palestinian prisoners protest administrative detention

Meanwhile, migrants continue their struggle against Immigration Detention in Canada

Palestinian prisoners in Israel go on hunger strike in protest of administrative detention


Around 300 Palestinian security prisoners sent back their meals on Thursday in what Israel Prison Service officials say is a one-day act of solidarity with hunger strikers protesting administrative detentions for the past two weeks.

Sivan Weizman, spokesperson for the IPS said that the protesters said it was only a one-day action and denied reports that thousands of security prisoners were taken part in an open-ended hunger strike.

She added that the 90 to 100 Palestinian security prisoners who have been on hunger strike for the past two weeks are on medical observation but are not in dire condition and have not been taken for medical treatment at Israeli hospitals.

Palestinian Authority Minister of Detainees Issa Qaraqe claimed that over 5,000 prisoners had launched an open-ended hunger strike in solidarity with administrative detainees on Thursday.

Administrative detention is the practice by which Palestinian security suspects are held without charge or the right to see the evidence against them.

Qarage declared a “Day of Rage” on Friday in solidarity with Palestinian administrative detainees.

The Alabama prison crisis

There’s a lot going on in the disgusting Alabama prison system. Reforms are coming down the pipe, albeit for all the wrong reasons. The state system is so out of whack that the federal government could put it into receivership. This is not desirable to state lawmakers. As state Sen. Cam Ward explains, “we have to step up and make some bold political choices or else we’re going to have a third or fourth of our general fund budget controlled by the federal government” (source). So reforms may come in order to insure the most basic protections from cruel and unusual punishment exist. Currently, the state system is full of cruel and unusual punishment.

This comes on the heels of a federal report on the systemic sexual abuse of inmates at Tutwiler Prison for Women. Among other things, the report found that “For nearly two decades, Tutwiler staff have harmed women in their care with impunity by sexually abusing and sexually harassing them.”

Meanwhile, prisoners in several state facilities have organized protests of their deplorable conditions. Most vocally, the Free Alabama Movement (FAM), an organization of ‘incarcerated citizens’, has launched into the spotlight with a website featuring 60 videos exposing the conditions in Alabama prisons, and penning a book and prison reform bill. FAM staged a work strike in January. A follow up strike planned for mid-April was crushed by prison officials, however more follow up actions are planned (source).

Stay tuned for more on the situation in Alabama.

Solidarity with incarcerated citizens (and non-citizens) in Alabama!

The Overcrowding to Come in Canada

Commentators predicted this years ago, and now the AG confirms that the Canadian prison system is set to be plagued by issues of overcrowding. This despite the fact that Canada’s crime rate has been dropping for the last 20 years.

New prison cells not enough to stem overcrowding, Auditor-General finds

KIM MACKRAEL Ottawa — The Globe and Mail (Source)

The federal prison system is expected to face renewed overcrowding problems just a few years after Ottawa completes a plan to add thousands of new cells, a new report by the Auditor-General says.

The report also found that one of the key reasons for prison population growth is not a series of new mandatory minimum sentences introduced in recent years – but a bottleneck when it comes to releasing offenders on parole before their sentence is completed.

The Auditor-General’s report examined federal prisons over the past three years, looking closely at expansions and facility closures meant to respond to prison population changes and reduce the cost of housing federal offenders. The Correctional Service of Canada is adding more than 2,700 new cells to 37 facilities to deal with growth in the overall number of prisoners.

The new cells should provide enough additional space to meet the needs of the current prison population, Auditor-General Michael Ferguson found. However, the report found that the solution will be short-lived, and overcrowding is expected to be a problem again a few years after the expansions are completed in 2015.

“We found that CSC’s updated population projection shows that it will again be at or over capacity within a few years of completing construction,” a summary of the findings states.

Ottawa planned in 2009 to build new cells and add the ability to double bunk more prisoners to deal with an expected growth in the prison population. It also said it would build five new prisons, but cancelled those plans – and closed three existing prisons – when it determined the population was not growing at the pace it had expected.

But a 14 per cent decline in discretionary releases by the Parole Board in recent years means more prisoners are staying in custody for longer – resulting in a 9 per cent increase in the overall prison population since March 2010.

That’s despite increased investments in prison rehabilitation programming, according to the Auditor-General’s report. The report found the CSC was not doing enough to document offender participation in rehabilitation programs, which it noted could negatively affect Parole Board decisions.

The department also did not look at whether population pressures were making it more difficult for inmates to move from higher-security to lower-security facilities, the Auditor-General found. That’s an important consideration because inmates are more likely to be granted parole after they have transitioned to lower-security facilities.

The report also found problems with regional overcrowding that may not be addressed by the recent expansions. That’s because the CSC determined where it would expand prisons based on the land available for new prison cells – rather than on regional needs – which means the growth in prison space did not match regional population projections.

As a result of regional population pressures, the Auditor-General found that prisons will have to continue to put two or more inmates in a cell designed for one. “Even after the construction is completed, CSC officials expect double-bunking to continue,” the report states.

In addition to double-bunking in regular cells, the Auditor-General found that some inmates were being crowded into segregation cells and cells smaller than 5 square meters. Overcrowding is a significant concern for staff and inmate safety and the issue has been repeatedly raised by correctional officer unions in recent years.

Many of the expansions were made without regard for the proportion of segregation cells and the need for health-care facilities, even though the CSC had identified a need to improve health facilities in many of the institutions being expanded.

The report also found that cost savings from the closure of the Kingston Penitentiary, Ontario’s Regional Treatment Centre and the Leclerc institution in Quebec was not as high as estimated by the CSC. The CSC had said it would save about $120-million per year, while the Auditor-General found that figure to be closer to $86-million.

Mr. Ferguson’s report to Parliament also found problems with other departments and programs:

  • The government’s First Nations policing system is not working as intended and some of the police services fail to meet provincial policing legislation and standards.
  • Public-service pension plans, covering public servants, Mounties and the military, are not regularly assessed for sustainability, and prolonged low interest rates, lower-than-expected returns on assets and longer life spans could end up costing taxpayers billions.
  • A government program intended to integrate the way public servants, the military and the RCMP handle transfers and moving costs, did not encourage competition when it sought to issue one large contract to cover everyone.
  • Statistics Canada needs to better address the needs of those outside the federal government who use its data, especially when it comes to job-vacancy data.