A growing body of evidence suggests lax regulations have led to widespread sexual assault or harassment of immigrants detained in the United States.
Just last week a guard at the all-female T. Don Hutto detention center in Taylor, Texas, was arrested after several women in his custody alleged that, while frisking them, he also fondled them. One of the victims told investigators she thought she would be “killed or violated.”
The alleged incidents occurred between April 2009 and May 2010 when detention officer Donald Dunn transported the women to the airport to be released from detention, often at night. They only came to light this May when one of the women told an airport employee what had happened to her.
In most jails and prisons, male officers are not allowed to transport female detainees, but this regulation is not enforced by law in immigrant detention facilities.
“What Donald Dunn did, to be alone with a woman he was transporting to the airport, does not violate Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policy as it’s currently written,” said Vanita Gupta, ACLU deputy legal director.
Instead, Dunn’s actions violated a clause in the contract between ICE and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the private company that operates Hutto. The clause mandates that officers only transport detainees of the same sex.
CCA’s public affairs director, Steve Owen, says the company has supported Dunn’s prosecution and will cooperate with the investigation into the matter.
The Hutto incident is cited in a Human Rights Watch report released this week that includes 50 documented cases of assault and abuse since 2003 at Hutto and other detention facilities.
“We tried to put together as many incidents as we could find documentation for, but it probably is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Meghan Rhoad, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who authored the report.
Rhoad had to rely on press coverage, court filings and interviews for documentation because the federal government does not track alleged sexual assaults in facilities where immigrants are held.
The report found that, as recently as 2007, another sexual assault occurred at Hutto when a guard snuck into the room of a detainee and stayed there overnight. ICE determined that the contact was consensual, but the power dynamics between guard and prisoner make this type of situation illegal in prisons.
ICE touts Hutto as one of its flagship detention centers, representing the Obama administration’s new commitment to civil detention reform.
ICE has drafted standards aimed at preventing sexual assault and abuse, but has yet to release them. This is why Human Rights Watch has issued a report calling on the agency to move forward with its implementation.
Regarding pat searches, the report calls on ICE to establish standards so that, “[a]fter a detainee has been searched upon admission to a facility, reasonable suspicion should be required to justify additional intrusions on their privacy.”
It also suggests ICE amend its detainee handbooks to include definitions of sexual abuse and assault, as well as instructions on how to file a complaint should an incident occur.
Many detainees face major challenges in reporting any abuse — not just because of language barriers and lack of understanding about the process, but also because they are often moved to several facilities and then deported before they can file a complaint.
In fact, victims whose complaints are under investigation can apply for U-visas which allow them to remain in the U.S. and assist with the case. But few detainees are aware of this right. Gupta, of the ACLU, said none of the women were told they could apply for a U-visa.
ICE Special Assistant on Outreach and Policy, Andrew Lorenzen-Strait, said part of the delay in implementing the new standards is that the agency needs to renegotiate its contracts with hundreds of facilities across the country — from private and federal detention centers to local jails that hold immigrants alongside arrested citizens.
This year the Obama administration expects to detain a new high of about 400,000 immigrants, and roughly 10 percent of them will be women. Advocates say this adds to the urgency of releasing the new standards.
“We have thousands of women — and men — at risk, so they need to play catch-up on getting these standards in place,” said Rhoad. “Then they need to make sure they are actually being followed.”