Sexual Assault Claims At Private Immigrant Detention Centers Are Rarely Investigated

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The Adelanto Detention Facility in Adelanto, California. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

A new report shows that sexual assault and harassment claims at immigrant detention centers are rampant, and that the government has little protocol in place for investigating—let alone preventing—those claims.

On Tuesday, CIVIC (Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement), a national advocacy and watchdog group, filed a federal civil rights complaint about sexual assault and abuse in the immigration detention system across the country, including at Southern California's Adelanto Detention Facility. The data was compiled through personal interviews with individuals who'd been assaulted and harassed in the system, as well as data received through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and state public record requests.

Tens of thousands of immigrants are detained across the country on any given night because of something called the "bed mandate," a little-known congressional directive that requires U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to keep an average of 34,000 immigrants in their custody per day. As the Trump administration ramps up its deportation machine, the population of America's immigrant detention centers is also likely to grow—a development that has been seen as a massive boon for the private prison industry that manages the majority of those detention centers. The quota policy, which has been in place since 2009, guarantees a steady stream of revenue for those companies: the warehousing of immigrants costs taxpayers $125 per person, per day. About 65% of all immigrant detainees are housed in privately-owned facilities, according to a recent Department of Homeland Security report.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, CIVIC found that a total of 14,693 complaints of sexual and/or physical abuse had been filed against ICE between January 2010 and July 2016, according to the Office of the Inspector General (ICE refused to provide information directly to CIVIC, despite their repeated requests). Forty-four percent of all abuse claims brought against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security were filed against ICE, which is more than any other DHS agency (Citizenship and Immigration Services, Customs and Border Protection, Border Patrol, Transportation Security Administration, Coast Guard, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Federal Protective Service, and the Secret Service also fall under the DHS umbrella). Customs and Border Protection received the second highest level of complaints, at 31% of the total (CBP and ICE combined account for more than 75% of all abuse complaints filed against DHS). Less than 1% of the total complaints of sexual and/or physical abuse filed against DHS and its agencies during this time period resulted in OIG investigations.

"By not properly investigating each allegation of sexual assault, our government sends a message that sexual abuse of immigrants will be tolerated," Christina Fialho, an attorney and the co-founder/executive director of CIVIC, told LAist.

The OIG received at least 1,016 reports of sexual abuse or assault filed by people in detention between May 28, 2014 and July 12, 2016 alone, according to the report. Only 24 of those complaints were investigated by the OIG. For 92.6% of the complaints, the inspector general's office declined to investigate and merely referred the complaint to the relevant agency (e.g., ICE) without requesting any follow-up. More than 3% of the cases were closed without even being referred to the relevant agency. In addition to the 1,016 complaints of sexual abuse/assault reported by people in detention, there were 402 complaints of “coerced sexual contact,” 196 complaints of “sexual harassment," and 380 complaints of “physical or sexual abuse” lodged against ICE during this time period, according to CIVIC.

CIVIC's data collection found that, unsurprisingly, the top five worst immigration detention facilities in terms of sexual assault complaints were all privately-run prisons. These private facilities not only have far less oversight than their government-run equivalents, but "the vast majority of private immigration detention contracts do not include any robust penalty provisions for failing to meet government standards," according to Forbes.

"By law, [private prison facilities] actually are less transparent," Fialho told LAist. "They're exempt from FOIA and they're also exempt from state public record requests," she explained, which is part of why it's been so challenging for the organization to compile their data.

The largest immigrant detention center in California is housed on a barren desert road 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles. The privately-owned Adelanto Detention Facility is run, like many other immigrant detention facilities, by GEO Group, the nation's second largest for-profit prison operator. ICE contracts with the city of Adelanto for the physical space, and the city of Adelanto contracts with Geo Group to run the prison. Adelanto, which opened in 2011 and has the ignominious honor of ranking third on CIVIC's worst offenders list, has a history of poor conditions and abuses, as well documented at KPCC.

In December 2015, a female detainee at Adelanto was sexually assaulted by another person in the facility during the night. The offender then tried to kiss her during the daytime in view of the GEO Group officers. According to interviews conducted with CIVIC, the woman reported the behavior to GEO Group and ICE personnel, but received no response. She eventually called 911 from inside the facility which, according to Fialho, is part of a troubling pattern of detainees being forced to call 911 to report abuse from inside the facility after being ignored through other channels. The San Bernardino Sheriff's Department responded to the call and conducted an interview with the woman on December 15, 2015. After the questioning was over, "there was no information provided to her from GEO Group or from ICE or from the San Bernardino Sheriff's Department," according to Fialho. "It seemed like the case was either closed without letting [the woman] know, or maybe it's still open, but no one knows."

"The M.O. of the immigration detention system as a whole is isolating people from information, and it seems like the same thing occurs when the San Bernardino Sheriff's Department is called as well," Fialho said. The San Bernardino Sheriff's Department responded to at least five calls concerning alleged rape or sexual battery at the Adelanto facility between January 2010 to June 2016, according to a California Public Record Act request filed by CIVIC.

The female detainee in question eventually became so depressed that she attempted suicide. ICE subsequently transferred her to the Santa Ana City Jail in March 2016.

The recorded complaints are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg. “A lot of the girls there had problems like this. Most of them don’t even end up complaining or saying anything about it because they’re scared of retaliation,” Rosanna Santos, a class representative in CIVIC's complaint who was sexually harassed by a corrections officer in immigration detention at Pennsylvania's York County Jail said in a statement. “Since my complaint, nothing has happened. It is like they want to keep me quiet.”