Detained and At Risk: Sexual Abuse and Harassment in U.S. Detention System

Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch recently released a report detailing reports and allegations of sexual abuse and assault in ICE detention facilities across the United States. Though this is not an exhaustive account, the report uses the information to reflect on why the abuse is occurring, what policies are being implemented in response and recommendations on how to stem the abuse going forward.

This article is drawn from a new report by Human Rights Watch titled Detained and at Risk: Sexual Abuse and Harassment in United States Immigration Detention.

In May 2010, reports surfaced that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was investigating allegations that a guard at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, an immigration detention center in Texas, had sexually assaulted several female detainees. The guard, who was arrested on August 19, 2010 on suspicion of official oppression and unlawful restraint, allegedly groped women while transporting them to an airport and a bus station where they were being released.  While largely covered in the media as an isolated incident, this is only the latest in a series of assaults, abuses, and episodes of harassment that have quietly emerged as a pattern across the rapidly expanding national immigration detention system.

Due to a shortage of publicly available data and the closed nature of the detention system, the extent to which ICE detainees are subject to sexual abuse nationwide is unclear, but the known incidents and allegations are too serious and too numerous to ignore. They point to an urgent need for investigation and for swift action to correct glaring gaps in detention policy, practice, and oversight.

The allegations of abuse at Hutto are all the more disturbing because of where they occurred. One year ago, in August 2009, the Obama administration announced plans to overhaul the immigration detention system. Hutto was a model for the detention reform plan that followed. Previously a family detention facility, Hutto was to become an all-female detention center. It was to be an example of the enhanced oversight ICE planned, and the “softer” form of detention that was to reflect the non-criminal nature of immigration custody.

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The detention reform announcements also identified the agency’s response to sexual abuse as an area for improvement. A report by detention expert Dora Schriro, which formed the basis for the reforms, stated: “The system must make better use of sound practices such as practices that comply with the Prisoner Rape Elimination Act.”

A year later, the alleged sexual assault of women at Hutto serves as a stark reminder of how far detention reform has yet to progress. While ICE has made significant steps towards reform—including drafting new detention standards with the input of immigrant and detainee rights advocates—further steps, including publication of those standards and improvements in oversight and accountability to see that they are implemented, are still needed to ensure the safety and fair treatment of immigrants in detention.


ICE oversees the fastest-growing incarceration system in the United States. In the 2009 fiscal year, 383,524 people were detained for various lengths of time over the course of the year, a 64 percent increase over 2005. The detention system has an average daily population of over 31,000, of whom women constitute 9 percent. Detained for alleged civil—not criminal—violations of US immigration law, they include asylum seekers, undocumented immigrants, legal permanent residents convicted of certain crimes, refugees who the US had accepted for resettlement but who did not apply for permanent residency in time, and even US citizens whose citizenship the government disputes. In addition, they may be victims of trafficking, survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, pregnant women, and nursing mothers. While in ICE custody, they are held in a detention system that includes service processing centers operated directly by ICE, contract detention facilities managed by private companies, bed space at state and county jails in agreements with ICE, and facilities run by the federal Bureau of Prisons. While the average person is detained 30 days, for some, detention can last years.

Detained and at Risk: Sexual Abuse and Harassment in United States Immigration Detention, a new report by Human Rights Watch, gathers more than 15 separate documented incidents and allegations of sexual assault, abuse, or harassment from across the ICE detention system, involving more than 50 alleged detainee victims. This accumulation of reports indicates that the problem cannot be dismissed as a series of isolated incidents, and that there are systemic failures at issue. At the same time, the number of reported cases almost certainly does not come close to capturing the extent of the problem. Victims of abuse in detention face a range of obstacles and disincentives to reporting, from a lack of information about rules governing staff conduct, to fear of speaking out against the same authority that is seeking their deportation, to trauma from the abuse in detention and possibly from violence and other abuse they have previously suffered in their countries of origin. Most immigration detainees do not have legal representation, which may also inhibit their ability to report and seek redress for abuses of their rights in detention.

To date, the government has not published statistics that comprehensively focus on the problem of sexual abuse in immigration detention. The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) mandated the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) to collect data on sexual abuse in custodial settings for each calendar year, following the act’s passage in 2003. BJS has included 14 facilities run by or exclusively for ICE in its Survey on Sexual Violence in Correctional Facilities, which collects reports of sexual violence from administrative records. The 2004 survey reported six allegations of sexual violence for the reporting year. The 2005 survey reported an estimated two substantiated incidents of sexual violence nationally; the 2006 survey estimated a single substantiated incident. BJS also included 957 ICE detainees from five facilities run by or exclusively for ICE in the second National Inmate Survey (NIS-2), which collects information on these issues directly from individuals in custody. The results of the NIS-2 are expected to be published in late August 2010.

However, because both these surveys focus on facilities run by or exclusively for ICE, they do not shed light on the incidence of sexual violence, abuse, and harassment of immigration detainees in the hundreds of jails and contract facilities in which ICE rents a portion of the bed space. This is a notable omission, both because of the number of such facilities used by ICE and because the rates of substantiated sexual violence are four to five times higher in state prisons, local jails, and privately operated jails, than in federal prisons, according to the 2006 BJS survey. The Department of Homeland Security, the agency in charge of immigration detention, is not mandated under law to publish data on sexual violence, and has not done so. In consultations regarding this report, an ICE official said that the agency would consider publishing such information in the future.

Known Incidents and Allegations

The recent allegations of sexual abuse in detention are far from unprecedented. The summaries in the report reflect complaints of abuse from detention facilities around the country, including from Texas, Florida, New York, California and Washington State. While most of the reported incidents have involved the abuse of female detainees, including transgender women, men have also reported sexual abuse. The reports highlighted here occurred since the formation of ICE in 2003, however, reports of problems of sexual abuse in detention date back to ICE’s predecessor agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Human Rights Watch has emphasized that the agency should make improvements swiftly to improve oversight of the entire detention system and ensure accountability.

“ICE has finally recognized the need for stronger protection of people in detention against sexual abuse, but it needs to play catch up quickly,” says Meghan Rhoad, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“ICE needs to get new rules in place and make sure the rules have the teeth to ensure compliance from the hundreds of facilities across the detention system.”

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern that the changes ICE proposes will have limited impact if ICE only makes changes to its standards. It has refused to issue binding legal regulations to address problems with detention conditions.

The proposed policy changes include prevention measures such as prohibiting guards from searching detainees of a different gender and setting restrictions on when guards may transport detainees of a different gender. ICE also plans to publish a revised detention standard on sexual assault that contains improvements in required medical procedures in rape cases and improved procedures for data collection about incidents of abuse. Human Rights Watch said that further policy improvements are needed to limit unnecessary searches of detainees and to ensure that victims of abuse are informed of the availability of visas that would allow them to stay in the US so that they can cooperate with law enforcement in criminal cases related to abuse.

“Giving detention standards the force of law is critical for remedying a host of abuses,” Rhoad said. “ICE’s reluctance on this point sends the wrong message to detention facilities, and to the detainees who are at their mercy.”

Read summaries of known incidents and allegations here.

To read the full report, download as a PDF or view on the Human Rights Watch web site.

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