Investigations Human Rights

Women, Incarcerated: Investigative Series Shows Systemic Abuses of Women in Prisons and Jails

Sharona Coutts & Zoe Greenberg

In this first part of Rewire's Women, Incarcerated series, we focus on one woman's prison time—which involved a high-risk pregnancy, forced induced labor, and shackling—to illustrate the problems that thousands of women face behind bars.

This is the first article in Rewire’s Women, Incarcerated series. You can read the other pieces in the series that have been published so far here.

Keeley Schenwar learned she was pregnant the same day she was arrested. That spring of 2013, she didn’t pee on a stick and study the results in the bathroom; there was no moment of elation. Instead, a nurse at the Cook County Jail in Chicago led Schenwar to a separate part of the facility, away from the other women. When Schenwar asked why, the nurse broke the news.

Schenwar, who was just 23 at the time, with warm brown eyes and glossy black hair, barely knew what to say. She had been struggling with a heroin addiction for more than five years. For the second time, she’d been caught stealing from a Walgreens—medicines, makeup, razors—anything she could sell to local corner stores to scramble together the $400 or $500 she needed to pay for her addiction.

She’d been in and out of county jails for years, but this time she was headed to state prison, and she was pregnant.

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“I cried,” she told Rewire. “I didn’t want to tell anyone I was in jail. I didn’t want to tell anyone I was pregnant.”

Over the course of her incarceration, Schenwar experienced two instances of human rights abuses linked to her pregnancy. She also joined the ranks of a growing group in the United States: women who are incarcerated.

While women make up a small share of all those detained in local, state, and federal prisons and jails, their numbers are growing. The number of women in state and federal prisons jumped by 646 percent between 1980 and 2012—from around 25,000 to more than 200,000—one-and-a-half times the speed at which the incarceration for men increased during the same period. In 2012, more than 200,000 women were held in prisons or jails, according to the Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based nonprofit group that has tracked these issues for more than 25 years.

The surge in incarceration disproportionately affects women of color, according to the Sentencing Project. In 2010, Black women were incarcerated at nearly three times the rate of white women (133 versus 47 per 100,000), while Hispanic women were incarcerated at 1.6 times the rate of white women.

Experts told Rewire that, because corrections systems were created with men in mind, the facilities, practices, and policies remain ill-suited to the particular needs of women behind bars.

“There’s been a tremendous neglect of incarcerated women’s medical needs because, overall, they’re a small proportion of the incarcerated population: 9 percent of prisons, and 11 percent of jails,” said Dr. Carolyn Sufrin, assistant professor of gynecology and obstetrics at Johns Hopkins University.

In fact, federal, state, and local officials charged with overseeing corrections facilities collect virtually no consistent data about how women are treated in a system made for men, Rewire found in a five-month investigation. This week, we will publish a collection of stories based on that reporting.

The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, when asked for a national count of corrections facilities that house women, could only provide Rewire with data that was a decade old. It showed that in 2005, there were a total of 1,821 state, federal, and privately run facilities, of which 187 facilities were authorized to hold only female inmates, and 276 were authorized to house both males and females.

The dearth of information points to the invisibility of, and lack of concern for, incarcerated women, experts told Rewire, and makes it difficult to determine how often abuses occur.

In our Women, Incarcerated series, we have detailed some of the major themes that emerged from our review of hundreds of lawsuits, public records requests, and interviews with experts, public officials, and currently and formerly incarcerated women.

Our findings show the existence of deep, systemic problems in the way that the criminal justice system deals with women.

While some of the egregious abuses of incarcerated women are well known—shackling of pregnant women, and rampant sexual abuse in some facilities—Rewire has identified a host of other problems that receive virtually no attention from mainstream media.

The problems include substandard conditions for pregnant prisoners; widespread failure to provide treatment or medical care for women with drug dependency, who comprise the overwhelming majority of women inmates; frequent denial of care for women experiencing miscarriage; forced induction of birth; and, ultimately, the termination of women’s parental rights because of rigid federal and state laws ostensibly intended to protect children. Articles later this week will delve deeper into these issues.

Like Schenwar, the majority of women behind bars are of reproductive age (the median age of incarcerated women in the United States is 34) and more than four-fifths suffer a serious substance abuse disorder, often related to prior trauma. The vast majority—84 percent—are behind bars for non-violent crimes, usually related to their drug dependency or social marginalization, according to a 2012 report for the Bureau of Justice Assistance that surveyed nearly 500 inmates in urban and rural jails in multiple states—one of the very few national studies of incarcerated women.

In other words, for women, incarceration frequently amounts to punishment for poverty, mental illness, addiction, and abuse, experts said.

“We’ve seen a skyrocket in the prison population overall, and women have increased faster than men,” Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel at the ACLU’s National Prison Project, told Rewire. “That’s a direct result of the fact that so many low-level offenders end up in prison or jail where previously they may have been diverted into the community, or had access to mental health care.”

Schenwar’s story is representative of many women’s experience in incarceration. In this first part of our Women, Incarcerated series, we focus on Schenwar’s prison time—which involved a high-risk pregnancy, forced induced labor, and shackling—to illustrate the problems that thousands of women face behind bars.

Inadequate Food, Conditions for Pregnant Inmates

As with many women who are incarcerated, Schenwar’s crimes were related to her drug dependency.

Her criminal record shows arrests for thefts, trespassing, a DUI, and parole violations. Schenwar was living with her boyfriend at the time she was arrested, and he too was struggling with heroin.

Keeley Schenwar and her daughter.

Keeley Schenwar and her daughter.

After finding out that she was pregnant, Schenwar hoped to avoid going to prison. She reasoned that the judge would go light on her, due to her condition, and allow her to do community service. Instead, she was sentenced to a year at the Logan Correctional Center, a place where inmates wear blue and white, but pregnant prisoners wear pink. Apart from that, the facility makes few accommodations for pregnant prisoners.

Even something as basic as food posed problems. In her four months of pregnancy during incarceration, Schenwar recalls being hungry “all the time.”

“When you’re pregnant, you want to eat,” Schenwar told Rewire. “It wasn’t like I expected my craving foods to be delivered to my cell,” she said, but she needed more than the extra apple or egg and carton of milk that were provided to pregnant inmates every day.

She also recalls that pregnant women, like all prisoners, had to walk through the open yard to access the mess hall, whether it was snowing or brutally hot.

The failure of corrections facilities to provide adequate food for pregnant prisoners emerged as a pattern across many states, our research found. Most recently, the Correctional Association of New York released a damning report, based on five years of interviews and legal research, revealing that New York’s state facilities were also failing to provide sufficient food and acceptable living conditions for pregnant inmates. And Diana Claitor, executive director of the Texas Jail Project, told us that the lack of plentiful, healthy food is a frequent problem for pregnant inmates in Texas as well.

Despite the inadequate food and conditions, Schenwar says she received good medical care while she was incarcerated. She recalls regular visits to an OB-GYN, and frequent ultrasounds. In fact, for many pregnant inmates, incarceration affords them the first opportunity to receive prenatal care. (For more on prenatal care for people in prisons and jails, read our Women, Incarcerated article on that issue.)

Schenwar is quick to explain that she wasn’t seeking sympathy. But she says that the guards reacted to her requests, and those of other pregnant prisoners, with demeaning comments.

“The officers judged us constantly,” she said. “If you would complain, they would say, ‘You put yourself here. You were doing drugs and pregnant. I don’t feel bad for you.’”

While at the prison, Schenwar maintained her use of methadone, as prescribed by her doctor. Abruptly ceasing opioid use is extremely dangerous during pregnancy, as it can lead to miscarriage. However, Schenwar’s methadone use created an unexpected complication: It disqualified her from transferring to the Decatur Facility, which has a nationally recognized prison nursery program that allows inmates to stay with their babies for the first year of their lives. So Schenwar knew that she would be separated from her daughter as soon as she gave birth.

“You’re Not Going to ‘Fall Out’ in My Yard”—Forced Induction of Labor in Illinois Prisons

What most upset Schenwar was the prison’s decision to induce her labor when she did not want to be induced—an act that constitutes a human rights violation, experts told Rewire.

At 5 a.m. in early September, Schenwar was on her way to the mess hall with the other prisoners.

“Schenwar, fall back,” she recalls one of the guards saying, as she walked behind the other inmates heading to breakfast.

Two weeks earlier, the prison doctor had informed Schenwar that her delivery would be induced. Schenwar had tried to object, saying that her baby was not ready to be born, and that she wanted to wait until her labor started naturally. Inducing labor can be risky for mothers and their babies. Studies have shown induction to be associated with higher rates of cesarean sections, longer stays in the hospital, and greater blood loss for women giving birth.

But, Schenwar says, the doctor made it clear that she did not have a choice, and when she still objected, she says the doctor called prison guards.

“I had three, maybe four, guards surrounding me saying, ‘I don’t know where you think you are. This is our prison. … You’re not going to fall out in my yard or in the mess hall and cause some kind of chaos,’” she said. “I was scared and I was having a baby and I was in prison. I went back to my cell and I cried, because I knew I would be alone.”

So, when guards told Schenwar to fall back, she thought she was in trouble. But instead guards told her it was time to give birth.

“They explained that because I was being induced that day, which I did not know, they said I could not eat,” she recalled in an interview with Rewire.

When Rewire first sought comment from the Illinois Department of Corrections in relation to Schenwar’s allegation of forced induction, Tom Shaer, who was then the director of communications, did not reply to our specific questions, but wrote in an email, “Inmate anecdotes are often either wholly inaccurate or grossly exaggerated. Not always, but often.”

This notion—that prisoners, and especially women prisoners, are liars—permeates the dozens of cases we reviewed where prisoners suffered miscarriages, still-births, and even deaths. (These cases are detailed in future articles in the Women, Incarcerated series.) While there are undoubtedly instances of false allegations, time and again prisoner’s allegations have been borne out in litigation and federal investigations.

Shaer has since left the department, and his replacement, Nicole Wilson, told us in an email that induced births are an “option” for prisoners:

Pregnant inmates consult with their physician on nutrition and birthing options to make decisions that best meet each individuals’ needs.  Offenders whose pregnancies are deemed high risk are encouraged to elect induction so they can be transferred to Bloomington where the hospital can meet their specific needs for a safe delivery. [sic]

In a later email, Wilson changed her stance, saying instead that Schenwar’s methadone treatment meant she was deemed to be a high-risk patient, and that the “decision to induce would have been made by the OB/GYN and would have been made for the benefit of both mother and baby.”

Wilson said that Schenwar had not signed a “refusal of treatment,” which, Wilson said, was offered to prisoners who did not want their births induced.

However, Rewire was able to speak with Kendra Smith, who was also pregnant while incarcerated at Logan. Smith recounted that guards also tried to force her to induce her delivery, but she resisted, involving the warden and the prison’s family services officer. Smith said she recalled similar pressure being put on a third pregnant prisoner incarcerated at Logan.

According to Gail Smith, founder of Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers (CLAIM), the Illinois Department of Corrections seems to have initiated a practice of requiring incarcerated women to have induced labor.

“Every woman that I have spoken with after release who has given birth inside in the past year has been induced,” Smith told Rewire.

In a close examination of cases involving the shackling of incarcerated pregnant women, Rewire found hints that induction may be a standard practice at corrections facilities in other states as well.

Farah Diaz-Tello, a staff attorney at National Advocates for Pregnant Women, told Rewire that forced induced labor constitute clear human rights violations of pregnant prisoners.

“Any forced induced labor is a human rights violation, even if the pregnant person isn’t incarcerated, because people have a fundamental human right to bodily integrity and to refuse unwanted medical intervention,” she said.

Diaz-Tello said that the stories from Illinois are consistent with what her organization has been hearing from other states. For instance, she said that she had worked with a Texas woman who was forced to undergo a cesarean section while incarcerated, because the doctor was only scheduled to be at the facility for one day.

“The fact that it is happening in prison, where people are even more deprived of power than in a medical institution—that makes it even worse,” Diaz-Tello said.

“All Female Inmates Are an Escape Threat”

In addition to the forced induction, Schenwar described a lonely and traumatic labor, during which she was shackled to the hospital bed.

“There’s a guard on the couch reading magazines as your whole life is torn apart,” she said. “They don’t let any family come. After you have the baby, they shackle you to the bed at their discretion. You hold your baby and then they take her and you go back to prison.”

At the time, Illinois still had an official policy that allowed prisoners to be shackled as soon as they were “no longer pregnant,” said Wilson, the corrections department’s spokesperson. That policy was changed in November 2013 so that “inmates who’d recently delivered a child could also go unrestrained for a pre-determined period of time.”

Despite media attention to the issue, shackling of pregnant inmates remains common, with the majority of states still permitting the barbaric practice. Even in states where shackling is theoretically banned, local activists and incarcerated women say legal loopholes mean that many pregnant inmates still find themselves bound in metal chains during transportation to the hospital, and after birth.

For instance, the 2009 law that barred the use of restraints on pregnant inmates in Texas contains an exception for women deemed to be a flight risk, but doesn’t define what exactly that means.

At a 2012 meeting of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, a commissioner “spoke publicly about his belief that all female inmates are an escape threat and that therefore the exception to the bar on use of restraints would always apply,” according to a letter drafted to the commission’s chairwoman by then-state Sen. Wendy Davis. (Rewire obtained a draft of the email.)

In other words, even women in active labor and birth should be seen as escape threats.

Diana Claitor of the Texas Jails Project told Rewire that better monitoring of each incident of shackling is required to ensure the law is being properly enforced.

The emotional impact of shackling, including post-partum depression, can be profound, Claitor said.

“You suddenly feel yourself in the position of being rolled around like a piece of garbage chained to a table, and the other women there [at the hospital] shrink away in horror that you’re some kind of crazed animal that has to be shackled.”

The experience of being pregnant in prison, forcibly induced, and ultimately shackled during delivery certainly left Schenwar with a sense of shame.

Her journal from October of that year—a month after her daughter was born—shows the young woman’s regret at the situation she was in.

“You held my hand just a few hours after I gave birth, wrapped your fingers tightly around my thumb and I knew as you focused your eyes on mine without turning away that I’d love you in every way, each day for the rest of eternity,” Schenwar wrote. “I tried not to sleep, knowing we only had a short time together. Shackles tied my ankles to the hospital bed. You’re the daughter of a prisoner, twice convicted felon, all result of a heroin conviction.”

“I’ll spend the rest of my life making this up to you,” she wrote.

Schenwar was released from prison in 2014, and is now sober. She is successfully caring for her daughter, as well as working with other mothers who have recently been released from prison or jail.

“Just because you’ve been to prison three or five times, doesn’t mean you have to go back,” she said. “People get past it, and they have careers and they have lives and they have families.”

Analysis Human Rights

From Protected Class to High-Priority Target: How the ‘System Is Rigged’ Against Unaccompanied Migrant Children

Tina Vasquez

Vulnerable, undocumented youth who pose no real threat are being stripped of their right to an education and instead sit in detention awaiting deportation.

This is the first article in Rewire’s two-part series about the U.S. immigration system’s effects on unaccompanied children.

Earlier this month, three North Carolina high school students were released from a Lumpkin, Georgia, detention center after spending more than six months awaiting what seemed like their inevitable fate: deportation back to conditions in Central America that threatened their lives.

Wildin David Guillen Acosta, Josue Alexander Soriano Cortez, and Yefri Sorto-Hernandez were released on bail in the span of one week, thanks to an overwhelming community effort involving pro bono attorneys and bond money. However, not everyone targeted under the same government operation has been reprieved. For example, by the time reports emerged that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had detained Acosta on his way to school in Durham, North Carolina, the government agency had already quietly deported four other young people from the state, including a teenage girl from Guatemala who attended the same school.

Activated in January, that program—Operation Border Guardian—continues to affect the lives of hundreds of Central American migrants over the age of 18 who came to the United States as unaccompanied children after January 2014. Advocates believe many of those arrested under the operation are still in ICE custody.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson has said that the goal of Operation Border Guardian is to send a message to those in Central America considering seeking asylum in the United States. But it’s not working, as Border Patrol statistics have shown. Furthermore, vulnerable, undocumented youth who pose no real threat are being stripped of their right to an education and instead sit in detention awaiting deportation. These youth arrived at the border in hopes of qualifying for asylum, but were unable to succeed in an immigration system that seems rigged against them.

“The laws are really complicated and [young people] don’t have the community support to navigate this really hostile, complex system. That infrastructure isn’t there and unless we support asylum seekers and other immigrants in this part of the country, we’ll continue to see asylum seekers and former unaccompanied minors receive their deportation orders,” said Julie Mao, the enforcement fellow at the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild.

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“A Grossly Misnamed” Operation

In January, ICE conducted a series of raids that spanned three southern states—Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas—targeting Central American asylum seekers. The raids occurred under the orders of Johnson, who has taken a hardline stance against the more than 100,000 families who have sought asylum in the United States. These families fled deadly gang violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala in recent years. In El Salvador, in particular, over 400 children were murdered by gang members and police officers during the first three months of 2016, doubling the country’s homicide rate, which was already among the highest in the world.

ICE picked up some 121 people in the early January raids, primarily women and their young children. Advocates argue many of those arrested were detained unlawfully, because as people who experienced severe trauma and exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety, and depression, they were disabled as defined under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and ICE did not provide reasonable accommodations to ensure disabled people were not denied meaningful access to benefits or services.

Just a few weeks later, on January 23, ICE expanded the raids’ focus to include teenagers under Operation Border Guardian, which advocates said represented a “new low.”

The media, too, has also criticized DHS for its seemingly senseless targeting of a population that normally would be considered refugees. The New York Times called Operation Border Guardian “a grossly misnamed immigration-enforcement surge that went after people this country did not need to guard against.”

In response to questions about its prioritization of former unaccompanied minors, an ICE spokesperson told Rewire in an emailed statement: “As the secretary has stated repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal migration. If someone was apprehended at the border, has been ordered removed by an immigration court, has no pending appeal, and does not qualify for asylum or other relief from removal under our laws, he or she must be sent home. We must and we will enforce the law in accordance with our enforcement priorities.”

DHS reports that 336 undocumented Central American youth have been detained in the operation. It’s not clear how many of these youth have already been deported or remain in ICE custody, as the spokesperson did not respond to that question by press time.

Acosta, Cortez, Sorto-Hernandez, and three other North Carolina teenagersSantos Geovany Padilla-Guzman, Bilmer Araeli Pujoy Juarez, Pedro Arturo Salmeron—have become known as the NC6 and the face of Operation Border Guardian, a designation they likely would have not signed up for.

Advocates estimate that thousands of deportations of low-priority migrants—those without a criminal history—occur each week. What newly arrived Central American asylum seekers like Acosta could not have known was that the federal government had been laying the groundwork for their deportations for years.

Asylum Seekers Become “High-Priority Cases”

In August 2011, the Obama administration announced it would begin reviewing immigration cases individually, allowing ICE to focus its resources on “high-priority cases.” The assumption was that those who pose a threat to public safety, for example, would constitute the administration’s highest priority, not asylum-seeking high school students.

But there was an indication from DHS that asylum-seeking students would eventually be targeted and considered high-priority. After Obama’s announcement, ICE released a statement outlining who would constitute its “highest priorities,” saying, “Specifically individuals who pose a threat to public safety such as criminal aliens and national security threats, as well as repeat immigration law violators and recent border entrants.”

In the years since, President Obama has repeatedly said “recent border crossers” are among the nation’s “highest priorities” for removal—on par with national security threats. Those targeted would be migrants with final orders of removal who, according to the administration, had received their day in court and had no more legal avenues left to seek protection. But, as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported, “recent border entrant” is a murky topic, and it doesn’t appear as if all cases are being reviewed individually as President Obama said they would.

“Recent border entrant” can apply to someone who has been living in the United States for three years, and a border removal applies “whenever ICE deports an individual within three years of entry—regardless of whether the initial entry was authorized—or whenever an individual is apprehended by Customs and Border Protection (CBP),” explained Thomas Homan, the head of ICE’s removal operations in a 2013 hearing with Congress, the ACLU reported.

Chris Rickerd, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office, added that “[b]ecause CBP refuses to screen the individuals it apprehends for their ties to the U.S., and DHS overuses procedures that bypass deportation hearings before a judge, many ‘border removals’ are never fully assessed to determine whether they have a legal right to stay.”

Over the years, DHS has only ramped up the department’s efforts to deport newly arrived immigrants, mostly from Central America. As the Los Angeles Times reported, these deportations are “an attempt by U.S. immigration officials to send a message of deterrence to Central America and avoid a repeat of the 2014 crisis when tens of thousands of children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala arrived at the U.S. border.”

This is something Mao takes great issue with.

“These raids that we keep seeing are being done in order to deter another wave of children from seeking asylum—and that is not a permissible reason,” Mao said. “You deport people based on legality, not as a way of scaring others. Our country, in this political moment, is terrorizing young asylum seekers as a way of deterring others from presenting themselves at the border, and it’s pretty egregious.”

There is a direct correlation between surges of violence in the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—and an uptick in the number of asylum seekers arriving in the United States. El Salvador, known as the murder capital of the word, recently saw an explosion of gang violence. Combine that with the possible re-emergence of so-called death squads and it’s clear why the number of Salvadoran family units apprehended on the southern border increased by 96 percent from 2015 to 2016, as Fusion reported.

Much like Mao, Elisa Benitez, co-founder of the immigrants rights’ organization Alerta Migratoria NC, believes undocumented youth are being targeted needlessly.

“They should be [considered] low-priority just because they’re kids, but immigration is classifying them at a very high level, meaning ICE is operating like this is a population that needs to be arrested ASAP,” Benitez said.

The Plight of Unaccompanied Children

Each member of the NC6 arrived in the United States as an unaccompanied child fleeing violence in their countries of origin. Acosta, for example, was threatened by gangs in his native Honduras and feared for his life. These young people should qualify as refugees based on those circumstances under international law. In the United States, after they present themselves at the border, they have to prove to an immigration judge they have a valid asylum claim—something advocates say is nearly impossible for a child to do with no understanding of the immigration system and, often, with no access to legal counsel—or they face deportation.

Unaccompanied children, if not immediately deported, have certain protections once in the United States. For example, they cannot be placed into expedited removal proceedings. According to the American Immigration Council, “they are placed into standard removal proceedings in immigration court. CBP must transfer custody of these children to Health and Human Services (HHS), Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), within 72 hours.”

While their court proceedings move forward, HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement manages the care of the children until they can ideally be released to their parents already based in the country. Sometimes, however, they are placed with distant relatives or U.S. sponsors. Because HHS has lowered its safety standards regarding placement, children have been subjected to sexual abuse, labor trafficking, and severe physical abuse and neglect, ThinkProgress has reported.

If while in the care of their family or a sponsor they miss a court date, detainment or deportation can be triggered once they turn 18 and no longer qualify for protections afforded to unaccompanied children. 

This is what happened to Acosta, who was placed with his mother in Durham when he arrived in the United States. ICE contends that Acosta was not targeted unfairly; rather, his missed court appearance triggered his order for removal.

Acosta’s mother told local media that after attending his first court date, Acosta “skipped subsequent ones on the advice of an attorney who told him he didn’t stand a chance.”

“That’s not true, but it’s what they were told,” Benitez said. “So, this idea that all of these kids were given their day in court is false. One kid [we work with] was even told not to sign up for school because ‘there was no point,’ it would just get him deported.”

Benitez told Rewire the reasons why these young people are being targeted and given their final orders of removal need to be re-examined.

Sixty percent of youth from Central America do not ever have access to legal representation throughout the course of their case—from the time they arrive in the United States and are designated as unaccompanied children to the time they turn 18 and are classified as asylum seekers. According to the ACLU, 44 percent of the 23,000 unaccompanied children who were required to attend immigration court this year had no lawyer, and 86 percent of those children were deported.

Immigration attorneys and advocates say that having a lawyer is absolutely necessary if a migrant is to have any chance of winning an asylum claim.

Mao told Rewire that in the Southeast where Acosta and the other members of the NC6 are from, there is a pipeline of youth who arrived in the United States as unaccompanied children who are simply “giving up” on their valid asylum claims because navigating the immigration system is simply too hard.

“They feel the system is rigged, and it is rigged,” Mao said.

Mao has been providing “technical assistance” for Acosta and other members of the NC6. Her organization doesn’t represent individuals in court, she said, but the services it provides are necessary because immigration is such a unique area of law and there are very few attorneys who know how to represent individuals who are detained and who have been designated unaccompanied minors. Those services include providing support, referrals, and technical assistance to advocates, community organizations, and families on deportation defense and custody issues.

Fighting for Asylum From Detention

Once arrested by ICE, there is no telling if someone will linger in detention for months or swiftly be deported. What is known is that if a migrant is taken by ICE in North Carolina, somewhere along the way, they will be transferred to Lumpkin, Georgia’s Stewart Detention Center. As a local paper reported, Stewart is “the last stop before they send you back to whatever country you came from.”

Stewart is the largest detention center in the country, capable of holding 2,000 migrants at any time—it’s also been the subject of numerous investigations because of reports of abuse and inadequate medical care. The detention center is run by Corrections Corporation of America, the country’s largest private prison provider and one that has become synonymous with maintaining inhumane conditions inside of its detention centers. According to a report from the National Immigrant Justice Center, Stewart’s remote location—over two hours away from Atlanta—hinders the facility from attracting and retaining adequate medical staff, while also creating barriers to visitation from attorneys and family members.

There’s also the matter of Georgia being notoriously tough on asylum seekers, even being called the “worst” place to be an undocumented immigrant. The Huffington Post reported that “Atlanta immigration judges have been accused of bullying children, badgering domestic violence victims and setting standards for relief and asylum that lawyers say are next to impossible to meet.” Even more disconcerting, according to a project by Migrahack, which pairs immigration reporters and hackers together, having an attorney in Georgia had almost no effect on whether or not a person won their asylum case, with state courts denying up to 98 percent of asylum requests. 

Acosta, Cortez, and Sorto-Hernandez spent over six months in Stewart Detention Center before they were released on baila “miracle” according to some accounts, given the fact that only about 5 percent of those detained in Stewart are released on bond.

In the weeks after ICE transferred Acosta to Stewart, there were multiple times Acosta was on the verge of deportation. ICE repeatedly denied Acosta was in danger, but advocates say they had little reason to believe the agency. Previous cases have made them wary of such claims.

Advocates believe that three of the North Carolina teens who were deported earlier this year before Acosta’s case made headlines were kept in detention for months with the goal of wearing them down so that they would sign their own deportation orders despite having valid asylum claims.

“They were tired. They couldn’t handle being in detention. They broke down and as much as they feared being returned to their home countries, they just couldn’t handle being there [in detention] anymore. They’d already been there for weeks,” Benitez said.

While ICE claims the average stay of a migrant in Stewart Detention Center is 30 days, the detention center is notorious for excessively long detainments. Acosta’s own bunkmate had been there over a year, according to Indy Week reporter David Hudnall.

As Hudnall reported, there is a massive backlog of immigration cases in the system—474,000 nationally and over 5,000 in North Carolina.

Mao told Rewire that the amount of time the remaining members of the NC6 will spend in detention varies because of different legal processes, but that it’s not unusual for young people with very strong asylum cases to sign their rights away because they can’t sustain the conditions inside detention.

Pedro Arturo Salmeron, another NC6 member, is still in detention. He was almost deported, but Mao told Rewire her organization was able to support a pro bono attorney in appealing to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) to stop proceedings.

Japeth Matemu, an immigration attorney, recently told Indy Week’s David Hudnall that “the BIA will tell you that it can’t modify the immigration judge’s ruling unless it’s an egregious or obvious miscarriage of justice. You basically have to prove the judge is off his rocker.”

It could take another four months in detention to appeal Salmeron’s case because ICE continues to refuse to release him, according to the legal fellow.

“That’s a low estimate. It could be another year in detention before there is any movement in his case. We as an organization feel that is egregious to detain someone while their case is pending,” Mao said. “We have to keep in mind that these are kids, and some of these kids can’t survive the conditions of adult prison.”

Detention centers operate as prisons do, with those detained being placed in handcuffs and shackles, being stripped of their personal belongings, with no ability to move around freely. One of Acosta’s teachers told Rewire he wasn’t even able to receive his homework in detention.

Many of those in detention centers have experienced trauma. Multiple studies confirm that “detention has a profoundly negative impact on young people’s mental and physical well-being” and in the particular case of asylum seekers, detention may exacerbate their trauma and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

“People are so traumatized by the raids, and then you add detention on top of that. Some of these kids cannot psychologically and physically deal with the conditions in detention, so they waive their rights,” Mao said.

In March, Salmeron and fellow NC6 member Yefri Sorto-Hernandez received stays of deportation, meaning they would not face immediate deportation. ICE says a stay is like a “legal pause.” During the pause, immigration officials decide if evidence in the case will be reconsidered for asylum. Sorto-Hernandez was released five months later.

Benitez said that previously when she organized around detention, a stay of deportation meant the person would get released from detention, but ICE’s decision to detain some of the NC6 indefinitely until their cases are heard illustrates how “weirdly severe” the agency is being toward this particular population. Mao fears this is a tactic being used by ICE to break down young people in detention.

“ICE knows it will take months, and frankly up to a year, for some of these motions to go through the court system, but the agency is still refusing to release individuals. I can’t help but think it’s with the intention that these kids will give up their claims while suffering in detention,” Mao said.

“I think we really have to question that, why keep these young people locked up when they can be with their communities, with their families, going to school? ICE can release these kids now, but for showmanship, ICE is refusing to let them go. Is this who we want to be, is this the message we want to send the world?” she asked.

In the seven months since the announcement of Operation Border Guardian, DHS has remained quiet about whether or not there will be more raids on young Central American asylum seekers. As a new school year approaches, advocates fear that even more students will be receiving their orders for removal, and unlike the NC6, they may not have a community to rally around them, putting them at risk of quietly being deported and not heard from again.

News Human Rights

What’s Driving Women’s Skyrocketing Incarceration Rates?

Michelle D. Anderson

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

Local court and law enforcement systems in small counties throughout the United States are increasingly using jails to warehouse underserved Black and Latina women.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a national policy and research organization, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, released a study last week showing that the number of women in jails based in communities with 250,000 residents or fewer in 2014 had grown 31-fold since 1970, when most county jails lacked a single woman resident.

By comparison, the number of women in jails nationwide had jumped 14-fold since 1970. Historically, jails were designed to hold people not yet convicted of a crime or people serving terms of one year or less, but they are increasingly housing poor women who can’t afford bail.

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

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Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” calls attention to jail incarceration rates for women in small counties, where rates increased from 79 per 100,000 women to 140 per 100,000 women, compared to large counties, where rates dropped from 76 to 71 per 100,000 women.

The near 50-page report further highlights that families of color, who are already disproportionately affected by economic injustice, poor access to health care, and lack of access to affordable housing, were most negatively affected by the epidemic.

An overwhelming percentage of women in jail, the study showed, were more likely to be survivors of violence and trauma, and have alarming rates of mental illness and substance use problems.

“Overlooked” concluded that jails should be used a last resort to manage women deemed dangerous to others or considered a flight risk.

Elizabeth Swavola, a co-author of “Overlooked” and a senior program associate at the Vera Institute, told Rewire that smaller regions tend to lack resources to address underlying societal factors that often lead women into the jail system.

County officials often draft budgets mainly dedicated to running local jails and law enforcement and can’t or don’t allocate funds for behavioral, employment, and educational programs that could strengthen underserved women and their families.

“Smaller counties become dependent on the jail to deal with the issues,” Swavola said, adding that current trends among women deserves far more inquiry than it has received.

Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute, said in “Overlooked” that the study underscored the need for more data that could contribute to “evidence-based analysis and policymaking.”

“Overlooked” relies on several studies and reports, including a previous Vera Institute study on jail misuse, FBI statistics, and Rewire’s investigation on incarcerated women, which examined addiction, parental rights, and reproductive issues.

“Overlooked” authors highlight the “unique” challenges and disadvantages women face in jails.

Women-specific issues include strained access to menstrual hygiene products, abortion care, and contraceptive care, postpartum separation, and shackling, which can harm the pregnant person and fetus by applying “dangerous levels of pressure, and restriction of circulation and fetal movement.”

And while women are more likely to fare better in pre-trail proceedings and receive low bail amounts, the study authors said they are more likely to leave the jail system in worse condition because they are more economically disadvantaged.

The report noted that 60 percent of women housed in jails lacked full-time employment prior to their arrest compared to 40 percent of men. Nearly half of all single Black and Latina women have zero or negative net wealth, “Overlooked” authors said.

This means that costs associated with their arrest and release—such as nonrefundable fees charged by bail bond companies and electronic monitoring fees incurred by women released on pretrial supervision—coupled with cash bail, can devastate women and their families, trapping them in jail or even leading them back to correctional institutions following their release.

For example, the authors noted that 36 percent of women detained in a pretrial unit in Massachusetts in 2012 were there because they could not afford bail amounts of less than $500.

The “Overlooked” report highlighted that women in jails are more likely to be mothers, usually leading single-parent households and ultimately facing serious threats to their parental rights.

“That stress affects the entire family and community,” Swavola said.

Citing a Corrections Today study focused on Cook County, Illinois, the authors said incarcerated women with children in foster care were less likely to be reunited with their children than non-incarcerated women with children in foster care.

The sexual abuse and mental health issues faced by women in jails often contribute to further trauma, the authors noted, because women are subjected to body searches and supervision from male prison employees.

“Their experience hurts their prospects of recovering from that,” Swavola said.

And the way survivors might respond to perceived sexual threats—by fighting or attempting to escape—can lead to punishment, especially when jail leaders cannot detect or properly respond to trauma, Swavola and her peers said.

The authors recommend jurisdictions develop gender-responsive policies and other solutions that can help keep women out of jails.

In New York City, police take people arrested for certain non-felony offenses to a precinct, where they receive a desk appearance ticket, or DAT, along with instructions “to appear in court at a later date rather than remaining in custody.”

Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice As Healing and a leader within the National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, said in an interview with Rewire that solutions must go beyond allowing women to escape police custody and return home to communities that are often fragmented, unhealthy, and dangerous.

Underserved women, James said, need access to healing, transformative environments. She cited as an example the Brookview House, which helps women overcome addiction, untreated trauma, and homelessness.

James, who has advocated against the criminalization of drug use and prostitution, as well as the injustices faced by those in poverty, said the problem of jail misuse could benefit from the insight of real experts on the issue: women and girls who have been incarcerated.

These women and youth, she said, could help researchers better understand the “experiences that brought them to the bunk.”

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