The report, released Wednesday by the National Immigrant Justice Center and the Detention Watch Network, follows months of protests from immigrant-rights activists over the death of 31-year-old Mexican Jose De Jesus Deniz-Sahagun at Immigration and Custom Enforcement's Eloy Detention Center.
When activists questioned whether Deniz-Sahagun, who medical examiners claim suffocated himself in May by stuffing a sock down his throat, was taken off suicide watch the day of his death, ICE trotted out the facility's clean-inspection record as a defense.
Deniz-Sahagun is one of more than 150 people to die in ICE custody over the past 12 years.
Researchers, who produced the report by combing through inspection records for 105 of the country's largest detention centers and cross-referencing them with watchdog reports of human rights violations, embarked on the project expecting to out several oft-criticized ICE detention facilities, including Eloy, for failing federal inspections, said Claudia Valenzuela, the National Immigrant Justice Center's director of detention.
Instead, she said, “We discovered the whole process is designed for them to pass.”
After a slew of high-profile reports chronicling unexplained deaths and nightmare living conditions in 2008, Congress pushed through a bill that prohibited ICE from funding detention centers if they failed two consecutive inspections.
Over the next three years, according to the report, the number of facilities that did not pass fell significantly, and none failed twice in a row. At the same time, compared to the previous three years, the number of times ICE overrode an inspector's initial recommendation to fail a facility quadrupled.
In addition to these recorded changes, the chief of ICE's Detention Monitoring Unit said in a deposition that findings and ratings may be edited by ICE personnel and inspections contractors before it is submitted. These alterations are not tracked.
“Inspectors might generate a certain finding, but that rating could turn around mysteriously so that a facility that is, in fact, terrible receives a high rating in the end,” Valenzuela said.
As a result, Mary Small, policy director at the Detention Watch Network, said “there is very little relationship between documented deficiencies and the rating a facility receives.”
At Eloy Detention Center, ICE's inspector noted in 2012 that the suicide-watch room contained “structures or smaller objects that could be used in a suicide attempt,” which is a major violation of the federal standards for suicide prevention. Still, according to the report, ICE declared the facility in compliance.
In another case in Alabama, ICE gave a low rating to the Etowah County Detention Center even after inspectors recorded zero violations.
“No proper inspection of Etowah should lead to zero documented deficiencies,” Small said. But the discrepancy does raise the question: “Are the ratings based on anything at all?”
Researchers also found troubling patterns in the way ICE evaluates detention centers.
Both of the ICE departments that conduct inspections, Enforcement and Removal Operations, which takes care of routine checks, and the Office of Detention Oversight, which steps in to take a deeper look on an as-needed basis, warn facilities of inspections in advance. The heads-up gives detention centers a chance to “clean up,” which researchers say interferes with inspectors' ability to make an “honest and accurate assessment of the typical conditions under which detained individuals are held on a typical day.”
Inspections are checklist centric, according to the report. Decisions are based on whether a policy to address a particular problem exists and not whether the policy is properly implemented. Investigators rarely interviews detainees – if at all – and often “take facility administrators at their word regarding issues such as the adequacy of medical staff, the efficacy of grievance procedures, or even basic and easily verifiable safety mechanisms such as whether fire alarms are functional.”
Researchers found, for example, that a number of facilities that had been marked compliant with federal guidelines for providing “outdoor recreation,” were actually keeping the immigrants indoors, claiming “air from the outside can enter" rooms through windows.
Similarly, even though federal standards prohibit detention centers from blocking immigrants' access to a telephone, many facilities charge immigrants prohibitively high fees to call family or legal counsel, according to the report. Still, inspectors are able to state that a facility meets standards because there are no policies on the books explicitly restricting immigrants from using the phone.
“A short conversation with the detained immigrants who have tried to use those phones would reveal otherwise,” researchers wrote.
ICE had not reviewed the report Wednesday, but a spokeswoman said the agency “remains committed to ensuring that all individuals in our custody are held and treated in a safe, secure, and humane manner and that they have access to legal counsel, visitation, recreation, and quality medical, mental, health, and dental care.”