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House panel pans ICE detention medical care, oversight

House panel pans ICE detention medical care, oversight
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The House Homeland Security Committee on Monday released a report on conditions at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities, criticizing the agency's oversight mechanisms and medical treatment of detainees.

The report, based on a yearlong review by the committee's members and investigators, came to the conclusion that "ICE prioritizes obtaining bed space over the wellbeing of detainees."

"Instead of prioritizing bed space, ICE needs to put the health of its migrants in its care first by enforcing its own standards of care and only sending taxpayer money to facilities that meet these standards," said Rep. Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonHouse Democrats introduce bill to invest 0 billion in STEM research and education Long-shot Espy campaign sees national boost in weeks before election House chairman asks Secret Service for briefing on COVID-19 safeguards for agents MORE (D-Miss.), chairman of the committee.

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"The COVID-19 pandemic, and its quick spread within ICE facilities, has further highlighted how failures to meet these standards of care are a matter of life and death for migrants and employees," added Thompson.

As part of its investigation, the committee's staff visited eight ICE facilities, which according to the report are representative in location, type, and size of the more than 200 immigrant detention facilities operated by ICE or private detention companies.

Danielle Bennett, a spokeswoman for ICE, said the agency "appreciates the efforts of the committee and intends to closely review the report."

"ICE welcomes any recommendations that help improve agency processes and ensure that civil detention operations provide a safe and secure environment for detainees. The health, welfare and safety of ICE detainees is one of the agency’s highest priorities,” said Bennett.

At detention facilities, committee investigators found different levels of access and accommodation.

In some facilities, investigators were allowed to privately talk to detainees, while in others, guards were posted nearby, an action the report claims stymied the detainees from speaking freely.

And in at least one instance, ICE denied a request that the committee speak to a detainee. 

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"For example, at LaSalle, the Committee asked to speak with an individual who was being held in medical segregation," the reports says. 

"ICE informed staff that the migrant had no interest in meeting. After the visit, the individual communicated that he was never informed Committee staff were present," reads the report.

The report outlines cases of improvements made to facilities ahead of inspections, including posting guards, painting walls and refurbishing greenery.

"These challenges undoubtedly made the Committee’s oversight work more difficult. Without full cooperation from ICE and its contractors, Congress cannot effectively evaluate conditions at ICE detention facilities," wrote committee staff.

The committee also found that ICE's internal oversight processes have shortcomings "that leave deficiencies unidentified and uncorrected."

The report is heavily critical of The Nakamoto Group, a private company contracted by ICE to realize inspections at the facilities.

Of the company, the report says its inspections are "too broad and too brief," and conducted with prior notice per ICE regulations, allowing facilities to prepare to receive inspectors.

Nakamoto Vice President Mark Saunders told The Hill the report reflects the committee's Democratic majority opinion, and does not account for the nature of the contract between the company and ICE.

According to Saunders, Nakamoto is exclusively contracted with ICE for scheduled annual inspections to all its facilities, as well as pre-occupancy inspections for new facilities and biennial inspections in some smaller ones.
Those inspections, Saunders said, provide an overview of general conditions at detention facilities, and are not designed to have the surprise element of pop site inspections or the depth of full audits.

"We are the only entity of this process that has no agenda and we benefit in no way from a facility passing or failing," said Saunders. "We simply have no stake in the outcome."

The report says Nakamoto's inspections missed key problems, including cases in 2018 and 2019 in which the company's inspectors found no deficiencies at facilities which were later found by internal Department of Homeland Security inspectors to have subpar medical care for detainees.

Still, when deficiencies were identified, the correction mechanisms either failed or were not implemented, according to the report.

"The enforcement mechanisms that do exist, such as canceling contracts or issuing financial penalties, are seldom used," wrote the committee's investigators.

And while the report documents systemic substandard medical care for detainees, it found that standards for cleanliness were generally met, with exceptions.

The exceptions included one facility where pools of stagnant water generated mosquito infestations, and showers leaking into the sleeping area.

The report found that the relatively high sanitary standards were often due to detainees being forced to clean the spaces, according to complaints from detainees.

"Individuals held by ICE in detention being forced to clean their own housing units not only contradicts ICE’s own detention standards, but also appears to be an effort on the part of facility contractors to maximize their own profits," wrote the investigators.

The report takes aim at private contractors who operate many detention centers, accusing them of particularly egregious lackluster medical care.

It uses two anecdotal examples, one of a detainee who went into anaphylactic shock four times at the River Correctional Center after being served peanuts, and the case of the Cibola County Correctional Center, where more than 300 medical treatment requests allegedly went unanswered over 90 days.

The companies that operate those detention centers, LaSalle and CoreCivic, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The report also includes a laundry list of allegations against the detention centers, from inconsistent practices when handing out shampoo and soap, to deficient dental care, to misuse of solitary confinement as a retaliatory tool.

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"For example, individuals held at River complained that guards threatened placing detainees in segregation for engaging in permissible acts that detention staff considered disruptive, like submitting too many medical requests," the report says.

"Migrants at Otero similarly told Committee staff that guards frequently used threats of segregation to gain compliance with orders," wrote the investigators.

The committee concluded that "ICE does not do enough to ensure that its own standards of confinement are met."

"Instead of waiving certain standards and prioritizing bed space, ICE should cease doing business with those contractors that are unable to meet basic standards of health and safety," wrote the investigators.