Health Care at Detention Facilities Too Often Problematic

Immigration advocates have criticized conditions at detention centers where ICE detainees are housed.

Beware the Ides of March, especially if you’re a detainee being sheltered in a detention center or other facility under the auspices of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). According to studies published by the Human Rights Watch and the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC), the ICE routinely delays, denies or provides low-quality medical care for detained immigrants in facilities nationwide. The poor care is often a consequence of unskilled or indifferent staff members at detention centers, overcrowding in facilities which is often deliberate, untenable levels of bureaucracy, language barriers, and limited services available to detainees. A Human Rights Watch study determined that detention centers were providing inadequate routine reproductive care for women because ICE’s health care system emphasizes emergency care and the treatment of conditions that might affect deportation status. According to testimony received by current and former detainees, ICE-employed medical staff members routinely violated their own standards in providing continuity of care, swift response to medical problems, explanation of services available to immigrants, medical screenings, and follow-up care.

These issues appear to be exacerbated because the ICE chooses to detain people who are elderly, have pre-existing health problems, or do not have criminal records. Asserted Cheryl Little, executive director of the FIAC, “ICE needlessly detains people with severe illnesses and those who pose no harm to U.S. communities. Doing so drives up ICE costs, even as the agency provides increasingly inadequate medical and mental health care to those in custody. Some detainees are held for months or years, but the average length of stay is about one month, 31 days.” Little also further characterized the ICE care received by immigrant detainees at many U.S. facilities as “poor and sometimes appalling.” The FIAC report, “Dying for Decent Care: Bad Medicine in Immigration Custody,” seemed eerily reminiscent of U.S. prison conditions in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. An unfortunate witness to the sometimes abysmal conditions was Marlene Jaggernauth, 43, who entered the United States 32 years ago as a lawful permanent resident from Trinidad. Arrested by ICE agents in 2003 because of an old shoplifting charge, Jaggernauth had been employed full-time at Florida Atlantic University as an administrative assistant. While detained at a Florida-area facility, she stated, “I saw a great deal of suffering and it was very heartbreaking,” she said, “We felt truly helpless and frightened. Often our requests for care would be ignored.”

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