Sexual Abuse of Immigration Detainees Highlights Need for Oversight
For months, a male officer at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, an immigration detention facility in Texas, sexually assaulted women in his custody. The assailant had access to the female detainees while transporting them by himself, in blatant violation of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) policies.
At first none of the women reported the sexual abuse, likely fearing retaliation or doubting they would be believed. Finally, one of the victims contacted local law enforcement, which in turn alerted Hutto officials.
Shortly after learning about this abuse, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) placed the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the private company that runs Hutto, “on probation.”
DHS has developed a list of changes that the company must implement at Hutto and eight other CCA-run facilities holding immigration detainees. The list includes increased training for staff and audits of CCA detention centers by DHS-selected experts.
These are important steps, but the DHS needs to do more to prevent sexual abuse in the future. A good start would be to make it easier for detainees to report sexual abuse and to re-examine how DHS monitors its contracts with private prison companies.
Violence Flourishes Without Scrutiny
Sexual abuse in detention is not unique to Hutto. This type of violence flourishes whenever detention facilities are closed to outside scrutiny, allowing officials to act with impunity. Immigration detainees are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse due to language barriers, fear of deportation, and isolation from culturally relevant avenues of support.
Numerous federal studies of victimization behind bars have found that those who are gay or have previously been abused are at especially likely to be targeted for abuse. The research also shows that staff members of the opposite sex commit a significant percentage of sexual assaults – in both men’s and women’s facilities. For example, a 2010 report from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that incarcerated youth in the United States are frequent victims of sexual abuse.
Despite such data, however, few prisons, jails, or other detention facilities limit cross-gender supervision (even in areas where prisoners are nude or performing bodily functions) or prohibit officers from being alone with inmates of the opposite sex.
Policies alone are not enough, of course. In fact, protocols in place at Hutto explicitly prohibited male officers from being alone with female detainees, and the blatant neglect of this policy points to a lack of leadership. External oversight is necessary to close the gaps between policy and practice. And external scrutiny can helps identify systemic problems, offer effective solutions and ensure accountability.
A DHS official was stationed at Hutto to verify the facility’s adherence to government protocols, but nothing was done about the policy violations until police contacted the facility regarding the resulting abuse. Clearly, the DHS’s monitoring efforts were ineffective.
National Standards Needed
The U.S. Department of Justice is currently reviewing proposed national standards addressing sexual abuse in detention, including a recommendation for external, independent oversight. The standards call for independent audits of facilities every three years. They also contain explicit provisions limiting cross-gender supervision.
Corrections officials opposed to the standards have focused their criticism on these particular measures. But the abuses at Hutto underscore the need for Attorney General Eric Holder to issue final standards that include strong limitations on cross-gender supervision and a meaningful oversight mechanism.
Sexual abuse of detainees is a crime and a violation of essential values of our nation. Government officials – the U.S. Attorney General, DHS leaders, and local corrections administrators – must eliminate this horrific violence. When the government removes someone’s liberty, it takes on the absolute responsibility to protect that person from abuse. No matter the reason for a person’s detention, rape must never be part of the penalty.