Female Immigrants Allege Sexual Abuse And Harassment By Private Prison Employees

CREDIT: Eric Gay/ AP

Women and children wait at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility, in Brownsville, Texas.

Guards and other employees sexually abused and harassed female immigrants at a family detention center in Texas, civil rights groups alleged in a complaint filed last week. The complaint comes at a time when lawyers argue that the legal process is largely ignored at detention centers and advocacy groups have strongly condemned detention as a misguided deterrent for future migrants making the trek into the United States.

The complaint based on interviews with female detainees stated that the issue has been “ongoing since August 2014,” when the Karnes County Civil Detention Center in Texas opened. But even before the center opened, its owner, the for-profit prison company GEO Group, had been accused of various abuse and violations, like inmate abuse, workplace, violence, and fradulent reporting in its prison systems. And when it was announced that the GEO group would repurpose Karnes as a family detention facility, advocates blasted the company for not having personnel who are trained in child welfare.

At least three employees removed “female detainees from their cells late in the evening and during early morning hours for the purpose of engaging in sexual acts in various parts of the facility,” “guards and/or personnel called detainees their ‘novias,’ or ‘girlfriends,'” and also “kiss[ed], fondl[ed], and/or grop[ed] female detainees in front of other detainees, including children.” Despite detainees reporting the abuses, “no action has been taken to stop or prevent this abuse, or to prevent its escalation,” the complaint stated. The complaint reports that Karnes Center guards have “free access” to the detention cells and that children over the age of 13 “have been separated from their mothers in separate living/sleeping quarters without explanation.”

“The detainees at Karnes Center are predominantly women and children who have fled horrific violence and conditions in their home countries, including sexual violence and extortion,” the complaint read. “It is deeply disturbing that their experience in the custody of the U.S. government is subjecting them to further exploitation.”

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson told Huffington Post, “ICE has a zero-tolerance policy for all forms of sexual abuse or assault and our facilities are maintained in accordance with applicable laws and policies. Accusations of alleged unlawful conduct are investigated thoroughly and if substantiated, appropriate action is taken.”

But other recent reports suggest sexual abuse allegations against detention staff are pervasive. In a report published last year, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found 215 allegations of sexual abuse and assault against immigrants in detention centers between October 2010 to March 2013. And a 2011 American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit reported “185 complaints have been made to the Department of Homeland Security about sexual abuse in ICE custody, 56 of which were from facilities in Texas” since 2007. Using information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU documented sexual abuse complaints in detention centers in an interactive map, which highlighted that there were at least 16 or more allegations in California, Arizona, and Texas detention centers.

Most recently, the detention center in Artesia, New Mexico has been making headlines since it opened in June for its deplorable treatment of women and children. Lawyers filed a lawsuit in August alleging that Department of Homeland Security officials “created Artesia to limit successful asylum claims.”