Disturbing pattern of abuse at six immigrant detention centers in the South, report finds

The incoming president elect wants to expand the use of detention.

Stewart Detention Facility, an immigration detention center located in Lumpkin, Ga. CREDIT: AP Photo/Kate Brumback, File
Stewart Detention Facility, an immigration detention center located in Lumpkin, Ga. CREDIT: AP Photo/Kate Brumback, File

An estimated 45,000 immigrants are currently waiting in detention centers across the United States every night. The number may tick upwards once incoming President-elect Donald Trump takes office if he fulfills his promise to arrest and detain anywhere between two and three million “criminal” immigrants. Yet many immigration detention centers are ill-equipped to safely detain people who — for the most part — have been accused of civil, not criminal, violations.

According to a new report by several human rights organizations that reviewed six detention centers in the South, some detention centers failed to provide information for detainees about legal proceedings and their rights. Detainees were found to have received inadequate medical and mental health treatment; they were also reportedly subjected to physical and mental abuse by detention center staff and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers. Additionally, the report found that facilities failed to provide clean clothes and enough food, and detainees faced retaliation when they filed complaints.

Three immigrant detainees died in custody in just the first six months of this year at the LaSalle Detention Facility in Louisiana. Late last month, Xiu Zhen Li, a Chinese immigrant, died of cancer at LaSalle, despite asking for medical treatment, and after throwing up every day for three months. And Stanley, a young Haitian immigrant, was brutally beaten and pinned to the floor after asking a guard to change the air conditioning temperature at the Baker Detention Center in Florida. Some detainees took to hunger strikes to protest harsh conditions and the lack of due process at the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia, where guards reportedly shot at them with rubber bullets and pepper spray last year.

While immigrants wait in deplorable conditions, they are also denied basic due process rights that would allow them to leave the facilities. Many immigrants are kept in detention centers for so long that they can “go months — even years — without feeling the sun on their skin because the detention center lacks an outdoor recreation area” at the Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama, the report alleged.


Report authors also found that immigrant detainees taken into custody in the South were more likely to stay detained and have trouble obtaining release on bond, parole, and alternatives to detention when compared with detainees in other parts of the country. Alternatives to detention can include GPS ankle tracking devices and community-based supervision.

The investigation spanned the course of seven months and included more than 300 interviews by SPLC researchers. The study was conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild (NIPNLG) and the Adelante Alabama Worker Center.

The report found consistent allegations of abuse and neglect by detainees across facilities in different states. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is set to release a review of privately-operated immigration detention facilities because of higher incidences of safety and security violations at the end of November, but the impending change of administration means that review will likely be moot.

President-elect Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed that he would triple the number of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to go after “criminal” immigrants, a refrain that has helped private prison stock prices jump up in recent times.


“This report shows that immigrant detention centers in the South fail to ensure the rights and safety of people in their custody,” said Eunice Cho, SPLC staff attorney and author of the report. “Flooding the immigration detention system with hundreds of thousands of additional people will only lead to a grave human rights crisis.”

“President-elect Trump’s deportation plan could require a massive expansion of an already broken system and the creation of a prison infrastructure that will cost billions and only exacerbate our country’s mass incarceration problem,” said Lisa Graybill, SPLC deputy legal director.