The Hurdles Immigrants In Detention Centers Face When Calling Their Lawyers

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

Making a phone call from inside an detention center is a critical lifeline for immigrants trying to contact lawyers to fight their deportation cases. But it’s also often an insurmountable barrier.

Just getting to the point of hearing a ringtone involves various obstacles like purchasing a prepaid phone card, making sure that lawyers have signed up with detention facilities to receive phone calls, making sure that there’s a live person on the other end to pick up, and asking facility officials to turn on the phones.

Now, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency will remove some of those obstacles at four detention facilities in California — three county jails and one private prison — that have long made it difficult for detainees to place calls to attorneys, government agencies, and family members. The decision is part of a settlement agreement reached this week on behalf of immigrant plaintiffs by several organizations, including the human rights organization American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

This is about fundamental fairness in the American legal system.

“This is about fundamental fairness in the American legal system. In depriving immigrant detainees of the means to defend themselves, ICE denies them the basic fairness required by the Constitution,” Carl Takei, staff attorney at ACLU’s National Prison Project, told ThinkProgress. “Under our Constitution, immigrants are entitled to due process and a fair hearing before they are forcibly removed from their adopted country.”

“The government’s inadequate, deficient telephone system in immigration detention makes it nearly impossible for immigrants in detention to contact attorneys for advice or gather the evidence they need to challenge their deportations in court,” Takei added.

Many individuals held in detention centers are often unable to access in-person visits with legal counsel because these detention centers are located in remote areas away from major cities. Because immigrant detainees are not entitled to attorneys as criminal defendants are, telephone access is necessary for immigrants to locate, retain, and seek advice from legal representatives.

Under the Lyon v. ICE settlement, ICE will be required to create more ways to make legal calls from housing unit phones and to provide new phone booths for privacy in housing units. The agency will also need to process telephone requests as soon as possible; provide extra phone room access or phone credit for detainees who cannot afford to pay for phone calls; make accommodations for international legal calls and three-way calling for legal calls; and assist detainees who don’t read English or Spanish.

The settlement affects class action members detained at the West Country Detention Facility in Contra Costa County, Yuba County Jail in Yuba County, Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center (RCCC) in Sacramento County, and the Mesa Verde Detention Facility in Kern County, but Takei hopes that the reforms will also change similar issues at other detention centers around the country.

Information signs are seen next to a phone at the Karnes County Residential Center, Thursday, July 31, 2014, in Karnes City, Texas. Federal officials gave a tour of the immigration detention facility that has been retooled to house adults with children who have been apprehended at the border. Officials estimate the cost will be $140 a day per person. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay
Information signs are seen next to a phone at the Karnes County Residential Center, Thursday, July 31, 2014, in Karnes City, Texas. Federal officials gave a tour of the immigration detention facility that has been retooled to house adults with children who have been apprehended at the border. Officials estimate the cost will be $140 a day per person. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay

The plaintiffs in the settlement include I.P., who left Mexico and legally entered the U.S. when he was a child. He has firsthand experience with this type of phone injustice while he spent seven months in an immigration detention center in California.

I.P.’s family spent close to $1000 buying him prepaid calling cards so that he could call his lawyer to fight his deportation case. Every time I.P., who asked to be identified only by his initials, got on the phone, he paid a connection fee and a per-minute charge totaling $5.50 to make a 20-minute call, regardless of whether those phone calls were successfully patched through to the other person. Once 20 minutes were up, the call disconnected and he had to pay a new connection fee.

“It was a big hardship because my family — I have three brothers and sisters and they have families as well and my mom is a widow — so they did what they could so that I could have phone time and access to the outside world,” I.P. recounted in a phone interview with ThinkProgress.

Cops pulled over I.P. for a traffic violation in 2014 and transferred him to the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center (RCCC) in Sacramento County, California, a privately-operated immigration detention center on behalf of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.

Because of his sexual orientation, I.P didn’t feel comfortable telling his lawyer about his case because the phones were stationed in public areas in the housing units where other people could hear his conversation. He was especially worried because he didn’t know whether the other detainees would discriminate against him because he is gay.

And I.P. was never able to connect through with government agencies, like the Mexican embassy, to get documents needed to fight his deportation case, a process that affected his fellow detainees too.

People would stand there from morning until lunchtime, then from lunchtime until dinnertime or 5 p.m.

“People would stand there from morning until lunchtime, then from lunchtime until dinnertime or 5 p.m. or whatever,” I.P. said. “I never got through when I needed to talk to my consulate for whatever reason. I never got through.”

Reflecting back on his time in detention, I.P. said that the lack of phone access left him “hopeless and depressed” because it felt like he would never be able to leave detention.

“I couldn’t eat and sleep. [I thought] ‘What’s going to happen to me?’ Nobody cares,” I.P. said. “I’m never going to get a lawyer. When you’re detained 24 hours a day, when they tell you when to get up, eat, sleep, when to go to the bathroom, and on top of that, they control who you can talk at all — that’s the big challenge to one’s mental state.”

I.P. is not alone in his plight. About 50 percent of all undocumented immigrants are held at county jails, where facilities can raise revenue through contracts with phone companies that charge high rates for phone calls. Phone calls are expensive because independent telephone companies pay the state — or in this case the county jail — a kickback, that can range from 15 percent to 60 percent either as revenue, a fixed upfront fee, or a combination of both, according to Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC). And these are not well regulated despite national detention standards set by the ICE agency, which require facilities to offer phone access with “reasonably priced telephone rates,” with differences in the rate reflecting “actual costs associated with the provision of services in a detention setting,” The Nation reported in 2014.

“This is the land of the free,” I.P. said. “Suppposedly, we should be more compassionate towards people trying to get help on their cases… I want people getting [to the detention centers] in the future to have access to the telephone to call their lawyers. I just want people to be treated more justly.”