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Unpacking the Latest Deep Dive on Sexual Abuse in ICE Custody
How often are people sexually abused or assaulted in US migrant prisons? If we listen to folks locked inside these places, the answer is “every single day.”
If that’s true, what is the US doing to prevent these harms, and is it working?
These questions permeate devastating new reporting from Maria Hinojosa, Zebra Warsi and Roxanne Scott for Futoro Investigates and Latino USA. Reprising her 2011 film about sexual abuse in ICE detention under the Obama-Biden administration, Hinojosa highlights the echoes of stories she heard then as they resonate through the lived experiences of people being assaulted now. What’s changed? What hasn’t? And what can ICE’s own records tell us about these questions?
One big change is the finalization of PREA regulations by DHS. Aimed to halt the horrors of exploitation and sexual violence inside the government panopticon, the DHS Prison Rape Elimination Act regs subject contractors to enhanced oversight. These regulations mandate separate inspections and dictate specific conduct for contractors tasked with caring for people in ICE custody.
But the most tangible material change PREA produced in ICE detention isn’t a reduction in sexual predation. Rather, it’s the multiplication of posters declaring Zero Tolerance plastered around facilities where people repeatedly experience these harms.
At this point, if you haven’t listened to Immensely Invisible or watched the shorter PBS NewsHour report, we’d encourage you to do so, as the remainder of this post responds specifically to these pieces.
With that said, here are some observations about the Futuro Media/PBS reporting stemming from the government’s own records:
A Pattern of Lax ICE PREA Oversight
One category of FOIA record we found in our death investigations that sheds immense light on how ICE prioritizes PREA compliance is the Director Dashboard ICE’s Office of Detention Oversight creates. As their name implies, this is a record meant directly for management, and it supplies key metrics about how ICE handles complaints of sexual abuse and assault. We previously wrote about these records here.
As this exemplar Director Dashboard FOIA shows, 11 of 12 facilities ICE audited for PREA compliance failed in the second quarter of Fiscal Year 2022. PREA regulations have been in place since 2014. If inspections and audits worked to achieve compliance, it’s hard to explain why more than 90% of the audits found facilities couldn’t comply.
When we hear claims from ICE in response to the Immensely Invisible reporting claiming they take seriously any allegations of PREA violations and hold contractors and employees accountable, we can view these claims in light of the agency’s own data, and decide for ourselves how seriously to take them.
As of the second quarter of FY22, ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility was investigating 25 open cases of Staff-on-Detainee assault.
The fact the Futuro/PBS story involves women imprisoned in Stewart, Glades, and Baker — all facilities in ICE’s Georgia-Florida detention-industrial complex — should come as no surprise. These are each violent, deadly spaces where impunity reigns, harm abounds, and the rule of law is scarce. ICE Detention Expert Dora Schiro previously helped set up the “reformed” ICE detention system and identify the “performance” ICE would require of contractors as part of its “Performance-Based National Detention Standards.” She concluded ICE failed to ensure CoreCivic complied with those standards, resulting in the death of Efrain Romero de la Rosa in a solitary cell at Stewart in July 2018. So did two other esteemed experts. Indeed, after being shown the evidence of pervasive, deadly understaffing and neglect at Stewart, former DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano suggested current Secretary Mayorkas should close the facility in a 2021 interview with Vice News.
For his part, Mayorkas said on camera that his office was “looking at facilities across the country” for standards compliance, that “Stewart is one of them” and that he would “take prompt action” for facilities that did ensure humane treatment. When we sought any proof of the truth of Mayorkas’s allegations, DHS and ICE failed to respond. Our project joined Project South, Owings MacNorlin LLC, and Jane Doe —a survivor of sexual assault by a nurse at Stewart — filed suit in federal court to get these and other federal records.
Women first began reporting sexual abuse at Stewart in 2021 because that’s when ICE first began imprisoning women there en masse. This occurred after ICE closed the Irwin County Detention Center in nearby Ocilla, Georgia following substantiated allegations of egregious medical abuse and neglect by whistleblower nurse Dawn Wooten, and dozens of current and formerly detained women. Instead of actually seeking to repair harm, ICE simply moved the harm away from the light and heat of independent oversight and media scrutiny.
The Biden Administration has consistently broken Joe Biden’s campaign promise to end these abuses by eliminating profiteering from the detention system. Instead, the Democrats in control of government from 2021-2023 sided with and continued pouring billions into the coffers of for-profit private prison corporations and rural communities who made bad bets on human cages as an economic development model.
Immensely Invisible chronicles the harm ICE does when it seeks to sweep the outcroppings of its systemic oversight failures under the rug by simply engaging in transfers, rather than releases. The lived experiences of this survivor and so many others reveal the system’s outputs are similarly harmful regardless of location. That’s because it is not the location of detention, but the detention itself, which creates the conditions for sexual predation of vulnerable people caged for moving or remaining without State sanction. In this respect, ICE is likely all to happy to hear the opening question from a PBS host that localizes the issue to a few facilities, rather than highlighting that what’s happening at each facility is an effect, not a cause.
We learn how ICE’s Miami Field Office transferred one formerly imprisoned woman who alleges she was sexually harassed by a mental health professional and forced to shower while male guards looked on at the now-shuttered Glades detention facility in South Florida. The jail ICE picked to halt the harm to women in Glades was the Baker County Detention Center, just 30 minutes outside Jacksonville in Northeast Florida.
For its part, Baker is the site of an acknowledged criminal sexual assault by a male guard of at least one woman ICE imprisoned there. Like Glades, Baker County’s physical set-up also allowed male guards to engage in voyeurism against women locked inside for revenue.
It’s probably worth pausing at this point to note that the same prison profiteer set up both Baker and Glades as revenue-generators for each county in the mid-aughts, hoping to capitalize on the caging of human bodies for profit. Glades has now lost its contract, and Baker is on the verge of doing so. According to Baker County jail officials’ statements to County Commissioners, the main reason ICE could not cancel the facility’s contract last year is that there’s nowhere else the Miami Field Office can house women who are in certain classifications. Because ICE refuses to release these women, it subjects them to systemic sexual violence.
Under these conditions, it’s no surprise that Baker guards would engage in sex trafficking, as one rape survivor recently alleged in a federal suit under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Jail operators are incentivized to spend as little as possible on services for people inside, skimping on things like toilet paper and feminine hygiene products and thus forcing people locked inside to buy those items from the commissary, which yields a profit to the facility through “Inmate Welfare” slush funds. Baker allegedly denied women the ability to purchase these basic necessities in the commissary, but made them available to guards for individual distribution on request. Baker, as alleged in Jane Doe’s federal complaint, created a system in which women who were already being watched while they used the bathroom had a to choose between yielding to demands for sexual favors made by their captors or going without things like toilet paper or menstrual pads.
The data our project has gathered show these allegations have been longstanding and particularly pronounced at Baker, as compared to other parts of the ICE system. One such dataset that shed significant light on the predilection for sexual predation at Baker is the FOIA we filed for Detainee Reporting Information Line calls system-wide. We got a spreadsheet with totals showing all calls for Fiscal Years 2016-19. There were more than 100,000. Of those 100k calls, ICE referred just over 20 for investigation, according to these records. 5 of the 20 involved Baker County, despite the facility accounting for less than 3% of the total ICE Average Daily Population for each of these fiscal years. 4 of the 5 complaints involved sexual assaults by staff.
According to ICE’s own PREA Inspection for Baker, the facility was noncompliant with three critical standards as of January 2023.
Halting Harm Requires Addressing Root Causes
Like the medical data in Irwin, or the death data at Stewart, sexual assault data at Baker constitutes a giant, flashing red warning flare. Something is broken at Baker that inspections, oversight, contract discrepancy reports, uniform corrective action plans, and monitoring simply cannot fix.
To our knowledge, the Baker County Detention Center is the only facility in ICE’s entire detention portfolio where guards are required to wear bodycams recording their interactions with people inside. The contract is up for review later this summer.
Listening to the experiences of women subjected to sexual abuse and assault at Stewart, Glades, and Baker reveals there is no reforming ICE’s deadly cages.
If Maria Hinojosa hopes to not run a similar story on a third decade of sexual predation in ICE custody in 2033, these spaces must be closed, and the practice of caging people on the move must be abolished.
There is simply no evidence that the promises of PREA achieve the results regulators hoped. The women at the center of this powerful new story are living proof.
Take action today by learning more about the #CommunitiesNotCages and #DefundHate campaigns, or by getting involved in a shutdown campaign near you.
We’re not going to do this by ourselves. It’s not somebody else’s job. If you’re reading this, there’s a role you can play, no matter what your skills, experience, or time commitment.