Concern Over Prison Rape Should Extend to ICE Detentions
SOURCE: Flickr / ush
On Sept. 4, 2003, President George W. Bush signed into law the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which required the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) to perform a variety of duties every year—from “comprehensive statistical reviews of the incidence and effects of prison rape” to the identification of “(A) both victims and perpetrators of prison rape; and (B) prisons and prison systems with a high incidence of prison rape." The act additionally called on the BJS to draft "a listing of those institutions in the representative sample, separated into each category ... and ranked according to the incidence of prison rape in each institution."
The bill passed with ease. It had bipartisan support from both houses, as well as sponsorships from organizations across the ideological board—from the NAACP to Focus on the Family. It was, in short, a legislative slam-dunk.
But almost exactly seven years after the act became law, a new study from Human Rights Watch is raising serious questions about its efficacy. The report, titled, “Detained and At Risk: Sexual Abuse and Harassment in United States Immigration Detention,” [PDF] illuminates a series of violations recently committed against men and women in eight different states. Because the BJS “does not tabulate the numbers of assaults on immigration detainees held in state and county jails where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) rents a portion of the bed space”—only in facilities run by, or exclusively for, the ICE—the frequency of abuses has, until recently, remained a subject of mystery.
An attempt to dismantle this mystery, HRW’s report presents distilled summaries of many previously unreported incidents, including those involving sexual assault, molestation, verbal harassment, and failures on the part of guards to report abuse from other prisoners. The whole report is harrowing, but one of its more potent passages is this 2006 account from a female detainee named “Lydia S.”:
When the prisoners arrived, the guards conducted a search for contraband that still made Lydia shudder when she recounted it in an interview with Human Rights Watch two years later. She said that the guards required everyone in the dorm, including the immigration detainees who had already been in custody in the center, to strip completely naked and walk in a circle in front of the female guards. Lydia resisted but was commanded by one of the guards to remove her clothes. After walking in a circle, the women were instructed to bend over and cough to determine whether they were carrying drugs.The indignity of the search deeply upset Lydia and led her to withdraw from engaging with facility staff. “I didn’t file a request for two whole weeks,” she said. “All I could do was cry. I was in shock.”
According to Human Rights Watch staff, the findings highlight a need for legal standards that apply to all facilities housing immigration detainees.
"ICE has finally recognized the need for stronger protection of people in detention against sexual abuse, but it needs to play catch up quickly," said Meghan Rhoad, a women’s rights researcher at HRW, in a press release. "ICE needs to get new rules in place and make sure the rules have the teeth to ensure compliance from the hundreds of facilities across the detention system."
Byard Duncan is a staff writer for Campus Progress and a contributing writer and editor at AlterNet.
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