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NPR investigation reveals significant failures at immigrant detention facilities


In the country's bitter debate over immigration and border policy, immigration detention has become a flashpoint. Now an NPR investigation stretching over more than three years has revealed a massive trove of government records. They show that the government's own experts found barbaric treatment, negligent medical and mental health care, racist abuse and what one expert called astonishing failures inside these detention facilities. Administrations under both Donald Trump and Joe Biden fought the release of these records. NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach has been reporting this story. Good morning, Tom.


FADEL: OK. So before we get to the actual findings, can you give a sense of who was writing these reports and what they were looking for?

DREISBACH: Yeah. So these reports are written by experts in subjects like medical care, mental health, use of force and environmental safety. Now, these experts are hired by the Department of Homeland Security to investigate complaints and claims of civil rights abuses in immigration detention centers. So these are facilities that lock up immigrants on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. The goal is to make sure people show up for their appearances in immigration court. Now, that could include people who crossed the border seeking asylum or people who entered the country illegally who are fighting deportation.

Now, these inspectors are known to find problems that others overlook and to write in a much more unvarnished way than you hear in a typical government report. The government has been fighting our efforts to get these reports since 2019. So we later filed a lawsuit. And it took years, but a judge found that the government had violated the Freedom of Information Act and ordered them to send us these files.

FADEL: And a reminder that it was both the Trump and Biden administration that fought the release of these files.

DREISBACH: That's right.

FADEL: What do they say?

DREISBACH: We got more than 1,600 pages of reports covering more than two dozen facilities all across the country from 2017 to 2019 'cause that's when our lawsuit started. These inspectors found serious problems - pepper spraying of mentally ill detainees, retaliation for filing complaints, ignoring medical problems, filthy conditions, including a cockroach found on a medical exam table and medical instruments covered in grime. Some of the examples that stick out - in Michigan, a man who had just had surgery and had active surgical drains was placed in general population with no bandages and no wound care and no medical appointments. And when the inspector asked about it, the facility's medical director said he had no idea. In Pennsylvania, a mentally ill man was locked into a restraint chair, and a group of male guards gave the lone female guard a pair of scissors to cut off his clothes and conduct a strip search. The inspector said there was no justifiable reason for this and called the kind of cross-gender strip search barbaric.

FADEL: You're describing some pretty troubling things, but you first requested these records in 2019. It's 2023. How have conditions changed since then?

DREISBACH: Right. And a White House spokesperson said in a statement that these reports document conditions under the prior administration, meaning under Donald Trump.

FADEL: But they're not releasing the documents from today either, are they?

DREISBACH: That's right. We've requested newer documents. We're still waiting for the government to send us those documents. But I should say that the Biden administration, in their statement, did not contend that conditions have gotten better on their watch. Should say, I also reached out to the Trump campaign. They did not respond. And experts and immigration attorneys I spoke to said the COVID-19 pandemic really made conditions inside detention worse in many ways. Several of these reports include warnings that because of overcrowding and poor cleaning, lack of vaccination practices, people were vulnerable to respiratory illnesses. And then during the height of COVID, a lot of inspections were done remotely, like over Zoom or just looking at paper records.


DREISBACH: And so there was even less oversight of this system. I talked about all this with Eunice Cho. She has spent years visiting these facilities for the ACLU.

EUNICE CHO: Unfortunately, this is not an outlier. I think this is the tip of the iceberg. And if anything, conditions have probably gotten worse.

FADEL: And have you spoken to people who've actually been detained in these facilities?

DREISBACH: Yeah. I've talked to several people who have been locked up in ICE detention to see how their experience is compared with what's documented in these reports. One was a 57-year-old man named Jose. He first came to the U.S. in the '80s, fleeing civil war in El Salvador, where he was born. He's undocumented. Though he has kids who are U.S. citizens. And he was arrested by ICE last year, in 2022, and held at the Orange County Jail in New York. Jose has diabetes and heart problems. He says he was not given access to his prescription meds, and as a result, he had a heart attack.


DREISBACH: He was taken to a hospital, had to have a stent placed and then sent back to the jail. And he says, again, he was not given his meds for days, and he was worried he would die. Eventually, he was able to be released because of his health problems. But he thinks the jail did permanent damage to his health.

JOSE: (Speaking Spanish).

DREISBACH: He said it was like a form of punishment and ICE should investigate and make sure they treat people like humans and not animals.

JOSE: (Speaking Spanish).

DREISBACH: The inspection reports we obtained showed that this facility has major issues with racist abuse of detainees and failures to provide medical care.

FADEL: I mean, it's hard to hear that, someone saying, just treat us like people, not animals. And in some cases, these problems have led to deaths in ICE detention. What have you learned about that?

DREISBACH: Well, one of the reports we obtained discusses what an inspector called an egregious failure. A 64-year-old man at an ICE detention center in Aurora, Colo., was cut off cold turkey from methadone, which he had been taking for decades to manage opioid use disorder. He then went into severe withdrawal. ICE records say the doctor never examined him. Nurses skipped medical checks even though his health was spiraling, and he ultimately passed away. The report we obtained says, quote, "the complete lack of medical leadership, supervision and care that this detainee was exposed to is simply astonishing and stands out as one of the most egregious failures to provide optimal care, in my experience."

Now, just last fall, another man died in that same facility. His family is concerned that his health problems were ignored. And we obtained the 911 call from that incident showing that there were some serious gaps in communication.

FADEL: I mean, what you've found in these documents is really troubling. What kind of response did you get from the government?

DREISBACH: Well, a Department of Homeland Security spokesperson said in a statement that ICE takes its responsibilities to provide a safe, secure and humane environment seriously. And they pointed out that they have closed a handful of detention centers because of poor conditions. The White House also sent a statement saying they are increasingly relying on alternatives to detention, like GPS monitoring, so people can remain on the outside while their cases go through the system.

I should note here, though, that the Biden campaign had promised to end contracts with private, for-profit companies, which run the vast majority of these ICE detention facilities. Immigration advocates say they have broken that promise. And actually, a greater proportion of people are in these privately run facilities compared to the proportion under Trump. Now, the Biden White House statement said they want to move away from the use of privately run detention facilities, but they need Congress to act.

FADEL: That's NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach. Thanks so much, Tom.

DREISBACH: Thanks, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRISTEZA'S "BALABARISTAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Tom Dreisbach is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories.

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