Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Ga., has a capacity of 1,924 detainees is operated by CoreCivic. Credit: Kate Brumback/Associated Press

Surprise inspections at six immigrant detention facilities revealed that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is subjecting people in its custody to dangerous and harmful conditions that violate its own rules, according to a new report.

The inspectors made unannounced visits to the detention centers in response to complaints from immigrant rights advocates and people being held at the facilities. The problems they found, inspectors wrote, “undermine the protection of detainees’ rights, their humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment.”

The report was released this week by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general’s office and documented the following problems:

  • Dangerous detainees were housed with people classified as low risk.
  • Detainees were subjected to mandatory, universal strip searches.
  • Detainees were not treated “respectfully and professionally.”
  • Detainees weren’t given access to translation during booking and medical visits.
  • Staff threatened detainees who tried to file formal grievances.
  • Some facilities may have improperly placed detainees in solitary confinement.
  • Detainees faced long waits for medical care.

ICE detention is a civil, not criminal, arrangement, but ICE contracts with either county jails or private prison operators to hold its detainees. Under President Barack Obama, ICE began designing a new detention model that would grant more freedom to people in custody. But that initiative is apparently on hold, and the Trump administration said earlier this year that it would close the office handling that project.

Three sets of standards guide detainee care across the ICE detention network, depending on when the facility first contracted with ICE. President Donald Trump has considered rolling back those standards to a brief checklist but apparently has shelved that proposal for now.

According to the report, inspectors chose to visit six facilities that were “of particular concern” based on complaints their office received:

Inspectors gave high marks to the Laredo facility, writing that it “modeled quality operations” during their visit. But every other facility on the list fell short of ICE standards.

The Theo Lacy Facility, one of two Orange County jails in which ICE holds people, was the subject of a scathing inspector general’s report in March. That review found spoiled meat being served to detainees, moldy showers and broken telephones.

The report released this week documents similar concerns at other facilities, including a poorly managed grievance process at the Stewart Detention Center and broken phones at the Otero County Processing Center.

“At the Santa Ana City Jail,” inspectors wrote, “staff confirmed detainee reports of personnel strip searching all detainees upon admission.”

According to ICE standards, people in custody should be strip searched only when they’re suspected of having contraband. The practice was particularly troubling at Santa Ana because ICE had designated that jail as its first dedicated unit for gay, bisexual and transgender people, to limit their risk of sexual assault in detention.

Advocacy groups’ complaints about strip searches, in part, prompted the Santa Ana City Council to scale back its contract with ICE last year, after which ICE did away with the contract entirely.

After the inspector general’s office found violations at the nearby Theo Lacy Facility, however, ICE rewarded its operator, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, with an expanded contract worth another $5 million a year. ICE said it was satisfied that the department had corrected its practices after the inspectors’ visit.

In response to the inspectors’ findings, ICE said it would direct its field offices to keep an eye out for further violations such as the ones the inspector general’s office found. The agency did not mention plans to punish facilities for violating its standards.

Along with investigating complaints into homeland security employees, the inspector general’s office investigates waste, fraud and abuse within the department. In the past year, the office has released studies that were critical of the agency’s ability to secure the border and to recruit and screen new Border Patrol agents. Trump had proposed cutting the inspector general’s office’s funding by 10 percent in his budget request before lawmakers restored the funding.

Patrick Michels can be reached at pmichels@revealnews.org. Follow him on Twitter: @patrickmichels.

Patrick Michels is a reporter for Reveal, covering immigration. His coverage focuses on immigration courts and legal access, privatization in immigration enforcement, and the government's care for unaccompanied children. He contributed to Reveal's award-winning project on indigenous land rights disputes created by oil pipelines. Previously, he was a staff writer at the Texas Observer, where his work included an investigation into corruption at the Department of Homeland Security and how the state's broken guardianship system allowed elder abuse to go unchecked. Michels was a Livingston Award finalist for his investigation into the deadly armored car industry. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's degree in photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin, where his work focused on government contractors grappling with trauma and injuries from their time in Iraq. Michels is based in Austin, Texas.