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We Must Safeguard Women Detainees against Sexual Assault

When I first visited the T. Don Hutto family detention facility in 2006 to monitor the treatment of the parents and children detained there I was appalled at what I found. Young children wore prison jumpsuits and played behind concertina wire on the days when they were allowed outside at all. Guards monitored their every movement and parents lived with the constant fear that should their children giggle too loud or run too fast, the family would be separated as a form of punishment. Hutto was a reflection of so many things that are wrong about immigration detention.

In 2007, my organization, the Women's Refugee Commission, released a report, Halfway Home: Children in Immigration Custody detailing our findings at Hutto. It was soon followed by a lawsuit challenging the conditions in which children were detained. Finally, last fall, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) stopped detaining families at Hutto. Today there are no children inside the facility's walls. But Hutto, now home to female detainees and viewed as a model for immigration detention reform in the United States, has come under scrutiny once again – this time because a guard employed by Corrections Corporation of American (CCA, the private, for-profit company that operates the facility), has been fired for sexually assaulting multiple women inside their cells.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time sexual assault of detainees has occurred. In the spring of 2007, another guard at Hutto was terminated for having sex with a female detainee in her cell. Also in 2007, a guard was convicted in Florida for raping a woman during transport between detention facilities. In the summer of 2009, investigations were pending involving four rapes at the Willacy detention facility in Texas. Earlier this year, a guard at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Texas was convicted of sexually assaulting three women. In each of these cases, the safety and well-being of the victims was jeopardized by ICE's feeble and secretive response.

So far, the agency's response to the most recent Hutto incidents has been more promising. The guard in question has been fired. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS, ICE's parent agency) has fined CCA, and is demanding that Hutto adopt and enforce the new Performance Based National Detention Standards, designed to improve the care provided to detainees, immediately. ICE is exploring prosecution of the accused and has promised to provide U visas for each of the victims.

These are steps in the right direction. But assaults are inevitable given the size of the detention population, the institutional nature of the system and the power dynamics that exist between guards and vulnerable detainees, especially women. These incidents highlight the problems implicit in managing a massive, decentralized system with minimal–and unenforceable–standards, inadequate training and oversight and almost no functional mechanisms for ensuring accountability and addressing detainee grievances.

Going forward, we hope that ICE will also pursue a comprehensive investigation that includes a search for additional victims and witnesses, will release from detention others who may have been affected and will enforce compliance with the PREA standards designed to protect against the occurrence of sexual assault and rape in detention.

For the last 10 months the Women's Refugee Commission has worked closely with DHS on reforming the detention system and reducing the use of detention, especially for women, children and other vulnerable groups. We applaud the agency's willingness to consult with nongovernmental experts and to think creatively about more humane alternatives to detention. We hope that in the new detention system there will be appropriate safeguards to ensure that the victims of these assaults would not have been detained in the first place, and that those who must be detained in the future do not fall victim to the same kinds of abuse. They must also mandate appropriate training in preventing and responding to sexual assault for all facility staff, and effective reporting and grievance procedures for detainees.

What happened at Hutto cannot be excused. It serves as a reminder of the responsibility we assume when we decide to detain people, and highlights, once again, the need to drastically reduce the use of detention in all but the most extreme cases. What DHS learns from this terrible occurrence and how these learnings shape future decisions about detention policy will serve as a benchmark of our progress towards detention reform.

Emily Butera is program officer, detention and asylum program, at the Women's Refugee Commission.