Friday, July 18, 2008

Voices on Human Rights Violations at the Northwest Detention Center.

Detainees at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., are subjected to excessive strip searches, physical abuse, insufficient quantities of food, overcrowding and a lack of due process, according to a new report on conditions at the facility

The center is where undocumented people in Oregon who are facing deportation typically are held. It also is where unauthorized immigrants who commit criminal offenses are sent to await deportation after completing their prison sentence.

The facility serves Oregon, Washington and Alaska.

The report, "Voices from Detention: A Report on Human Rights Violations at the Northwest Detention Center," takes an in-depth look at how detainees are treated at the center.

It was conducted by the Seattle University School of Law's International Human Rights Clinic in collaboration with OneAmerica, an immigrant rights group in Seattle.

Gwynne Skinner, a professor at Willamette University College of Law and a visiting professor at the Seattle law school, oversaw the study.

Officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Seattle, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security division that oversees Tacoma's detention facility, called the report a "fabrication."

Lorie Dankers, a spokeswoman for ICE, said the center meets, and in many instances exceeds, national compliance standards.

"We provide a secure and humane environment for our detainees," Dankers said. "It is a comfortable and safe environment."

The report was prepared from interviews that law students conducted with detainees. It features anecdotes by detainees about mistreatment and abuse they claim to have personally witnessed.

One incident involves a mentally ill Cambodian man who allegedly was punched by U.S. marshals during a flight to Alabama. The detainees said the man also struggled to breathe during the entire trip after the marshals placed a hood over his head.

The eyewitnesses additionally said that during the same seven-hour trip last summer, authorities refused to allow them to use the bathroom, forcing them to sit in their own feces.

"Probably the starkest finding was not a single episode, but the fact that there really are no binding and, therefore, no legally enforceable standards that govern detention, which is now the fastest-growing form of incarceration in this country," said Pramila Jayapal, executive director of OneAmerica.

Jayapal said conditions at the Tacoma center violate international human-rights laws, as well as the U.S. Constitution.

The group hopes the study will lead to federal legislation that would create legally binding standards regarding detention and explore alternatives to detention centers, Jayapal said.

Jim Ludwick, the president of Tank Oregonians for Immigration Reform, which lobbies against illegal immigration, questioned the motives behind the report.

"I think these people are just trying to turn up something negative about enforcing immigration laws, instead of talking about the fact that the people shouldn't have been here to begin with," Ludwick said. "Many people who are in detention centers are people who illegally entered into the United States and are fighting deportation. They obviously don't think the conditions are that bad or else they'd agree to deportation and go home."

The report comes two weeks after the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security recommended better access to medical care, stronger oversight and general improvements in detention standards following the deaths of legal and illegal immigrants at centers across the nation.

The deaths have sparked widespread attention and have drawn criticism from the United Nations. They also have spawned two bills in Congress that seek to improve detention standards.

"I think it's important that Congress continue to look into conditions at detention centers," said Erik Sorensen, a spokesman for CAUSA, an immigrant-advocacy group in Woodburn. "Obviously, the system is flawed and it's unfortunate that people are being treated inhumanely."

Dankers said ICE recently signed a contract with an outside firm that will conduct annual evaluations at the center.

However, she said it would be difficult to verify the incidences described in the report because the report contained "such vague references to events and individuals, whose names were changed."

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