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A call for transparency, oversight — and care

October 30, 2018 GMT

Privately operated, for-profit detention centers hold most of the immigrants identified by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for long-term detention or removal from the U.S.

These facilities operate behind a screen, where detained immigrants enter and very little information about their experiences comes out while they are held. Among the bits of information that do filter through this screen are accounts of mistreatment, personal safety issues and minimal access to necessary health care. A call for transparency and oversight, both governmental and independent, is more than required, and New Mexicans should be shouting for it.

High rates of violence, ranging from threats, beatings and sexual assault, are seen within these for-profit detention centers. Noncriminal, LGBTQ and transgender detainees are common targets for such violence. Reports have surfaced of inadequate mental and medical care for those detained in these facilities — care that ICE is obligated to provide victims of traumatic violence and those with untreated chronic conditions — ignored during incarceration. Such lack in care can lead to injury and death. Numerous complaints against ICE have been filed regarding access to medical care required by the Department of Homeland Security. These include denial of intake health screens within 12 hours, comprehensive exams within 14 days, continued care for those with chronic medical and mental health needs, and 24-hour emergency care.

New Mexico has two private detention facilities in Otero and Cibola counties. Across the U.S., thousands of immigrants detained by ICE are also held in for-profit detention facilities. In response to complaints, the Homeland Security Office of Inspector General conducted inspections of five ICE facilities, including one in Otero County. Facility compliance varied, but inspections at four found conditions undermining detainee rights and humane treatment, as well as endangering environmental and personal safety.

There exists a threat that if immigrant mistreatment at the hands of ICE officials and for-profit detention facility operators continues to go unchecked, it could become tacitly normalized and lead to routine harm. Noncitizen immigrants in detention facilities are vulnerable specifically because they may not speak or completely understand English, the customs and slang of American culture, or the detention process in which they find themselves. Detainees who are mistreated and then deported cannot effectively share their experiences with the proper authorities. While U.S. citizens can potentially shine a light on mistreatment while in for-profit facilities, a missed opportunity to critically review our specific governmental adherence to basic human rights across multiple incarcerated populations should be worrisome.

At present, New Mexico has the largest proportion of its inmates in for-profit prisons, and federal immigration detainees — such as those arrested by ICE — have increased four-fold since 2000. New Mexico is in the beginning stages of legislative discussions regarding how best to curb reliance on for-profit contractors to house all types of public offenders. We must call upon our state legislators to protect those living within our borders, regardless of how they came to be here and where they live.

This issue is not about immigration, it is about dignity and compassion for those in our custody and under our care. Do for-profit facilities truly represent our interests in this state as New Mexicans? We think not. It is time for the New Mexico Legislature to make a change.

Maria Perez lives in Santa Fe. Marquette Gass lives in Las Cruces. They and several other contributors, listed below, are master’s of public health candidates at New Mexico State University. Contributors are Maria Garza, Regina Gonzalez, Melissa Miller, Alycia Mordaunt, Esther Ondieki, Danial Pattarozzi, Bonnie Rinkels, Amanda Stafford and Thomas Weems.