Living Conditions in Immigration Detention Centers

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There are more than 180 immigration detention facilities in the United States, usually located far from major cities. Some house several thousand detainees at any one time, mixing aliens who have criminal records with others who don't. Here’s an overview of what else to expect.

Physical Surroundings

Men and women are housed separately; although there are a few facilities that allow families to be housed together. Some detention centers have immigration courts and asylum offices inside the same buildings.

Detention centers can feel like prisons, which can be very stressful and depressing. Also, until you obtain either “parole” release or are granted the right to remain lawfully in the U.S., you will not know for how long you will be detained. Do not let this discourage you. Instead, keep focusing on preparing a strong application in your defense; for example, for political asylum. Try to get moral support from your visitors, other detainees, your lawyer, and from charitable groups that visit detention centers.

Living conditions are difficult at detention centers. Remember that all detainees are treated similarly throughout the U.S., and that your treatment does not reflect the strength of your claim for relief. You will likely be transported to a detention center in handcuffs, and sometimes in shackles. Your personal belonging will be taken away from you, and you will be assigned a specific bed (the guards will then refer to you based on the number of your bed or using your alien registration number).

You will have to wear a jumpsuit uniform, and you will be guarded by uniformed officers. You will not be able to move around freely. You will sleep in a large room, with other detainees. Your privacy will be limited. Throughout the day, the guards will conduct several “counts” (during which you will be required to be next to your bed, while they are counting all the detainees). During “count” times, you will not be able to meet with visitors. Also, if you are meeting with visitors or your attorney during meal times, you might not be provided with food later.

Due to their remote location, some detention centers are far away from immigration courts. Instead of seeing your Immigration Judge, you might have any interviews and hearings conducted through videoconferences.

Interactions With Staff

The staff who work at detention centers can be unresponsive and even rude. As unpleasant as that is, do not take it personally. The procedures for complaining about your treatment are very limited.

However, if you have serious concerns (such as lack of medical care, physical violence, sexual abuse, unsanitary conditions, lack of water or food, segregation used as punishment, or being forced to sign documents) make notes of your grievances so you can later remember all the details, and speak to your lawyer about them. If you do not have an attorney, talk to representatives of charitable groups (which often visit the detention centers).

These groups may be able to help line you up with an attorney – either one that you pay or possible one who volunteers to provide free services – which can be important in helping you figure out whether you have a claim for relief and can possibly obtain the right to release and to remain in the United States.

Although detention centers have medical staff on site, they might not be responsive to your medical issues. Also, because there are no translators, you might have difficulty communicating your medical problems.

Communicating With People Outside the Detention Center

It might be difficult and expensive to make phone calls from a detention facility. Some provide phones with which to make free calls to designated legal-aid groups. They can be unreliable or difficult to use, however. Some allow detainees to make collect calls only (so that the recipient must agree to pay for the call before you are connected to them).

Making calls is easiest if you use a calling card. Phones are often located in public, loud areas. You might be prohibited from making international calls.

Receiving phone calls can be very difficult to arrange.

Mail delivery can be slow. Detention centers screen and inspect all incoming and outgoing mail.

Each detention center has specified visiting hours. Your family, friends, and lawyer can visit you only during those times. (Different times may be set for family visits and lawyer visits.) You will normally see visitors through a plastic window, and speak to them through an intercom system.

 

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