Living Conditions in U.S. Immigration Detention Centers

What to expect, whether you fear being put into immigration detention, or have detained family members.

By , Attorney · Oklahoma City University School of Law

There are over 100 immigration detention centers in the United States, usually located far from major cities. These are largely overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

They are large facilities; some house several thousand detainees at any one time, in some cases mixing people who have criminal records with others who don't.

Here's an overview of what else to expect, whether you're someone who fears being put into immigration detention, or have detained family members.

Physical Surroundings at Immigration Detention Centers

In most immigration detention centers, men and women are housed separately. There are a number of family detention centers that primarily house women and children who are seeking asylum.

Some detention centers have immigration courts and asylum offices inside the building. Due to their remote location, however, some detention centers are far from immigration courts. As a result, instead of seeing the immigration judge or asylum officer in person, you might have interviews and hearings conducted through phone or video conferences.

Many immigration detention centers are actually located inside jails operated by the federal or state government, and hold immigration detainees with civil (not criminal) charges along with people who have been convicted or accused of crimes. Other centers hold only immigration detainees and are operated by private companies.

It is difficult to determine how long you will remain in the detention center. In some situations, ICE may give you a bond (an amount of money to pay to secure your release) or release you on certain conditions, such as appearing at ICE for check-ins or wearing an ankle monitor.

If ICE does not give you a bond, you might be eligible to apply for one with the immigration judge. If the immigration judge does not give you a bond, you will not be released until your immigration case is complete unless the immigration judge changes the decision. Do not let this discourage you. Instead, keep focusing on preparing a strong application in your defense, such as an application for asylum.

Living conditions are difficult at detention centers. You will likely be transported to a detention center in handcuffs and sometimes in shackles. Many of your personal belongings will be taken away, and you will be assigned a specific bed. In some facilities, the guards will refer to you based on the number of your bed or using your alien registration number ("A number").

You will likely have to wear a jumpsuit uniform, and 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 must stay next to your bed). During "count" times, you will not be able to meet with visitors. In many detention centers, if you are meeting with visitors or your attorney during mealtimes, you might not be provided with food later.

Interactions With Staff at Immigration Detention Center

The procedures for complaining about the demeanor of detention center staff are limited. If the staff are unresponsive or rude, do not take it personally.

However, if you have experienced abuse or serious mistreatment (such as lack of medical care, withholding medication, physical violence, sexual abuse, discrimination, unsanitary conditions, lack of a bed, 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. Then speak to your attorney about them.

Communicating With People Outside the Detention Center

It can be difficult and expensive to make phone calls from a detention center. Some provide phones with which to make free calls to designated legal aid groups and others allow detainees to make collect calls only (so that the person you are calling 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. A detainee cannot receive phone calls, but many facilities have procedures for leaving urgent messages in case of an emergency.

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

Each detention center has specified visiting hours and conditions for visiting guests. Your family, friends, and attorney can visit you only during those times. (Different times might be set for family visits and attorney visits.)

In some detention centers, you many see visitors only through a plastic window and speak to them through an intercom system. At others you will be permitted to meet across a table, but physical contact is usually prohibited or limited.

If you do not have an attorney, talk to representatives of charitable groups visiting the detention centers. These groups might be able to help connect you with an attorney—either one that you pay or one who volunteers to provide free services—which can be important in helping you figure out whether you are eligible for apply for a bond, to remain in the United States, or both.

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