Living Conditions in Immigration Detention Centers

There are nearly 200 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 at Immigration Detention Centers

In most cases, men and women are housed separately; although there are also a number of family detention facilities, which primarily house women and child asylum seekers. Some detention centers have immigration courts and asylum offices inside the same buildings.

Not only do detention centers feel like prisons, in many cases, they are actually housed in correctional facilities, which are either operated by the federal government, the state, or an outsourced private company. Also, until you are released on bond or "reasonable supervision" or are granted the right to remain lawfully in the U.S., you may 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, such as an application for asylum. Try to obtain as much information about the possibility for a bond hearing or to be released on a supervision order—your lawyer or a legal aid organization can help you with this.

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 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 most likely 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 video conferences.

Interactions With Staff at Immigration Detention Center

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 the demeanor of detention center staff are very limited.

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, and speak to your lawyer about them.

If you do not have an attorney, talk to representatives of charitable groups visiting 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.

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 and others 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.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 lawyer can visit you only during those times. (Different times may be set for family visits and lawyer visits.) In some facilities, 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.

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