8/7/09 The New York Times – Detention Reform
August 7, 2009
Editorial, The New York Times
The Obama administration on Thursday announced major steps to overhaul immigration detention. It is good news, considering how bad the system has gotten, having grown quickly and without oversight into a sprawling network of ill-managed prisons rife with reports of abuse, injury and preventable death.
The head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, John Morton, said he wanted to turn immigration detention, which holds about 32,000 people a day, and 400,000 a year, into a “truly civil detention system,” one focused on safely and humanely holding people accused of civil immigration violations until they are deported or released. The current conglomeration of private, for-profit lockups and state and county jails is run more like a system to warehouse and punish dangerous criminals, which immigration violators overwhelmingly are not.
The announced reforms include creating offices and advisory boards to focus on medical care and the management of centers, reviewing contracts with private prisons and local jails, and installing managers at the 23 largest centers to make sure complaints are heard and problems fixed. Centers will face random inspections. Community groups and immigrant advocates will be invited to offer advice and comment. And the government will stop sending parents with children to a notorious prison near Austin, Tex., as it seeks alternatives to the Bush-era tactic of putting whole families behind bars.
It is past time to impose accountability and oversight on a system that puts little children in prison scrubs, that regularly denies detainees basic needs, like contact with lawyers and loved ones, like soap and sanitary napkins. It is a system where people who are not dangerous criminals by any definition get injured, sick and die without timely medical care.
It is not clear yet how soon the changes will be felt. Nor is it evident whether the new systems of accountability within the federal bureaucracy will allow for adequate outside scrutiny, as new complaints and violations emerge. It is not clear what this means for continuing outrages, like those documented by immigrant advocates at a center in Basile, La., where detainees have waged hunger strikes to get their grievances heard.
For all that, it is hard not to be encouraged by the changes that Mr. Morton outlined this week. They could be the first steps in a long journey away from insanity. We will never finally get there, of course, without a wholly reformed immigration system — one that has enough visas for workers to enter legally, one that allows the undocumented to pay their debt to society and live openly as neighbors and citizens. In a system like that, it will become utterly unnecessary to catch and lock up 400,000 people a year.