MANHATTAN (CN) - After criticism from the United Nations, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it is "taking action to investigate" reports that 16 gay and transgender detainees have been tortured in U.S. immigration prisons.
U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez first questioned the United States about the allegations August 2011. On Feb. 29, Mendez said that he "regrets" that the United States did not respond to his inquiry.
"Given the lack of any evidences to the contrary, the special rapporteur believes that the facts reveal that there have been various violations of the provisions under the Convention against Torture, in particular breach of articles 7 and 12," Mendez wrote in the 81-page "Report of the Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishments, Addendum, Observations on Communications Transmitted to Governments and Replies Received." The U.N. General Assembly report is dated Feb. 29.
Mendez's findings apparently did not register on the news radar because they coincided with his condemnation of the "cruel" and "inhuman" treatment of alleged Wikileaks source Bradley Manning
, who is being court-martialed.
In an email to Courthouse News, ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez said that the Department of Homeland Security responded to Mendez's initial communication and told him it would investigate.
"DHS's Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties responded to Mr. Mendez, advising him that the U.S. government is aware of the allegations and is taking action to investigate the complaints," Gonzalez wrote to Courthouse News. "ICE and DHS are committed to providing secure, safe and humane treatment for all of our detainees. The agency takes all allegations regarding the treatment of its detainees seriously."
The National Immigrant Justice Center complained
to the federal government in April 2011 that its clients had suffered sexual abuse, solitary confinement and withholding of HIV medication and hormone therapy.
One detainee, "T," claimed that a guard sexually assaulted her in solitary confinement, and another, "A," said the guards repeatedly called her a "faggot" and "made jokes about her dying of AIDS."
According to the NIJC letter to the Department of Homeland Security, "SD" said that guards refused to unshackle him during a doctor visit, so the nurse could safely draw blood for an HIV checkup: "Even though the nurses and doctors asked them, [explaining] that they could not withdraw blood like that, the officers from CCA [Corrections Corporation of America] didn't care, and they had to take blood from my hand, and even though I cried from pain, they didn't care," SD recounted, according to the complaint.
"M," a transgender asylum seeker, tried to kill herself in February 2011 because of depression she suffered because the immigration center stopped her hormone therapy, the complaint states. She says that she told the staff, "I can't even look at myself in the mirror anymore," because her facial and body hair was returning.
The National Immigrant Justice Center urged Homeland Security's Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to oversee immigration detention facilities, uphold constitutional standards and punish guards that violate them.
Mendez, the U.N. rapporteur, joined that request in his most recent communication.
"The Special Rapporteur calls on the [U.S.] Government to undertake a prompt and impartial investigation on the conditions of detention, solitary confinement and ill-treatment of the immigrants, prosecute and punish those responsible, and ensure that the victims obtain redress, including fair and adequate compensation, and as full rehabilitation as possible," Mendez wrote.
Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, a staff attorney for Lambda Legal
, told Courthouse News in an interview that the abuses are more distressing because the detainees are being held for alleged civil, not criminal, violations.
Though NIJC letter of complaint cited immigration facilities in Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin, Espinoza said the problems must be addressed nationwide.
"We want to highlight that we felt that these were systemic problems that needed to be addressed by the federal government at an administrative level," he said.
He said the federal government should insist that immigration prisons, public and private, must comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).
That law, enacted in 2003, was the first federal statute aimed at stopping sexual assault in U.S. prisons. Immigration centers have claimed they are exempt from it, as they report to Homeland Security, Espinoza-Madrigal said.
ICE declined to comment on the specifics of the allegations.
"Because the investigation is ongoing, we cannot comment on the specific details surrounding the case," Gonzalez wrote. He added: "ICE has been actively engaged in working to improve detention conditions and safeguard the equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, through a number of coordinated initiatives across DHS."
The proliferation of privately run immigration prisons that began in the 1980s during the wars in Central America intensified as the federal government embarked on a still-continuing campaign to privatize government services. The dozens of private immigration prisons that now dot the country are loosely regulated, and have been subject of frequent litigation, including allegations of heterosexual abuse from prison guards.