As the Trump presidency draws to an end, leaving behind it the cruel chaos of a revved up immigration detention and deportation machine that was already sowing terror long before he arrived, we teamed up with Advocate Visitors with Immigrants in Detention (AVID) to take a close look at conditions in Otero County Processing Center (OCPC), an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in New Mexico operated by the for-profit prison company Management and Training Corporation (MTC). Cover page for Process for Torment.

The resulting report is entitled Process by Torment: Immigration Experiences of Persons Detained at the Otero County Processing Center. We found a shockingly high rate of complaints, conditions and violations consistent with definitions of torture, and a clear picture of “performative compliance” by which ICE and the private prison operator systematically underreport complaints, conducting inspections that serve merely to conceal, perpetuate, and legitimize rampant abuse. 

The data 

Between August 2019 and June 2020, attorneys and volunteers with the El Paso Immigration Collaborative (EPIC) spoke to 232 individuals detained at OCPC. 153 of those individuals, from sixteen different countries and speaking eight different languages, registered 259 concerns, ranging from medical neglect, due process violations and inhumane CBP conditions to family separation, negative consequences of the “MPP” or “Remain in Mexico” program, and retaliatory solitary confinement for peaceful protest, to name just a few.

Immigration Detention is Literally Torture.

At this point, many people have heard of the “hieleras” or “ice-boxes” on the US’ southern border. These temporary holding facilities run by Customs and Border Protection are notoriously cold, unsanitary, and cruel. 36 of the people whose interviews with EPIC volunteers were included in  this report complained about conditions in the hieleras, describing sleeping in shifts, on the floor, in extremely cold temperatures, with extreme overcrowding (100 people in a space with a capacity for 44), for many days, even weeks. The data in this report show that people in 2019 were being held in hieleras on average seven times as long as they were between 2011 and 2015. These conditions are consistent with definitions of torture and constitute a form of “clean torture” that causes physical harm even if it produces no immediately-visible physical marks.Quotes describing how ICE and CBP detention amount to torture.

Problems reported by individuals detained in ICE custody at OCPC are wide ranging, including medical negligence resulting in physical and mental health problems, legal issues such as impediments to due process, language barriers, solitary confinement, discrimination in the form of racism and homophobia, and retaliation against protesters. 

In the report, the authors review various definitions of torture, including the definitions in Article 1 of the Convention Against Torture, Title 18 of the US Federal Code, and guidance from the US Attorney General’s Office of Legal Council. The experiences of detained individuals summarized in this report affirm the conclusion that immigration detention — in both ICE custody and CBP custody — is inherently torturous.

ICE Inspections Result in Performative Compliance.

Federal immigration detention centers are supposed to comply with certain standards, and according to ICE’s own evaluations of its facilities they are virtually problem free, detained people feel safe, and staff are professional. It turns out, however, that what’s presented as compliance is a lot of smoke and mirrors hiding rampant violations.

66% of the persons detained at OCPC who were interviewed by EPIC volunteers reported some type of concern. Many of those concerns, as described above, involve situations that amount to torture. Others are egregious violations such as being detained for 90 days with no court proceedings, or lack of mental health care compounded by other abuses progressing to the point of suicide attempts. 

Data about complaint rates.
Data visualization from report

Unfortunately, the official oversight mechanisms that exist to enforce standards at immigration detention consistently fail to or avoid documenting or addressing the levels of abuse that exist at facilities including OCPC. An inspection prepared by ICE and the private inspection contractor Nakomoto Group reported that only 4-8% of detained individuals registered a complaint, a tiny fraction of the complaints identified by EPIC volunteers. Even ICE’s Office of Detention Oversight, which the DHS Office of the Inspector General considers more thorough than private contractors, found only 30% of people had complaints. That’s less than half of EPIC’s 66%, and AVID has separate data indicating as many as 78%, or nearly four out of five, detained individuals report complaints. This is even more alarming considering it is likely a conservative estimate of the level of abuse, as the legal interviews conducted by EPIC are not primarily designed to gather data about complaints or detention conditions.

ICE inspections conceal true levels of abuse and create the illusion that detention centers are conforming to the “agreed” rules of contract delivery. Far from ensuring humane treatment, they serve to perpetuate a violent, abusive system, throughout all immigration detention centers, not just at OCPC. The performative compliance of the ICE inspections regime is part of why immigration detention is not only torturous but also impervious to reform.

Immigration detention is unnecessary and costly.

Despite disagreeing with the abuse committed at immigration detention centers, some people might be asking, “but isn’t some form of detention necessary to prevent people from disappearing into the US?” In order to address this question it’s useful to review the stated purpose of immigration detention.graph showing distribution of types of abuse

The purported goals of immigration detention are (1) to ensure that people show up to their immigration court hearings and (2) facilitate removal of those who have been ordered removed and have no other legal remedies.  As documented in Process by Torment, coercive tactics and unchecked authority in immigration detention results in its nature being, in fact, to impede access to counsel, impose barriers to available legal remedies and prioritize deportation over due process. Consequently, ICE constantly denies release from detention for people who have shown they are neither a flight risk nor a threat to security.

In addition to being unnecessary, immigration detention is extremely costly. In order to maintain the incarceration of tens of thousands of immigrants throughout the year, US taxpayers spend billions of dollars on detention centers that have no effective oversight and report rampant abuse. Much of that money goes to private, for-profit prison operators like MTC at the Otero County Processing Center. Other private prison giants include GEO Group and CoreCivic, which spend millions on lobbying in Congress and state legislatures throughout the country to promote criminalization and incarceration, motivated exclusively by profit, not by public safety or a humane immigration system.

OCPC Is Not a “Bad Apple.” Abuse There Is Part of a Pattern.

The findings in our report, while striking, are unfortunately not unique. Independent investigations at other ICE and CBP facilities throughout the US have repeatedly found disturbing instances of abuse that have gone unaddressed by the agencies and contractors responsible for them.

Immigration detention amounts to torture and cannot be reformed. As the report concludes, “it is our duty to end these costly, unnecessary and torturous forms of detention.”

We encourage you to read, as well, an article written by investigative reporter Ryan Devereaux and published by The Intercept, entitled “Theater of Compliance”: New Report Details How ICE Escapes Detention Center Oversight, which highlights our report.Quote about immigration detention being inherently torturous with desert landscape in background.