Alien Detention Standards:

Observations on the Adherence to ICE's Medical Standards in Detention Facilities

GAO-08-869T: Published: Jun 4, 2008. Publicly Released: Jun 4, 2008.

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In fiscal year 2007, Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained over 311,000 aliens, with an average daily population of over 30,000 and an average length of stay of about 37 days in one of approximately 300 facilities. The care and treatment of aliens while in detention is a significant challenge to ICE, as concerns continue to be raised by members of Congress and advocacy groups about the treatment of the growing number of aliens while in ICE's custody. This testimony focuses on (1) the extent to which 23 facilities complied with medical care standards, (2) deficiencies found during ICE's annual compliance inspection reviews, and (3) the types of complaints filed by alien detainees about detention conditions. This testimony is based on GAO's July 2007 report evaluating, among other things, the extent to which 23 facilities complied with aspects of eight of ICE's 38 National Detention Standards. This report did not address quality of care issues.

At the time of its visits, GAO observed instances of noncompliance with ICE's medical care standards at 3 of the 23 facilities visited. These instances related to staff not administering a mandatory 14-day physical exam to approximately 260 detainees, not administering medical screenings immediately upon admission, and first aid kits not being available as required. However, these instances did not show a pervasive or persistent pattern of noncompliance across all 23 facilities. Officials at some facilities told GAO that meeting the specialized medical and mental health needs of detainees had been challenging, citing difficulties they had experienced in obtaining ICE approval for outside nonroutine medical and mental health care. On the other hand, GAO observed instances where detainees were receiving specialized care at the facilities visited. At the time of its study, GAO reviewed the most recently available ICE annual inspection reports for 20 of the 23 detention facilities that it visited; these reports showed that ICE reviewers had identified a total of 59 instances of noncompliance with National Detention Standards, 4 of which involved medical care. One facility had sick call request forms that were available only in English whereas the population was largely Spanish speaking. Another did not maintain alien medical records on-site. One facility's staff failed to obtain informed consent from the detainee when prescribing psychiatric medication. Finally, another facility did not have medical staff on-site to screen detainees arriving after 5 p.m. and did not have a properly locked medical cabinet. GAO did not determine whether these instances of noncompliance were subsequently corrected as required. The types of grievances at the facilities GAO visited typically included the lack of timely response to requests for medical treatment, missing property, high commissary prices, poor food quality and insufficient food quantity, high telephone costs, problems with telephones, and questions concerning detention case management issues. ICE's detainee grievance standard states that facilities shall establish and implement procedures for informal and formal resolution of detainee grievances. Four of the 23 facilities GAO visited did not comply with all aspects of ICE's detainee grievance standards. For example, one facility did not properly log all grievances that GAO found in their facility files. Detainee complaints may also be filed with several governmental and nongovernmental organizations. The primary way for detainees to file complaints is to contact the DHS Office of Inspector General (OIG). About 11 percent of detainee complaints to the OIG between 2005 and 2006 involved medical treatment issues. However, we found that the OIG complaint hotline 1-800 number was blocked or otherwise restricted at 12 of the facilities we tested. OIG investigates the most serious complaints and refers the remainder to other DHS components. GAO could not determine the number of cases referred to ICE's Detention Removal Office and concluded that ICE's detainee complaint database was not sufficiently reliable.

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