Conditions in Immigration Detention

Conditions in Detention

The United States, through the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), has increased the use of civil detention for noncitizens at an alarming rate since the expansion of mandatory detention in 1996 . The growth in detention has resulted in often egregious conditions of confinement, such as grossly inadequate health care, physical and sexual abuse, overcrowding, discrimination, and racism. NGOs frequently receive widespread complaints from detainees and their loved ones regarding problems such as lack of access to necessary medications for persons with chronic illnesses; lack of proper nutrition and recreation; shackling; use of segregation or tasers for disciplinary purposes; inability to visit with family members and problems with access to telephones. Access to legal aid is also highly restricted in most detention situations, leaving detainees at a severe disadvantage in making a case for release or asylum.

From “Conditions of Confinement in Immigration Detention Facilities,” briefing to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, by Sunita Patel and Tom Jawetz, March 2008.

ICE Detention Standards

Currently, ICE operates under standards contained in the Detention Operations Manual, which were developed under the former Immigration and Naturalization Service in September, 2000.Thirty-eight standards outline appropriate and permissible conditions for the treatment and care of detained immigrants. While creation of national detention standards was an important first step to ensuring safe and humane treatment of immigration detainees, the standards have proven to be of limited effectiveness for many detainees. Compliance with the standards is mandatory for a limited number of ICE detention facilities, but detainees held in the many private, state and local prisons and jails which serve as immigration detention facilities are not protected by these guidelines.

The 2006 version of these standards can be viewed here.

Despite the existence of these standards and oversight mechanisms that are in place, problems with detention conditions still persist and many complaints to ICE go unaddressed.

On September 12, 2008, ICE announced the publication of forty-one (41) new Performance-Based National Detention Standards. The enhanced standards are scheduled to take full effect in all facilities housing ICE detainees by January, 2010. DHS has converted the detention standards into a performance-based tool format in order to improve the accuracy and credibility of facility performance ratings to match the standards of the corrections industry. However, the standards remain mere guidelines for which ICE cannot be held accountable through recourse to the courts. The standards will only be fully enforceable if and when they are codified into law.

The 2008 Performance-Based National Detention Standards can be viewed here.

Efforts to Improve Detention Standards


Advocates continue to push for improvements of detention conditions with limited success. Progress that has been made includes:

  • An individual complaint process where people can submit complaints up the ICE chain of command. Click here to learn about the official process for Making Complaints.
  • Advocates continue to engage in liaison meetings with ICE representatives on the local level.
  • NGOs have regularly engaged in national administrative advocacy with ICE to try to discuss and resolve issues of concern.


Despite the standards set forth by the NDS, reports of systematic abuse and harsh conditions persist across the nation. In January 2007, the National Immigration Project, Families for Freedom, and two former detained immigrants submitted a petition to the Department of Homeland Security requesting the development of federally-mandated detention regulations. According to the petition, grave inconsistencies at various detention sites exist due to the lack of uniform application of binding detention standards. The petition was left unanswered for more than one year, and the parties subsequently filed a lawsuit against DHS on April 30, 2008 to compel ICE to take action.


Several bills have recently been introduced in Congress that address conditions in immigration detention. Legislative efforts to improve detention standards include:

  • The creation of enforceable standards with an oversight mechanism
  • More focus on alternatives to detention
  • Protections for minors in ICE custody
  • Protections for parents of U.S. citizen children
  • Basic medical care standards for detainees
  • Legal Orientation Programs (LOPs) in all detention facilities
  • Assurance of due process rights for detainees
  • Mandatory reporting of deaths that occur in detention facilities

Find out how to take action to help support legislation: Educate Congress

Examples of Problems with Detention Conditions

On December 10, 2008, International Human Rights Day, the ACLU released a report on harsh detention conditions in the state of Massachusetts titled "Detention and Deportation in the Age of ICE." documenting inadequate medical care, harassment, and overcrowding. Included in the report are personal testimonies from direct interviews with 40 detainees, plus correspondence from 30 other inmates, advocates and lawyers, and government documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.

Download the full report here.

Read testimonies of personal experiences of detainees and their loved ones through DWN's Story Project.

Deaths in Detention

Since 2003, there have been 111 reported deaths in immigration detention. Between 2004 and 2007 there were 14 deaths, and in 2003 there were 90 deaths reported. A list of reported deaths while in ICE custody can be found here:

Many of these deaths have been caused by a lack of timely and thorough medical care, and nearly one fifth of them have been suicides.

Click here for a special Washington Post report from Spring 2008 mapping deaths in detention, and here for a series of New York Times articles on in-custody deaths.

DWN member Breakthrough dedicates an interactive website Homeland Guantanamos to the memory of those who have died in immigration custody and provides a video game as a learning tool to explore conditions inside detention facilities.

Information on this page was contributed by the Center for Immigrants Rights at Penn State University Law School.