prison fence

Inadequate Mental Health Care in Detention Centers

By Vanessa Williams

prison fence

With the United States housing the largest prison population in the world, it is not surprising that the country maintains one of the largest immigration detention systems in the world as well. In 2016, it is estimated that there were nearly 360,000 immigrants detained in over 200 immigration detention centers across the nation.

As the number of immigrants detained has significantly increased, many human rights groups have protested inadequate medical care in detention centers. In 2017, Human Rights Watch and Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) issued a report, Systemic Indifference, to study medical care in U.S. immigrations detention centers. The study revealed that independent medical experts found numerous examples of substandard care, such as overreliance on unqualified medical staff, delays in emergency responses, and request for care unreasonably delayed.

Amid the inadequate medical care, the treatment of individuals with mental health conditions is another rising issue in immigrant detention centers. Accordingly, the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General issued a report in 2016 that found ICE struggles to hire and retain mental health providers for its detention centers. Thus, lacking in its ability to provide appropriate mental health care for immigrant detainees.

According to the report, ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) is responsible for providing proper medical treatment for detained individuals requiring mental health services. The study found there were two problems that made it difficult for IHSC to hire and retain mental health care providers: (1) offering salaries to compete with the private and public sectors and (2) retaining providers in rural and remote areas.

In May 2017, Jean Jimenez-Joseph hanged himself in his solitary confinement cell at the Stewart Detention Center in southwest Georgia. Stewart Detention is run by CoreCivic, a for-profit company that operates the center for ICE. Immediately following Jimenez’s death, Georgia Bureau of Investigation probed into the death to determine the cause of death.

The investigation ended recently and found that CoreCivic cut corners and evaded federal detention rules regarding the death of Jimenez. Despite repeatedly displaying suicidal behavior, Jimenez did not receive the medical attention needed and was placed in solitary confinement with a suicide hazard. A guard was later fired for falsifying logs depicting that he was checking Jimenez’s cell every half hour when he was not doing so.

Although this is an extreme case, detained individuals often do not receive proper mental health care while in detention centers. In the Systemic Indifference report mentioned above, Dr. John Rubel, a clinical psychologist that provided mental health care in a detention center for two years, noted that there was often one to two full-time staff members and one half-time member in the facility. He felt that it was impossible to provide the comprehensive mental health services required under IHSC policy with such a small number of staff.

Unfortunately, with a shortage of qualified mental health professionals, it is more likely that guards will treat detainees with mental health conditions improperly. Placing detainees in solitary confinement is a typical punishment, however this can be detrimental to individuals with mental health conditions.

Invisible in Isolation, a report by Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), found that solitary confinement often is used in lieu of mental health treatment and qualified mental health staff is rarely on-site. In the study, detainees shared that most detained individuals would not discuss their symptoms in fear that they would be placed in segregation. Most of the detainees interviewed for the study expressed that the facility in which they were detained did not have the capacity to properly care for individuals with mental health conditions.

With detention centers cutting corners and looking for ways to bypass regulations, it is evident that reform is needed to see improvements in mental health care in the facilities. ICE and IHSC have the authority to create stricter policies, but with limited resources it is unclear if this will be a possibility. Congress will have to implement legislation and more oversight to force the detention centers to comply with providing humane conditions for all detained individuals.