Originally Published in The Washington Post
Nick Miroff - October 30, 2020
Investigators found the facility “did not meet the standards for detainee searches, food service and records requirements for segregation and medical services,” according to the report. “We determined HCDC excessively strip searched ICE detainees leaving their housing unit to attend activities within the facility, in violation of ICE detention standards and the facility’s own search policy.”
The treatment of immigrant detainees in ICE custody has generated increased scrutiny under President Trump, as deaths in detention have increased, along with incidents of medical neglect and potential abuse. Dozens of women in ICE custody in Georgia have said they were victims of unnecessary or invasive gynecological procedures, allegations that the DHS Inspector General’s office is also investigating.
DHS this week announced the appointment of a new ombudsman for immigration detention, after House Democrats demanded increased oversight and accountability.
The Howard County jail is one of about 200 facilities that hold immigrants facing deportation, typically housing ICE detainees from the Baltimore and Washington metro areas. The detainees included those ICE designates as “high custody” and “low custody,” paying Howard County $110 a day per person.
There were 61 ICE detainees held at the facility when OIG inspectors made their visit on Dec. 17, 2019, according to the report, all of them designated “low custody.” The investigators found the low custody detainees were being routinely subjected to strip-searches, including one man who was forced to disrobe and submit to searches 13 times.
“Low custody detainees at HCDC are routinely strip searched without documented reasonable suspicion and supervisory approval,” the report found, citing logs showing 35 strip searches between August and December 2019.
ICE officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
Jack Kavanagh, the director of the jail, said the facility is taking corrective action to address some of the report’s concerns, but said authorities found no “life or safety deficiencies.”
“There’s nothing of real significance that puts anybody’s safety at risk,” Kavanagh said in an interview. “No lack of proper medical care. These are things we’ve put a corrective action plan on and they should be rectified in the very near future.”
But Kavanagh also said his facility would not change its strip-search practices, because contraband smuggling remains a major vulnerability.
“We’re not changing our policy on that,” he said. “We’ve had attorneys here give contraband to inmates. We’ve told [ICE] that’s a critical safety issue for us.”
The report notes that contraband smuggling is a concern at the jail because “low custody detainees are housed with county inmates who are allowed to leave the facility for work release.”
Kavanagh said the body cavity searches were needed to ensure ICE detainees who leave the facility on work release do not return with contraband.
“No correctional administrator in this country would allow low-security inmates to go into a high-security facility without being searched,” he said. “We tell officers to be respectful.”
The disagreement about strip-search practices is something ICE will have to work out with the Inspector General, Kavanagh said. Because of pandemic-related changes, the jail no longer has low-custody ICE detainees, he said. Kavanagh said the facility has 20 high-custody ICE detainees, with a maximum capacity of 24.
ICE has jailed a record number of immigrants under the Trump administration, holding an average of more than 50,000 in custody per day during 2019. The agency has reduced that number by about half since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, but outbreaks have flared at several facilities and nearly 7,000 detainees have tested positive so far.