The Justice Lab at UW-Madison focuses on ending racial, economic, and health disparities across the rural-urban interface.

Health, Violence, & Immigrant Detention

As principal investigator of “Peeking Behind the Veil: Investigating Health and Violence in U.S. Immigrant Detention Centers”, I seek to understand how race and punishment intersect to produce health disparities in immigrant detention centers.

To date, we have found that punitive capacity (sexual assaults, physical assaults, dispersion of chemical weapons, disturbances, use of restraints, and SWAT deployment) predicts deaths, attempted suicides, and medical/psychiatric service referrals outside of the facility. Quite surprisingly, we also find that punitive capacity is unrelated to facility standards, access to legal counsel, and detainee grievances.

Because leaders across the political spectrum agree that mass imprisonment is inefficient, costly, and a chief purveyor of increased racial and economic inequality, there are increased calls for an end to mass imprisonment. In contrast, the U.S. detention system has grown five-fold while enshrouded in darkness behind a bureaucratic veil stitched together with indemnification clauses and laced with a host of other legal jargon.

We argue that detention, like imprisonment, is also a form of punishment despite being an administrative (non criminal) process for the purposes of deportation. While immigrants do have limited rights (and in some cases due process) in comparison to criminals, the power of detention is capriciously exercised over their daily lives making the detention center a site of vulnerability for marginalized populations.

In 2004, 32 people died in custody at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities marking the highpoint for migrant detainee deaths. In fact, between 2003-2015 over 150 deaths occurred across public and private ICE detention facilities. Despite the dangerous conditions, immigrant detention facilities routinely pass federal audits.

These facts point towards a few basic questions that we investigate in our initial piece, With Mass Deportation Come Mass Punishment, “in press” for publication in 2018 in the Routledge Handbook of Immigration and Crime:

1.) Given the non criminal nature of detainee violation, what is life like for the average immigrant detainee in the U.S.?

2.) What are the key characteristics in ICE facilities creating these conditions?

3.) What can immigrant detention centers teach us about health and racial stratification?

The exponential growth of the immigrant detention system has taken place along color coded lines as Latinos makeup nearly 90% of all border apprehensions, detentions, and removals from the U.S. At this critical juncture the U.S. detention center complex should be understood as racial project producing health disparities through violence.

With funding support from Texas A&M University over the past fifteen months I have worked with a team of researchers including colleagues David Hernandez of Mounty Holyoke College and Pat Rubio-Goldsmith of Texas A&M University, graduate/undergraduate students, and the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC).

Through NIJC we obtained novel data via the Freedom of Information Request of the Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agency. These data include two comprehensive audits and contracts of 116 of the largest ICE Immigrant detention centers from 2006 to 2012. Although there are roughly 250 ICE detention facilities, we have detailed information on the operation and management of facilities containing the vast majority of detainees.