Although experiences vary across detention centers, clients have described particularly troubling treatment when detained in the custody of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at the U.S. Southern border. According to Dr. Adaobi Iheduru, clinic manager and psychologist at CVT Georgia, nearly all of CVT’s clients who arrived via the U.S. Southern border were detained. Many have recounted horrific experiences while in detention including receiving inadequate food and water, as well as unresponsiveness to requests for medical care.
Many of the people arriving at U.S. borders have already survived deeply traumatic experiences. Indeed, as noted previously, per CVT’s own research, as many as 44 percent of refugees living in the U.S. are torture survivors. Other studies indicate a similar torture prevalence rate among forced migrants in high income countries. Harsh treatment exacerbates these harms and inflicts new ones.
Policies and practices in recent years have made the Southern U.S. border especially hostile for asylum seekers:
In recent years, torture survivors held in detention were forced to cope with the additional threat of COVID-19, which spread rapidly throughout Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities nationwide. Survivors and others held in these facilities pled for better health and safety protections, including face masks, soap and improved social distancing. At the height of the pandemic, there were hunger strikes and protests met with tear gas and rubber bullets.
Georgia, where CVT extends care to survivors, is home to some of the nation’s largest and most trouble-plagued detention facilities, including Stewart Detention Center and the Irwin County Detention Center. The facilities have long histories of medical staff shortages, inadequate health care and unsanitary conditions that have endangered people long before the current pandemic and continue today. There were hundreds of confirmed COVID-19 cases at ICE facilities in Georgia alone and, at Stewart, individuals died from the disease, including two men who were medically vulnerable to the virus, due to their older age and underlying illness, and were still not protected or released.
In September 2020, a nurse at Irwin and several detained women alleged a pattern of gross medical abuse and neglect at that facility that shocked the nation, including reports that women were subjected to unnecessary hysterectomies and other gynecological procedures without their informed consent. The allegations implicate the United States’ obligations under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. As past United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, made clear, “medical treatments of an intrusive and irreversible nature, when lacking a therapeutic purpose, may constitute torture or ill-treatment when enforced or administered without the free and informed consent of the person concerned.”
As of December 2021, the Biden administration discontinued the practice of detaining families in ICE facilities for periods beyond the initial custody by CBP of 72 hours. The shift goes along with an increase in the use of “tracking technology” by ICE, which includes the use of ankle bracelets.