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NYCLU Report Documents Immigration Detainee Grievances at Varick Federal Detention Center

The New York Civil Liberties Union today released a whitepaper documenting immigrants’ stories of inadequate medical care and staff mistreatment at the Varick Federal Detention Center in Manhattan.

The New York Civil Liberties Union today released a whitepaper documenting immigrants’ stories of inadequate medical care and staff mistreatment at the Varick Federal Detention Center in Manhattan.

Voices from Varick: Detainee Grievances at New York City’s Only Federal Immigration Detention Facility, provides a snapshot of the inhumane and illegal conditions plaguing the federal immigration detention system – a patchwork of federal, state, county and private prisons. It analyzes a year’s worth of grievances filed by men being held at the Varick facility, which the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has announced will close on Friday. Varick detainees will be shipped to immigration detention centers that do not necessarily have a better track record of providing care.

“This whitepaper provides a voice to people who are victims of the federal government’s failure to adequately manage the nation’s immigration detention system,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “Nobody should be treated inhumanely or denied basic medical care while in U.S. custody. That’s not what America is about. The Obama administration must address this problem by issuing enforceable regulations to ensure that immigrants in detention are treated humanely.”

In August 2009, the NYCLU received a letter from a man being held at Varick saying that officials at the facility repeatedly failed to provide him treatment for severe dental and digestive problems. In response, the NYCLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request in August 2009 for records concerning detainee grievances. In October 2009, the federal government turned over 210 grievances filed by Varick detainees from August 2008 to August 2009. The grievances were filed by 176 different detainees, representing 186 unique complaints about conditions at Varick.

Inadequate medical care was the most common complaint, representing 34 percent of the grievances. Grievances alleging abusive treatment by staff were the second most common, accounting for 25 percent. The third most common complaint concerned diet or food services, representing 13 percent of the grievances.

Several of the medical care grievances are disturbing. For example:

  • Varick officials waited 10 months to schedule a dental appointment for a detainee suffering an abscessed tooth. By the time the detainee had a dental exam, the infection had spread to seven teeth. The dentist recommended pulling all seven teeth. At his own expense, the detainee visited a private dentist, who determined that a series of root canals would address the problem. The government refused to authorize this less invasive treatment. After 16 months, the detainee’s teeth still have not been treated, causing him extreme pain and compromising his health.
  • A detainee in extreme pain from prostate cancer requested a doctor’s appointment. Three weeks later, Varick staff still had not scheduled an appointment even though the man complained of extreme pain and difficulty urinating. It is unclear whether the detainee ever received the requested appointment.
  • A detainee complained that his prosthetic leg caused pain and bleeding when he attempted to wear it. Varick officials consulted a private vendor, who determined that the artificial leg should be replaced. They informed the detainee of their intentions to request a replacement for him, but three months later the detainee had yet to receive a new prosthetic limb.

On Jan. 14, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced plans to close Varick by the end of February and transfer detainees to Hudson County Correctional Center in Kearney, New Jersey. The Hudson County facility has its own share of problems, including reports of detainee abuse and a lack of standards governing detainees’ access to legal services, recreation or visitation.

“Closing Varick won’t solve the problems documented in our whitepaper because inhumane conditions exist in immigration detention facilities throughout the nation,” said Udi Ofer, NYCLU advocacy director. “We hope that federal immigration officials will heed the voices of the Varick detainees and improve conditions of confinement for the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children in immigration detention in the United States.”

The NYCLU’s top recommendation for the future of the Varick detainees and beyond is for the federal government to enact enforceable, legally-binding regulations governing conditions of confinement throughout the immigration detention system. The problems documented in the NYCLU’s whitepaper are a product of an immigration detention system that holds close to 400,000 people every year, yet is not governed by enforceable regulations.

“The New York Civil Liberties Union has done a commendable job bringing to light many injustices at the Varick Detention Center,” said New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. “All New Yorkers deserve basic protections that our rule of law provides. The Strong Standards Act, which I co-sponsored, requires humane treatment of immigrant detainees and prevents unwarranted deaths and abuse by providing access to counsel, basic medical care, and appropriate protections for New Yorkers with serious health conditions. In the past, I have expressed concern that the closure of Varick would undermine detainees’ access to counsel and am working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to ensure that detainees moving out of the city are able to see their attorneys.”

The NYCLU’s whitepaper also recommends that the federal government:

  • Expand alternatives to detention for individuals who do not pose a risk to others. Possible alternatives for detention include supervised release, in-person reporting, home visits and community supervision.
  • Release eligible detainees. DHS should engage in a case-by-case review of detention decisions for each detainee held at Varick and determine whether that detainee is eligible for release.
  • Ensure that any changes to the placement of Varick detainees be done in a way that allows detainees access to legal counsel and their families.
  • Improve grievance procedures to allow for better record-keeping and tracking of recurring complaints that should trigger heightened scrutiny by immigration officials.
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