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Conditions of Detention

What type of place is an immigration detention center?  What can my loved one expect there as an LGBT person?

Generally speaking, immigration detention centers are jails or jail-like facilities in which Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) confines certain immigrants before, during, and after their removal proceedings.  Nearly all ICE detention facilities were built as jails or prisons designed to house people with criminal backgrounds, rather than those with noncriminal immigration violations.
LGBT immigrants in detention today face grim prospects. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual detainees are often harassed and threatened because of their sexual orientation. The overall lack of adequate health care means that LGBT people who require a regular regimen of HIV medication or hormone therapy simply do not receive proper care. Transgender people are almost always detained in sex-segregated facilities contrary to their gender identity. Citing safety reasons, ICE often places transgender detainees in “administrative segregation,” which can mean total isolation for up to twenty-three hours a day without access to library resources, recreation, or attorneys. Regardless of its motivation, ICE’s administrative segregation is alarmingly similar to prison punitive measures like solitary confinement.

These conditions are particularly serious for detained LGBT asylum seekers, who fear persecution based on their gender identity or sexual orientation in their home country. As U.S. immigration law does not guarantee immigrants free legal representation in removal proceedings, so detained individuals have a much harder time proving their cases.

Can I visit my loved one in detention?

You should only try to visit your loved one in detention if you are lawfully present in the United States. This does not mean that you must be a citizen or a green card holder to visit a loved one in detention, but you should have some form of currently valid immigration status at the time you visit the detainee. A detention center will likely deny your visit request unless you can show valid I.D. and offer proof that you are lawfully in the United States. More importantly, people without valid immigration status who try to visit a loved one in detention may themselves be detained by immigration officials, and be put into removal proceedings.

Different detention centers have different visitation policies. Commonly, detainees are allowed a limited number of visitors during visiting hours on certain days of the week. Some, but not many, detention centers allow “contact visits,” where you are permitted to meet with the detainee in the same room and hug, hold hands, and have other physical contact with him. However, more often, visitors are permitted only “non-contact” visits in which they must talk to their loved ones through plexiglass windows, or by videophone. You should contact the detention center at which your loved one is detained to find out which type of visit you will be allowed to have.

One common visitation policy at detention centers is to schedule visiting hours for detainees based on the first letter of the detainee’s last name. Before visiting a detainee, you should make certain you know the official name under which the person is registered at the detention center. If your loved one used a different name or if the detention center misspelled his name in the computer, you may be denied access if you visit on a day that the officers say doesn’t match his name.

LGBT detainees who fear sexual or physical violence in detention are commonly placed in a form of solitary confinement known as “administrative segregation” or “protective custody,” either automatically or by the request of the detainee. Transgender detainees are especially likely to be housed in “administrative segregation” because ICE officials don’t know how to safely house them in the general population. Detention centers generally place further restrictions on visiting policy for detainees in administrative segregation, which can severely limit how often and for how long you will be allowed to meet with your loved one.
You should call the detention facility at which your loved one is detained to find out what visitation restrictions apply.

What Are Some of the Issues Faced by LGBT People in Immigration Detention?

Immigration Equality frequently hears from LGBT people who face unique difficulties while detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). We have heard from individuals who have been harassed, called names, and even assaulted by other detainees or guards simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Transgender detainees are particularly vulnerable when detained.  They are often housed inappropriately and dangerously and they are often denied necessary transition-related medical care.

How Does ICE Decide with Whom to House a Transgender Person?

Immigration detention centers are supposed to ensure the safety and care of detainees in their custody. To determine gender housing classification, detention facilities currently use the individual’s gender marker on identification documents and physical anatomy instead of relying on their self-identification.

Some facilities house transgender individuals in special management units also known as LGBT pods. But, more often transgender women are housed in male facilities where they are at increased risk of assault, discrimination and harassment. A facility may also place a transgender person in administrative segregation or an isolation cell, where she will spend as much as 23 hours a day alone and deprived of recreation, access to law libraries, phones and other services.

Segregating transgender individuals can increase feelings of helplessness in detention, and result in depression and increased risk of self-harm, which is why Immigration Equality continues to advocate for a nationwide detention policy that would result in more humane housing conditions for transgender detainees, taking into account the individual’s self-identity and ensuring that they are not harassed, subject to unwarranted strip searches and undue extra-surveillance or isolation, abuse or discrimination while in detention. We are also advocating for a broad policy of release for transgender individuals given that their health and safety under current detention policies and practices is not being ensured.

I am a transgender woman in immigration detention. To ensure my safety, should I request protective custody?

Transgender people can understandably feel unsafe in detention. Those who have taken steps to transition may be more readily identifiable as targets for sexual or physical violence. While it may seem a perfectly natural response to request added protection from detention staff, transgender detainees should be aware of the risks involved.

ICE sometimes places transgender individuals in a form of protective custody known as “administrative segregation,” which is essentially a form of solitary confinement. Some detention centers automatically place transgender people in administrative segregation. Other centers may do so only at the detainee’s request, or if the detainee has been the victim of physical attacks or threats from other detainees.

Administrative segregation can mean being isolated in one’s cell for 23 hours a day with only one hour for recreation, bathing, and making phone calls. While this may ensure safety from physical harm by other detainees, the oppressive isolation and lack of outdoor time can create extreme stress, anxiety, and depression. Also being in segregation may make detainees more vulnerable to mistreatment by facility staff. Immigration Equality routinely informs transgender detainees in administrative segregation that expressing such feelings can lead to being placed on suicide watch, which paradoxically, can mean 24 daily hours of isolation.

Once placed in administrative segregation, it is extremely difficult to get out. If your mistreatment comes in part from detention employees, administrative segregation can potentially increase your feelings of helplessness by limiting all interpersonal contact to interactions with guards. Transgender detainees faced with the tough choice between solitary confinement and risking physical and sexual violence should consider these factors in making this difficult decision.

My loved one was picked up by immigration authorities in New York City, but ICE moved him to detention in Louisiana shortly afterwards. It is now nearly impossible for me to see him or speak to him. Why did this happen?

Although a large number of immigrants who are put in detention live in major metropolitan areas, ICE detention facilities in urban areas are often overcrowded and more costly to run. ICE often transfers detainees to detention centers in more rural areas where space and cost are less pressing issues. This has the adverse effect of separating detained immigrants from their families and loved ones by hundreds or even thousands of miles, as well as making it substantially more difficult for detained immigrants to obtain legal counsel of their choice.

It is thus extremely important that detainees contact and if possible retain an attorney quickly after being detained. Detainees are much less likely to be removed from a facility close to home if they have legal representation there.

I am a detainee who has been transferred from my home in New York to a detention facility in Louisiana. Is there any way I can have my case heard back in New York close to my family and friends and resources with which I am familiar?

You or your attorney may request a change in venue, and an immigration court may grant or deny your request. In deciding whether or not to grant the change in venue, the court will consider where the evidence you or your attorney needs to support your claim in your removal case is located. If witnesses or records are in another state and are not easily accessed, the court is more likely to grant the change in venue.

To obtain a change in venue, your attorney must submit a motion to the court that lists the address of where you are detained, and the reason why you are seeking the change in venue. Some judges regularly grant these motions and others regularly deny them.

My Client is a Transgender Woman Who Needs a Bra, Is She Entitled to Have One?

One of the indignities of housing transgender women in male facilities is that they are often not given appropriate undergarments.  When an individual enters immigration detention, they are stripped of their own clothes and given jumpsuits, socks, gender appropriate underwear and provided with some personal hygiene products like soap and a towel.  Transgender women, who may have taken hormones to augment the size of breast tissue or who have had breast augmentation surgery, may need a bra but are often told they cannot get one or that they must pay for the bra themselves.

Immigration Equality continues to advocate with ICE and other government agencies to ensure that transgender detainees are treated with dignity and respect and we continue to bring up the issue of appropriate undergarments for transgender detainees in our advocacy work.

My Partner Is a Transgender Man Who Was not Taking Hormones before Being Detained, Can He Get Them now?

Detention facilities have an obligation to provide medically necessary treatment to the detainee population notwithstanding prior medical treatments.  Nonetheless, for individuals with Gender Identity Disorder (GID), we have found that medical staff at detention facilities do not screen for or evaluate the need for transition-related care, such as hormone therapy.  Many detention facilities follow an inhumane policy, also known as the “freeze frame” approach, to treating GID, which continues the course of treatment that the individual was receiving prior to detention.  Due to the increased stressors that detainees live under, even if an individual did not take hormones or struggled with their GID before entering detention, their experience in detention may lead them to experience more intense feelings of gender discordance and necessitate treatment.

If a transgender detainee is housed in a pod with other transgender detainees, receiving hormone therapy and treatment for GID is more likely.  However, if your partner is not in an LGBT pod, then he is not likely to receive hormone therapy unless he can prove through a prescription or doctor’s letter that he received hormone therapy prior to entering detention.  He may also be asked to pay for the hormone treatments on his own.

If you are concerned about your partner’s well-being, you should encourage him to contact our office so we can evaluate his situation and advocate for him to receive appropriate medical care in detention.  Until all transgender detainee health care needs are met, Immigration Equality will continue to advocate for better medical care for transgender detainees including proper screening, evaluation and treatment for GID.

What Should I Do if a Loved One Is Being Treated Badly while in ICE Detention?

Any incident of abuse, harassment or discrimination should be reported to detention staff immediately.  See our Filing a Complaint page for more information.