ACLU Calls Passage of Deaths in Custody Bill a Step in the Right Direction

January 23, 2008 12:00 am

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Legislation helps detainees but does not mandate transparency in federal immigration facilities


Washington, DC – The American Civil Liberties Union today supported a bill passed by the House that compels officials to report deaths of prisoners and immigration detainees in local and state custody. The Deaths in Custody Reporting Act, introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), demands accountability and transparency from state and local agencies, where most immigration detainees are held, when people die in custody. The bill does not, however, apply to deaths in federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities.

This law would require deaths in state and local custody, including deaths of immigration detainees, to be reported to the attorney general. Previously, non-governmental organizations have relied on word-of-mouth and media accounts to find out about deaths of immigrants in detention. At least 66 immigrants have died in custody since 2004; a significant number of those deaths were in federal custody and would not be reported pursuant to this bill.

“We have been unable to rely on authorities to consistently report on deaths in immigration custody, and dozens of deaths in detention have been swept under the rug,” said Tom Jawetz, immigration detention staff attorney for the ACLU National Prison Project. “This bill is a step in the right direction to make sure these deaths are brought to light. But Congress should not stop here. The responsibility for tracking and reporting on all deaths that occur in ICE custody – wherever detainees are held – lies with ICE.”

The ACLU is working with Rep. Scott to improve government transparency, and the organization has worked with several family members whose relatives died in ICE custody, including June Everett, who testified before the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security in October about the death of her sister, Sandra Kenley. Over 275,000 people are held in immigration detention each year, where they wait to find out whether they are allowed to stay in the country.

“We’ve heard stories of people legally in this country held in detention with no access to medicine they need, and their deaths have been treated by ICE as an afterthought,” said Joanne Lin, legislative counsel for the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “The first step to prevention is holding ICE accountable and demanding transparency. This bill will stop more deaths before they happen, but Congress can and must do more by holding officials in federal facilities just as accountable. So many more lives can be saved if they do.”

For more information about the ACLU’s work on deaths in detention, visit:

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